Richard Pearce might well have developed into a star defensive lineman at another school. But when Pearce joined the storied program at Hueytown High School in Alabama the depth at that position led him in another direction.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder turned instead into an offensive lineman, where the skills he’s displayed over the last two varsity seasons earned him scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama State, Middle Tennessee State, Murray State, Southeast Missouri State and UT-Martin.
But intrigued by the opportunity to experience a new environment, Pearce accepted an offer from East Carolina on July 30. The center-guard is the second offensive lineman to join the ECU Class of 2021, following Cumming, GA, tackle Canaan Clark. Pearce is also the second prospect from Alabama to pick the Pirates along with Mobile receiver Toler Keigley.
It might have been a different scenario for Pearce, however, had it not been for a stockpile of talented defensive linemen at Hueytown when he arrived as a freshman.
“Honestly, in another class he would have been a defensive lineman for us,’’ said Hueytown head coach Greg Patterson, who was defensive line and inside linebackers coach when Pearce was a freshman. “My philosophy has always been to take my more athletic big guys and put them on the defensive line. But we were blessed at the time. Seriously, we had eight defensive linemen who played the whole time.
“So Richard fell into that deal where he would have been wasted there. So we moved him to the offensive line and he took to it.’’
Pearce played a reserve role on the varsity as a freshman before starting to see playing time as a sophomore. He became a full-time starter last season while blocking for one of the nation’s top running back prospects in senior Roydell Williams.
Williams, who is now a freshman at Alabama, recorded a third straight 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019, racking up 1,289 yards and 24 touchdowns. The performance helped him finish with 5,929 career yards and 84 scores.
“We were blessed to be able to bring him (Pearce) along slowly and properly,’’ Patterson said. “We didn’t have to throw him into the fire. We were able to develop him his freshman year and he started seeing significant time as a sophomore. Then, obviously, he became our guy as a junior.
“It’s nice having somebody with his size and athleticism to play on the offensive line in high school. You don’t see that much. So it’s (the switch to offensive line) worked out for him and us both.’’
One advantage that hastened Pearce’s development as an offensive lineman is the caliber of talent he faced weekly in practice and Friday nights on the field.
Hueytown, whose alumni include former Florida State and current NFL quarterback Jameis Winston, competes in the tough Region 4 of Alabama’s Class 6A division where Pearce faced future FBS players on a weekly basis.
“I think that helps because there is a challenge every day, and he got to see different types,’’ Patterson said. “Even last year, or the year before he would see every day in practice really good pass rushers, good run stoppers because we were playing so many different guys. And our brand and quality of football here in Alabama speaks for itself, and the 6A we play in. So he’s got to see his fair share of competition.’’
College recruiters began to take notice of Pearce last spring and he received his first scholarship offer in early July. East Carolina was among those schools, stepping into the picture on July 11.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pearce was unable to visit East Carolina in person. But after doing research about the school and football program, and creating a fast relationship with the coaching staff, he was confident that becoming a Pirate was the right choice.
“He didn’t know a lot about East Carolina in the beginning,’’ Patterson said. “But that’s one thing I make sure to tell my guys when they start getting some interest. I tell them, don’t just look at old football records or where the school is located. Look at the culture and environment of the whole place because you’re not going to be involved in just football.
“I think getting away to somewhere different is what Richard needs in his life. East Carolina is giving him that opportunity, and I think they’ll be glad they did.’’
Patterson expects the Pirates to use Pearce at guard or center. At either position, he plays with the intensity of a defensive lineman.
“He has a nasty attitude,’’ Patterson said. “A lot of big guys, you have to light a fire under them. But when he gets his hands on you, he’s not happy unless he finishes the play on top of you with a pancake. If he can’t pancake you, he wants to smash you into the goal post.’’
Pearce had helped Hueytown finish 5-5 during the 2020 regular season despite constant stoppages caused by COVID-19 outbreaks. But the Golden Gophers will advance to the state 6A playoffs.
When Hueytown’s football season is finished, Pearce will have one more high school game to play. He’s been selected to participate in the annual Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic in December, then hopes to complete graduation requirements at Hueytown so he can enroll at ECU in January.
“He’s doing everything he can to be an early graduate,’’ Patterson said. “It’s probably a little too early to tell if that’s going to happen or not, but I know that’s his goal.’’
Pearce isn’t likely to be the last offensive lineman East Carolina adds to its recruiting Class of 2021. The Pirates have offers out to several junior college blockers and are on the radar of at least two high school linemen.