GREENVILLE, N.C. – East Carolina University Head Football Coach Ruffin McNeill addressed members of the media Monday about the start of spring practice. The following are selected comments:
“It’s an exciting time of the year. We began meetings this morning and that was great. It was good to get around them again. Now we have a chance to actually get on the field with a football. During the offseason, we are not allowed to have footballs on the field with the team.
“Today is our first time to get around our team and meet as a group. We’re able to get on the field and see how much they’ve grown from last year to now.
“For college coaches, we all probably say the same thing, this is the exciting time. You get to be on the field and see growth. You can see how far a young man who may have played only sparingly has come along. I also get to watch some guys who redshirted last year and are now being counted on. We all get chances to see how far they’ve come and how much they’ve improved.
“There are some competitive battles we’ll get into. There are battles at a lot of positions I’m looking forward to observing.
“It’s a key time for us to improve, develop and expose our football team. We have to improve the knowledge of our offense, defense and special teams, which has a new coordinator in Kirk Doll.
“We have to continue with the fundamental development of all our players. We also have to expose our team to some situations. We always coach situational football and present new situations to the team each day. This spring, we have to put the group in situations that have hurt us offensively, defensively and on special teams in the past so it knows how to respond.”
On The Offseason
“The offseason under Coach [Jeff] Connors [Assistant Athletic Director/Strength and Conditioning] for a full year was great. We will see how far our guys have come under his watch. We’ll see gains in strength, speed and power. They’ve made tremendous jumps from Coach Connors’ first year to now. I’m really excited to see it play out on the field.
“I really think Coach Connors is the best in the country at getting the best out of his football teams. He’s done a great job. His staff should also be highly commended for the job they’ve done. I’ve had a chance to watch the players run, lift and go through their testing. We have 26 guys who run under a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. That’s a fast football team. Becoming one was certainly one of our goals.
“In addition to speed, we had some guys who gained strength in the weight room. We also had guys who gained weight that needed to put it on and others who trimmed down. Those were all good signs.
“During the offseason, our players did a great job buying into what we want here. They bought into the extra things and process under Coach Connors and what we believe in. The early-morning workouts were great. It was really a fun time for us.”
On Staff Additions
“Also during the offseason, I had to hire a few people. We had four staff members who took jobs elsewhere: three for the Pacific-12 Conference and one to the Southeastern Conference. We had to bring some new guys in, but one of the things about the process is that I was not asking people to come. They all wanted to be here.
“First is Brian Overton, who is the director of operations/player personnel. He has a background in eastern North Carolina coaching high school football and working with the Shrine Bowl. He worked at UNC the last three years. He’s a great addition.
“Also Kirk Doll has come back. Kirk is a Pirate who played here and will serve as the special teams’ coordinator and work with the running backs. David Nichol was the last guy we hired after Pat Washington went to Kentucky. David, who I’ve known for 12-14 years, understands this offense and will coach outside receivers. He was a definite advance for this staff and understands this offense from A to Z. He hit the ground running, which was great to see.”
On Goals For The Spring
“Spring objectives for us are always establishing a model of playing consistent and hard in addition to executing solid fundamentals. As long as I’m here, fundamentals will never be neglected. Our third objective is to be a smart football team. We want to play smart and good football.
“Last year we know, and it has been documented, that we shot ourselves in the foot during some games. That cost us. There were also some good things we did in terms of smart football, such as the decrease in penalties. We will continue to emphasize that and playing smart football. We have to continue to preach taking care of the ball on offense and taking it away on defense.
“We want to play good football and always understand the situations we’re in. We’ll continue to expose the team to situations like third-and-long, two-minute drill or end-of-game.
“Going into the spring, we’re trying to establish starters, a two-deep, special teams’ players and roles for each member of the team. We have to make sure our kids understand their roles and how important they are. Spring gives us a chance to do that.”
On The Special Teams
“This will be a group that will have to install some new schemes and thought processes. Of course there will be some things that carry over that every special teams’ coordinator uses. Kirk has a vast background from Notre Dame to LSU to the NFL. His installation will be a big part of that group’s spring.
“One of the things we want to do is add speed to all our units. We want to improve our defensive special teams’ coverage units on the punt team and kickoff team. We need to be able to establish good field position for our defense. Also our return units need to improve. After watching all the film from last season, we have got to get better in that area this spring. We have been meeting for three weeks about that.
“The last part of special teams is evaluating and finding starters, from long snapper to punter to kicker. At long snapping, we’ll have Charlie Coggins and C.J. Struyk competing. The two competing at punter are Trent Tignor and Phil McNaughton. The kicking battle, right now, will be between Matt Millisor and Warren Harvey. Those battles will all begin today with the 2:15 p.m. team meeting.”
On The Offense
“We just touched on this, and its glaring on film, but we have to take care of the football. We’ve always emphasized that and will continue to overemphasize it. We’ll talk about that all spring with everyone – our quarterbacks, running backs and receivers all have to take care of the ball.
“The position that decimated us the most last season was along the offensive line. We want to make sure we establish starters and also depth. We tried to address it during recruiting and are continuing to work on it now. We have some guys here who came along during the offseason and have added strength and size. We have to define those starters and depth up front.
“The running game, which we will emphasize, all starts up front with our offensive line and establishing a new line of scrimmage. We’ve instituted some drills to make sure we can plow ahead. We have also added some new drills for quarterback protection.
“At running back I’ve learned a few things. My first year here, the two top defenses made the Conference USA Championship. Those teams had the best front sevens in the league. Last year, it was the two teams with the best group of running backs, in addition to strong front sevens. Southern Miss and Houston both were talented out of the backfield.
“We want to make sure we leave the spring with a strong group of running backs. We had some injuries take hold last year, so I’d like to see that group develop. We have guys like Torrance Hunt, Reggie Bullock, Zico Pasut, Hunter Furr and Michael Dobson. That group might have to be used as a specialty package. We might have a size guy, a speed guy and a third-down guy. Of course we would love an all-around guy, but whatever we have to do to develop that group, we will.
“At receiver, we lose one of the best in Lance Lewis. Reese Wiggins came on at that position toward the end of last year and Andrew Bodenheimer will be back. Justin Jones had a really good offseason. I’m looking forward to him doing well in the spring. Justin Hardy really came on for us and Derrick Harris came in and gave us good and productive minutes. Danny Webster [injury] will not have a chance to go through the spring. Donte Sumpter, a young player, is one we’re anxious to see get moving around. We need a group that makes routine plays and is full of good perimeter blockers.
“Quarterbacks get the most attention and it’s a competition I’m looking forward to. Rio Johnson, Shane Carden, Brad Wornick and Cody Keith are four quarterbacks who I like a lot. They understand this offense and the leadership responsibilities within the position. I watched them during the offseason and during the 2011 season. Coach Connors really spoke to those guys understanding of that leadership aspect. That group understands what we want offensively.
“What attracted me to this offense when I was hired here and had to pick a scheme was ball distribution. Taking care of the football is key, and we have to spread the ball around. Those four really understand that principle.
“Along the offensive line, Will Simmons and Jordan Davis are two guys who return. Josh Clark, one of our centers last year, comes back. Grant Harner and Adhem Elsawi are both back at the tackle positions. Harner will be limited, especially near the beginning. Taylor Hudson is a guy who Coach Connors has really taken and added weight to. Taylor will be working at center this spring.
“We moved Jimmy Booth to the offensive line, as well as keeping Robert Jones there. Those two have had very good offseasons. Chaz Lowery, Isaac Harris, Drew Gentry and C.J. Struyk are some young guys who you’ll see. I want to see how they develop. The center position was one we got hit pretty hard at last year. We feel good at guard and at center now with four options. We will have to continue to improve our depth at tackle.”
On The Defense
“Defensively, we want to improve on where we left off. We want to sustain and continue to get better. This is a group I’m excited about. They made a big jump last season and significantly improved.
“One of the strengths we’ll have is depth. We have to replace three starters in the secondary and I’m looking forward to that competition. Up front, we’ll be as strong as we have been during my time here. We’ll have talent and depth that can rotate in for specialty packages such as a pass-rush group. I feel good about the unit along the line.
“Our defense is built around the linebacking group. I feel good about their speed, strength and offseason development. We have between eight and 10 guys who make up that group who we feel good about. Jake Geary, who came on for us at the end of last season, will be able to get some work but will be limited.
“Up front, Michael Brooks, Matt Milner, Terry Williams, Chrishon Rose and Lee Pegues are all back. We’ll put Justin Dixon up front sometimes and also move him to standing up at linebacker. We’ll make sure we find a role for him. He has had an exceptional offseason. We’re looking forward to him coming through for us. There will also be a couple guys you haven’t seen before in John Lattimore and Leroy Vick, two junior college redshirts, as well as Terrell Stanley and Johnathon White, freshmen who redshirted last year. We’re really excited about those four guys working into the mix. They’ll immediately add depth and ability.
“Spring is a chance to experiment, and Derrell Johnson is one of the guys we’re going to move into a stand-up position as the weakside linebacker for now. We’ve had a chance to rehearse him in that position already and are looking forward to seeing him in practice.
“Jeremy Grove will not be at practice. He had to have some surgery in the offseason, but he’ll be full-go ready by the summer and certainly fall camp. Kyle Tudor, Daniel Drake, Chris Baker and Ty Holmes return and I’m anxious to see young guys Montese Overton and Zeek Bigger step in. I’m excited to see those two, as well as Brandon Williams, who is another one of our young guys who stepped in last season.
“In the secondary, Jacobi Jenkins, Leonard Paulk and Damon Magazu, are the three guys who have gotten a lot of reps. Justin Venable will also be thrown in the mix in the back end. Godfrey Thompson is here now along with Adonis Armstrong, two junior college transfers who are in classes and going through the offseason process. They’ve performed well so far and I’m ready to see them in the pads and running around. Rocco Scarfone, Lamar Ivey, Domonique Lennon and Josh Hawkins are young guys who will have the opportunity to get into the mix. Josh came to us last year and I’m anxious to see him get going.
“I’m looking forward to practice and preparation. I’m ready to get going.”
On A Heavy Influx Of Talent
“One of the things we went into the offseason saying was that we had to address our depth, specifically at the offensive line, running back and receiver. We’re bringing in three receivers who will help immediately once they arrive in the fall. At running back, Hunter Furr transferring in from North Carolina last year had a really good year on the scout team. He showed us looks and now I’m really excited about what we can accomplish.
“The quarterback competition will begin in earnest today, but has already started. I like that group. Those guys understand it, get it done and in the offseason did a great job being leaders. As coaches, we only have a certain amount of time we can work together with the team in the offseason, but those four quarterbacks did a lot by bringing in guys for seven-on-seven work.
“Defensively, the infusion of John Lattimore, Leroy Vick, Terrell Stanley and Johnathon White will add to that front. They’re all strong and can run. That gives us the opportunity to experiment with Derrell Johnson at linebacker. He likes it and we like what he can bring to the table for us in that position.
“In the secondary, Adonis Armstrong and Godfrey Thompson are immediate talents. In the fall, we’ll also bring in a few guys who can help. We had to make sure we replenished that area.”
On The Ideal Running Back
“You’d like a guy who has size. A lot of times you have to become your own blocker. I got that idea from my coach, Pat Dye, who always said that. In this offense, you have to have a guy who is able to run inside or outside the tackles. You have to be able to catch the ball via screens or out of the backfield isolated on linebackers. Finally, you have to protect the quarterback. You want some size for that protection.
“For us, we have a guy like Torrance Hunt who can just run and make people miss. Hunter Furr has size and speed. We’ll see today how well he can catch the ball and pick up protections. Michael Dobson, during the offseason with Coach Connors, had shown maturity and growth. Zico Pasut is one of the most versatile guys we have. I feel good about that group of running backs.
“To have one dream back would be somebody who can do all those things. Within our group, we’ll find strengths and weaknesses among all our players and highlight the strengths. One thing we’ve challenged our staff to do during the offseason is identify roles. We want to define the role, what he can do to help us win games and then place him in that spot where he helps us the most.”
On The Quarterback Race
“Redshirt freshman Cody Keith is the youngest. He’ll be a guy who will play for us for a long time. He has done really well during the offseason. Rio Johnson and Brad Wornick have gotten reps during games. Shane Carden was in a battle with Rio during last year’s fall camp. Shane can certainly come in and run this offense. Those three guys are a little older than Cody and have been around the system a bit longer.
“Shane played in this type of system in high school and Brad and Rio have been through the installations of the packages during their time here. Cody did, however, throw the ball for a living in high school and prep school.
“I like the group so it wasn’t really an alarm for me to sign the quarterback during the offseason. A guy coming in here has to understand the competition. Some maybe don’t want the challenge and competition.
“You’d like to go into the summer with a starter established, but I think that’s up to them. We have a system we’ll watch, grade and rate from the beginning of practice through the end of spring drills. We’ll look at everything from seven-on-seven passing to understanding the offense. We will conduct drills, competitions and team-on-team evaluations with that group throughout the spring. You’d like to have a starter, but we can go through summer and fall camp before making a decision if we have to.”
On Having The Same Offensive And Defensive Schemes Heading Into The Spring
“That was helpful. The offense is our offense. A recruit or coach coming into the program has to be able to run our offense. Last spring we switched our defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This offseason we didn’t have any changes on that side of the ball, so having those ideas in place to start the spring makes it much better and easier. A guy coming in has to adjust to what we want run here.
“Defensively, our starting point is much higher than in the past. We can return to the base set and advance the packages from years past. We can add a few more things here and there for our pass and sub packages. Even the base defense can get a bit more complex now.”
On The Top Goals For The Spring
“We want to leave with the entire unit understanding the effort and fundamental emphasis. We want to be a smart team in all aspects, including penalties, taking care of the football and understanding the situations. We have to eliminate bad football.
“We need to make sure we do a great job as a staff with the development of positions, groups, roles and exposure. We have to show our offense and defense coverages, plays and formations that caused them problems in the past. The effort and fundamentals are going to be big for us, as always. We also have to make sure we develop and expose our players.”
On Justin Dixon
“Justin is going to be a main factor for us. He’ll be a guy who can work with the defensive line and also in packages with the linebackers. There are some parts of this defense, now in its second year, we can insert Justin into. He has done a great job in the offseason with Coach Connors. He’s maturing, which is great to see. Justin is in the mix and plan.”
On The Mobility Of The Four Quarterbacks
“I think they all can run. Dominique Davis could run, but these four this year also can. We’ll still have some designed quarterback run packages, maybe not as many as for Dominique, but they’ll be a part of our game plan. These four guys understand the offense. They had a chance to sit back and watch the offense under Dominique.
“I see these guys upstairs watching film all the time. Dominique set an example for this group that they’re following. They’re watching film on their own and improving on their own. The competition for the group will be a good thing. It’ll push each guy to play at his best each day he’s out there.
“Creating competition at a position is one of the goals I’ve had for our program since I first got here. Starters and backups know they have to bring their ‘A-Game’ each day they’re out there. This quarterback battle will make sure that each has his best decision-making ability each day.”