CONWAY, S.C. -- As the Coastal Carolina football team looks to patch holes and get a number of new starters ready to pick up where last year's group left off, the news coming out of camp has been mostly positive through the first two weeks of practice.
If there has been one disappointing development, it's that intriguing offseason pickup Morgan Bailey, a veteran offensive lineman who transferred in from Georgia Tech, has been unable to practice due to injury. But even that situation has been buffered with encouraging news.
With two spots to plug on the offensive line, sophomores Sam Ekwonike and Voghens Larrieux have been taking the first-team reps at right guard and right tackle, respectively, and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude had nothing but high praise for the two after the team's morning scrimmage earlier this week.
"I think Voghens Larrieux has improved drastically up front, and certainly we feel great about him," Patenaude said. "He's 6-6, 295, moves his feet really well. Both him and Sam Ekwonike, I think, have made great strides and I think are legitimate top-level 1-AA offensive linemen."
After having the benefit of five returning starters on the offensive line last season, the Chants have had to shuffle things up a bit this summer to fill the voids left by two-year starting right tackle Drew Herring and left guard Jamey Cheatwood, a four-year starter and decorated all-conference performer.
Senior Mo Ashley, who started the last two seasons at right guard, has moved to the left side to play between senior left tackle Chad Hamilton and senior center Kevin Hart. That leaves the two mostly untested sophomores to man the right side, and despite their lack of significant game experience, Patenaude doesn't seem concerned about a dropoff in performance for the unit -- as long as everyone stays healthy, that is.
"I think we're as athletic as we were last year," he said. "Now the biggest key going forward is finding who those sixth, seventh and eighth linemen are. We've had some guys get dinged up in camp -- mostly our whole second line has been in and out of practice for the last week -- so we'll look forward here over the next 10 days to getting those guys healthy and back in there so we can keep creating some depth up front."
That likely won't include Bailey just yet. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound graduate student joined the Chants for his final season of eligibility after four years with Georgia Tech. He started seven of the 10 games he played in as a sophomore before missing most of last season due to injury.
He was expected to compete for a starting job this summer with the Chants or at least fill a top reserve role, but the coaches say he has had a flare-up of an old groin injury and is unlikely to be ready to contribute when the season starts Aug. 30.
"I don't know the exact medical [description]," head coach Joe Moglia said. "He's going to get better, but it's going to take a little while. I don't expect him to be a factor at the very beginning of the season. Even if he comes back, he hasn't been practicing so he's not going to be ready. But if he's able to get better and he's able to start to play, he's a good football player."
Said Patenaude: "They think he's got a little bit of a flare-up -- they don't think it's a major issue -- so he'll be on some heavy antibiotics and then [we'll] see where he is a week from now. Right now, I wouldn't really count on him for the opener, but hopefully in a few weeks he'll be [able to] practice."
His absence has opened the door all the way for Larrieux and Ekwonike to prove themselves with the starters.
Larrieux, out of New London, Connecticut, is officially listed at 6-foot-5, 295 pounds. Ekwonike, from Cinnaminson, New Jersey, is listed at 6-foot-2, 355 pounds. Both appeared in all 15 games last season as redshirt-freshmen, mostly on PAT and field goal units.
And both are eager to show what they can do in an expanded role.
"I feel pretty confident right now," Larrieux said. "I'm still competing throughout this camp. It's a great opportunity playing right tackle for Coastal Carolina. We've got to have great communication to play O-line here, and I'm happy that coach has trust in me that I can do the job."
Said Ekwonike: "It's a great opportunity. That's what everybody works for when they come to college, to get that starting spot and represent your university. I know I've got big shoes to fill and every day in practice [I] work at it, try to get better and try to live up to that standard that the guys who left set up."
That standard was helping the Coastal Carolina offense set 25 university and 17 Big South records last season while ranking eighth nationally among FCS teams in rushing (252.1 yards per game), 11th in total offense (477.5 yards per game) and giving quarterback Alex Ross enough time in the pocket to have a breakout season of his own.
Like Patenaude, Ross is also encouraged by what he's seen so far in camp from his blockers while acknowledging it's still a process for the new starters.
"They're coming along. It takes time, but they're definitely coming along," he said. "They're improving with every day we're out here so the more experience they get, the better they're going to get."
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