East Carolina's Vintavious Cooper, left, receives a handoff during practice on Tuesday.   (Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector)

(Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflect

East Carolina's Vintavious Cooper, left, receives a handoff during practice on Tuesday. (Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector)

Pirates look to jumpstart running game against Tar Heels

By Nathan Summers

Greenville Daily Reflector

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Vintavious Cooper is more into counting wins than counting carries.

The senior East Carolina tailback embodied the Pirate football team’s running game last season, and even though the team’s backfield was restocked during the offseason, it’s still Cooper’s rush.

But to lead the ECU run is to ebb and flow at times in what is primarily a pass scheme, something some tailbacks don’t prefer. Cooper is likely the perfect man for the job, however, because he’s bent on winning a championship no matter how many times quarterback Shane Carden hands him the ball instead of throwing it.

“I look at it as never being complacent and always making the best out of every opportunity I have with the ball” said Cooper, a late transfer from Southwest Mississippi College in 2012 who ran up 1,049 yards in his first campaign with the Pirates. “There may be times when I can’t touch the ball 20 times a game, but when I don’t, every opportunity counts and I still have to do everything I can to make the offense productive.”

In his first three games this season, Cooper has seen those ups and downs in carries. He toted it 12 times for a modest 38 yards against Old Dominion, then churned out 95 yards on 20 carries against Florida Atlantic before a season-low eight carries for 28 yards against Virginia Tech.

According to Cooper, he’s fine with those ups and downs if it means he’s part of a winning scheme.

“I’m not one to pick or be upset about touches,” he said. “As a competitor, you want the ball but regardless, you’ve still got to come up with a game plan, and it can either be 20 times a game or eight times.”

This weekend against North Carolina, Cooper’s lead backup is missing. Sophomore former walk-on Cory Hunter injured his knee during practice last Tuesday in the midst of the Pirates’ bye week, and it remains unclear how long he’ll be inactive.

That means a little extra pressure for Cooper, but also expanded carries for sophomore Chris Hairston, who scored his first career touchdown against the Owls.

“We’re focusing on doing what we do and making routine plays, concentrating on tempo and the quick game,” Hairston said of the Pirates’ preparation for the Tar Heels. “We’re not preparing any different.”

ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said he’s hoping for a little more balance between the run and the pass against the 1-2 Tar Heels — whose defense is very similar to that of the Hokies — but Riley knows the game itself will largely dictate that.

“We want to establish some balance, and we did a good job of that early in the Virginia Tech game and then we got away from that too much,” he said. “We’ve got to keep that balance, but you’ve got to balance that with (knowing) you’ve got to attack what they’re giving you too. It’s a fine line.”

Despite a 27-6 loss, Riley said he felt the Pirates began to establish themselves as a legitimate rushing team last season in Chapel Hill.

“We went on (from there) to have a really good year in the running game, so we need to get those backs established and that will obviously make things easier on the linemen and Shane,” Riley said.