Dwayne Harris didn’t know it at the time. But while setting school records as a receiver at East Carolina between 2007-10 Harris was influencing a new generation of Pirates.
While Harris was catching passes and returning kicks for ECU, a young Peyton Winstead was watching from the stands at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium hoping to one day follow in Harris’ footsteps.
“I’ve been going to East Carolina games my whole life,” Winstead said. “Dwayne Harris was my favorite player growing up. It had nothing to do with his position, but I read about him and one day got to talk to him after one of the games. I watched him play, how he interacted with other players and how he was a team leader. I felt like he was a good role model.
“I’d come home from those games and dream about becoming a Pirate and playing at East Carolina.”
Winstead’s dream became reality in mid-February when he accepted a scholarship offer from the Pirates.
The 6-foot-3, 290-pound center from Raleigh’s Leesville Road High School has also collected offers from Charlotte and Liberty, but there was really no decision for Winstead once ECU came into the picture last November. He not only was sold on the Pirates because of his memories of Harris, but also the strong family connection with the university.
Winstead’s father, Bob, played football at ECU and is a long-time coach at the high school and youth levels. His mother was a Pirate cheerleader. But despite those tight personal ties to ECU, Peyton Winstead said his parents didn’t influence him toward Greenville.
“My dad, obviously, played at East Carolina and has been coaching since he got out of college,” Winstead said. “He always helped me push myself to become a better football player and person. And both my parents were very supportive throughout the recruiting process. They wanted me to go to East Carolina, but they didn’t push me. They always told me, ‘Go whereever you want to go and we’ll support you.”’
The Pirates recruited him to play center, but that’s still a relatively new position for Winstead. He grew up playing defensive end through recreation and middle school football. Winstead continued to play end for the Leesville Road junior varsity as a freshman.
But when Winstead began preparing to join the varsity as a sophomore, a new coaching staff had different ideas on where he’d play.
“I always envisioned myself playing defensive end in college,” Winstead said. “But we needed some offensive lineman and the coaches asked me to step up. I won’t say I was disappointed because learning a new position is always a good opportunity, and I’ll play anywhere to help my team. But it was definitely an interesting change. They are two very different positions, so it was hard at first. But I guess it worked out pretty well.”
Any reluctance Winstead had about the change ended quickly, and he dove into learning to play center. He worked with a variety of coaches prior to the start of the season, including his father, to perfect the skills needed to excel at center.
But it didn’t come easy.
“The hardest thing was learning to block and snap at the same time,” Winstead said. “I had long-snapped before, so I knew how to do that. But snapping and blocking at the same time was hard to get down at first.
“I worked on it all that summer before my sophomore year. I received some personal training from some offensive line coaches around here and I went to several camps. I kept working at it and sort of made myself an offensive lineman. It’s all second nature now.”
Winstead now is prepping for his third and final year as a varsity starter at Leesville Road. He’s also become an aggressive recruiter for East Carolina along with quarterback commit Holton Ahlers. Ahlers, who is from just outside Greenville at D.H. Conley High, was the first prospect to make a pledge to ECU’s recruiting Class of 2018 back in January. Winstead followed soon after, and the two have become fast friends.
“We’re both pretty similar in how we interact,” Winstead said of Ahlers. “I knew we were going to be good friends as soon as we met. We both definitely want to be leaders in this class. We’re both going to try to graduate early and get started at East Carolina as soon as possible. We want to set a good foundation for the 2018 class.”
Winstead said the pair is working hard to convince Southern Nash running back Nadir Thompson to join the ECU class. The 5-10, 170-pound Thompson is a dynamic talent who was previously committed to N.C. State, but re-opened his recruitment last month. He attended Junior Day at ECU on April 1, giving Ahlers and Winstead a chance to meet and persuade him to become a Pirate.
“We’ve been in touch with Nadir, and hope to hang out with him more during the summer camp,” Winstead said. “I think he’s making his decision at the end of June. Me and Holton think he’s leaning toward East Carolina, which is good.”