East Carolina and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium made an indelible impression on Justin Chase on a late September afternoon back in 2015.
Then a highly regarded offensive line recruit from Chesapeake, VA, who had already made a verbal commitment to play for the Pirates, Chase had driven to Greenville with his father to watch ECU face Atlantic Coast Conference power Virginia Tech. It would be a day neither Chase nor the Pirates would soon forget.
Despite miserable rainy conditions, a sold-out crowd of 50,514 remained until the end to see ECU rally from an early 14-0 deficit to beat the Hokies, 35-28.
“It was raining almost the whole time and you would have thought the fans would have left,’’ Chase said. “But those fans stuck it out and it was one of the craziest environments I’ve been in. I went to Neyland Stadium in Tennessee and experienced one of their games. It does not match the fans at East Carolina.’’
Chase would wind up backing off his pledge to the Pirates when head coach Ruffin McNeill was dismissed at the end of the 2015 season. He eventually signed with N.C. State and spent four seasons there. But next fall the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder hopes to find himself back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and in an East Carolina uniform.
“It’s crazy how things come full circle. You just never know how things are going to work out,’’ Chase said last week, just days after announcing he’s joining the Pirates as a graduate transfer.
A former three-star prospect and two-time All-Tidewater selection out of Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Chase saw limited action in four seasons at N.C. State. His most significant action came last season when he played 14 snaps in the first two games. But even though he didn’t see a lot of game action, the time wasn’t wasted.
Day after day, especially during his first two years with the Wolfpack, he was competing against future NFL draft picks such as Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill and Justin Jones.
“You know how much of an athletic shock it is going from high school to college where my freshman and sophomore years I had to block Bradley Chubb every day. I had to block B.J. Hill, Kevtavious Street, Justin Jones … it definitely made you put on your big-boy pants. They pushed me to be better.’’
As the 2019 season unfolded and Chase got nearer to completing his undergraduate degree in sports management with a minor in political science, the idea of spending his final season of college eligibility elsewhere began to form. Chase would eventually enter his name into the NCAA transfer portal in December, but then removed himself.
“I was going to give it one more shot to see if I could do it (at N.C. State),’’ he said. “I was thinking I’d see what happened after the spring game. But God has a plan, and I went back into the portal. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make because you don’t know where your future lies, if you’ll get recruited, or in my case could I get as much playing time as I wanted.’’
There was plenty of interest in Chase, but when East Carolina offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler reached out it renewed an old relationship.
The two had previously crossed paths in Raleigh during the 2017 season when Shankweiler served as the Wolfpack’s defensive analyst. During that time Shankweiler also worked with N.C. State’s scout team on which Chase was a member.
“I had always thought about, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be crazy if I could go back to ECU,’’’ Chase said. “I didn’t dwell on it and it didn’t consume my mind. But as soon as Coach Shankweiler reached out to me, man, you would have thought I was a kid in a candy store. I was just happy.
“I had a few other schools. No disrespect, but I don’t want to get into the names of the other schools I was talking to. But just know once East Carolina came into play it was my focus.’’
The decision brings Chase back to the school he originally intended to play for back in 2015. Then-ECU offensive line coach Brad Davis had extended Chase his first scholarship offer to play for head coach Ruffin McNeill. Chase quickly built a strong relationship with both coaches, resulting in his verbal commitment in June 2015 before the start of his senior prep campaign.
But after an injury-plagued season in which the Pirates finished 5-7, the popular McNeill was suddenly fired by his alma mater. The move impacted several recruits at the time, including Chase.
“I’m big on relationships, and I had built a strong relationship with Coach Ruffin and Coach Davis,’’ Chase said. “So there was the unknown of, how will it be with this new coach? I didn’t know one thing about this new coach.
“Coach Ruffin’s personality and his credibility speaks for itself. If you know Coach Ruffin, you know why people love him the way they do. He treated you like a man, but also like a son. I know I’m going to get that same experience with Coach Shankweiler because I already have built a relationship with him. I understand he’s going to push me, and the same thing with (head) Coach (Mike) Houston with his great credibility. I know if I put the work in and do what I’m supposed to do that I’ll have my opportunity.’’
The Pirates can certainly use the help. Due in large part to injuries, ECU’s offensive line play has been inconsistent in recent years. The current offseason has seen two former starters depart the program in center John Spellacy (medical reasons) and guard-tackle Matt Morgan. The future of one of the team’s top returning blockers, senior Cortez Herrin, is also uncertain after his suspension in January after being arrested on marijuana charges.
Five players with starting experience are scheduled to be back in tackle D’Anta Smith, guard-center Fernando Frye, tackle Noah Henderson, guard Sean Bailey and center Peyton Windstead.
Chase expects to start out at guard with the Pirates, but spent time at both guard and tackle while at N.C. State.
“When I was at State I played both guards and both tackles during my tenure there,’’ he said. “I think that’s one thing that can make me a great asset to the team. If somebody goes down, they can bump me over. I can play there without missing a beat.’’
Chase will complete his undergraduate studies at N.C. State in spring, but isn’t sure when he’ll report to ECU due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But he’s anxious to get there and experience the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd again.
“I know I’m going to have to work,’’ Chase said. “But I know the skill set I have and my drive, and I know Justin Chase can make some noise and actually be a game changer.’’