BY: Macolm Gray
GREENVILLE, N.C. – After a pair of physical workouts on Wednesday, East Carolina returned to Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex Thursday for a two-and-half-hour single morning session in shells.
Fourth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff devoted 30 minutes to team-on-team work after the offensive and defensive units spent more than 25 minutes in skeleton or one-on-one drills. The team session used all four levels of the early preseason depth chart.
“Today was a tough practice after our first two-a-day,” McNeill said. “We had to fight through some soreness after a physical workout in full pads, but I thought the guys did a great job and got into a rhythm as the morning went on. I really liked the way our team focused and got after it on all three sides of the ball today, especially during our normal down-and-distance period.”
East Carolina will hold another single workout Friday morning to finish preparations for Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The contest will be closed to the public.
Friday’s Practice Time: 8:45 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Season Opener: Aug. 31 vs. Old Dominion in Greenville (7 p.m.)
Today’s “Q&A” format will highlight the Pirates’ outside linebackers:
Outside Linebacker Coach Duane Price
The 2013 season will be the third year of ECU's 3-4 scheme, an alignment that facilitated your move to coach outside linebackers. How do you feel the transition has gone from a concept and personnel standpoint since 2011? “You know, I really enjoy coaching the position. In college I played free safety and outside linebacker in a 4-4 scheme, so I have had some familiarity with it as a player and I really enjoy coaching that position. I think the guys like playing the 3-4 because there is a lot we can disguise in our formations. With our base scheme we have two guys out there, one to the field side and the other to the boundary with each having their different roles and responsibilities. One position is heavily burdened with coverage, while the other is more run block, tight end and facing offensive tackles. When we get to third down, they both transition as our outside defensive ends in our four down front to rush the passer and help with the run game. Also during third downs one might drop back to help out in coverage. So we have a lot of moving parts to keep the offense guessing.”
On a related topic, coordinator Rick Smith has talked since his arrival about providing different looks for the 3-4 this year. How much of an impact will that have on your unit? “Our guys are often displaced in the 3-4. If one comes too quick on the rush it gives the quarterback a tip of what’s coming. We want to look the same each snap by moving around until the play starts. The goal is to keep the quarterback guessing as to what we are doing each play, let him think something is there and then take it away from him.”
You return both of your starters from last year in All-Conference USA performer Derrell Johnson and Gabe Woullard, plus have guys like Maurice Falls, Jake Geary and Montese Overton back who all have considerable game-day reps. Does all that experience allow you to just fine-tune things or is the learning process always ongoing? “I approach every meeting like those guys don’t have a clue with what I am teaching. I want to make sure they understand whole-heartedly what their responsibilities are. The more they hear it, the more confident they become and the faster they pick it up. Defense is based off reactions and most of the time during first and second down, we are just cutting them loose. So I try to teach those guys like it’s from the ground up, the very beginning, and it gives me a chance to focus on those finer details. Our older guys have done a great job during camp because they are very familiar with what we are doing. They also help me in coaching the younger guys and bring them along so they can be productive.”
Some might regard OLBs as solely pass rushers or "standing" defensive ends, especially in this era of spread offenses. How does your unit play a key role in rush defense? “In first or second down either one could be in the rush. Our SAM (strong side) to the field is in coverage a lot, but so is our WILL (weak side) to the boundary. It’s one of the things that both have similar responsibilities, but there are also differences in coverage. When they have pass rush responsibility in third and medium or third and long, those guys will become those defensive ends, and if we are in an odd look, then one will rush while the other stays back.”
The aforementioned experience and athleticism are obviously two visible positives for your group, but on the flipside, what are some areas that you want to see improvement in from 2012? “Consistency. Being more consistent on assignment and technique. Having the common goal of swarming the ball as one unit, play hard and when adversity strikes, respond. Be a very sound, physical and swarming type of defense that loves adversity. That’s what I would like to see out of this unit.”
Who are some younger players that have caught your eye, either in the spring or during the first few days of preseason workouts? “Right now I feel I have a really strong three-deep. I think Dayon Pratt has come along with his understanding of the SAM position and is third on the depth chart. I credit Gabe (Woullard) and Montese (Overton) with helping me bring him along. Montese has made tremendous strides with his consistency and becoming aggressive when it comes to third down pass rush, which is something he struggled with at times last year. Maurice Falls had a great summer at the WILL spot and continues to impress me every day in camp. He has really improved in his mental and physical toughness as well as Jake Geary. I’ve also been happy with what Pat Green and Kirk Donaldson have both done up to this point in camp.”
Senior outside linebacker Derrell Johnson
What are your personal and team goals for the 2013 season? “I really haven’t set any personal goals for the season other than becoming a better all-around player. Right now I am working on swarming and running to the ball after each play. I’m also trying to improve my pad level and working on technique by repetition and watching film after each practice. To me this season is all about the team and winning a conference championship. We have a great group of guys this year and I really haven’t heard too much about personal goals – it’s been all about the team and what can we do to put ECU in the position of winning a BCS Bowl. That’s the goal for 2013.”
What part of your game or assignment do you enjoy the most as an OLB since the move to the 3-4 (in comparison to your freshman year at DE)? “Attacking the quarterback. It’s a passion that I have and I take pride in getting to the quarterback and making a play. My main job is to contain the pass or the run, but when they call my number to blitz, I’m coming into the backfield with my ears pinned back. That’s what I love most about my position.”
What would you list as your most memorable ECU Pirate moment to date? “Definitely beating NC State my freshman year in 2010. That game showed that we could compete with BCS schools and win big games.”
Take your pick - forced fumble on a sack or interception? Why? “It would have to be the forced fumble on the sack. I like the contact and it means that I hit the guy hard enough to knock the ball out of his hands.”
Senior outside linebacker Gabe Woullard
What are the team goals for the 2013 season? What are you working on this fall camp? “The only thing that matters is winning a conference championship. That’s what our focus is on this season. Going out on top. Right now I am working on coverage’s and rushing techniques.”
What was the biggest on-the-field adjustment you had to make last year (from junior college to ECU)? “At Pierce College I was an inside linebacker, so moving to the outside I have to man-up more. That was the biggest adjustment coming to ECU.”
What was your most memorable ECU Pirate moment during your first season? “Picking off a pass against Louisiana-Lafayette last year in the bowl game. All I could think about was getting off the field, celebrating with the teammates and letting the offense try to turn it into some points.”
Take your pick - forced fumble on a sack or interception? Why? “Interception. That means that we get to keep the possession and get the offense on the field. While a forced fumble is nice, there is always a chance the offense might get the ball back on that play with everyone fighting in the dog pile.”