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:
"The excitement is here. I'm sure every coach around the country says the same thing about spring ball. I know the coaching part and getting around your players is thrilling. This is my 26th spring I'm about to start. It's as exciting as any. You get a chance to get around the team for the first time as a staff since bowl practice.
"It's our second year of residence here. For us, that's a very comfortable feeling. Last year at this time, we were just trying to figure out who was where and who was what on the staff and with the players. It's a more comfortable feeling with it being our second year. We've been around the program and young men for an entire year now."
On The 2010 Seniors
"The seniors, of course, will be missed. They run this Wednesday for the National Football League. I really want to thank those guys. They will forever be in my heart for what they did and the sacrifices they made for our staff during the transition period.
"They helped us lay the blueprint I'm very proud of. The team concept is the primary focus here. Shaping our work ethic and hard-working mentality was also something that group helped with. They helped us establish our Pirate football philosophies: a tough, physical football team that has a never-say-die mentality. I'm very pleased with those guys. I'll miss them, but I'm also texting them and wishing them well on Wednesday during Pro Timing Day."
On The 2011 Team
"I'm very excited about the 2011 football team. It started really back during bowl practice when we had a chance to get in additional time. We had an opportunity to see where our younger guys were and what their development was like. We also got to get another look at some of the guys who had redshirted, had been on the scout team or those who had played sparingly on special teams. We saw their development during bowl practice."
On The Arrival Of Jeff Connors
"Coach Connors' arrival has been a true blessing to our program. The last six weeks have been phenomenal in terms of work ethic, learning Jeff's system and what he expects each day. You can really see the improvement from where they came from to where they are. We still have a lot of work to do. Jeff still has a lot of work to do installing his philosophy. You can already see his influence and personality taking over within his aspect of the team."
On The Goals Of Spring Football
"Now we have come to spring ball. During this time, our main focus will be on developing the personality of this team. Each team is different. The personalities of each team are different. In the spring, we have a chance to begin that development and shape this team. We want the team to be along the same lines as our Pirate football philosophies.
"We have a chance to develop that team personality and identify its leaders. We have some guys who did a great job showing leadership last year. They were key parts to the progress of our team in 2010. During the spring, we have a chance to identify some new leaders. They may be seniors, juniors, sophomores or even freshmen. We're always looking for those leaders and bell cows of the team.
"One of the emphases that will always be a part of our spring, and really everyday development, is fundamental emphasis, group and position specific. We'll start that today and be in a helmet and shorts for the first two days. Our third shorts day will be the week of the spring game, that Wednesday. We'll make sure we develop the group fundamentals we've identified through film study. We will also work on individual and position-specific fundamentals.
"Another thing we want to make sure to develop is the competitiveness, in mindset and skill set, of what it'll take to win football games. We know we'll face one of, if not the toughest, nonconference schedule in the country. We know the conference teams and what we have in this league. With our nonconference and Conference USA schedule, it'll take a great competitive mindset and skill set to meet our expectations for the team.
"Within the entire team, we need to develop the trust that's necessary to be successful. It's a new team with some players in new positions. We have to establish some starters, too. We have to mold that trust and belief within a player that the guy next to him will do his job. The guys need to take pride in doing the routine plays and performing the routine situations we'll be presented with.
"The last thing we'll focus on is the team being accountable for individual as well as group improvement. We as coaches have established ourselves within the team and the players have established themselves with us. The players, as well as the coaches, will accept the responsibility for the individual improvement that's needed."
On The Offense Going Into The Spring
"Offensively, we know we had success there this fall, especially with it being the introduction of this package and spread offense. We're very pleased with that. Now we're going to this spring and becoming even more specific. We have to replace where it all starts. I know a lot of people think the most vital position is quarterback, which is a very special spot for our offense, but it's really the offensive line and establishing its starters. Some guys stepped up during the offseason, but that was the offseason. I'm ready to see how they perform with the full pads on. I'm excited to see where they are and where we are along the line. That unit will be the main concern of our staff.
"We have some guys who we think are ready to step up. We're also going to develop depth along the offensive line. I think that's going to be very important, getting guys who can get it done. There will be some redshirt guys like Drew Gentry, Taylor Hudson and Mack Helms whose names you will see. We're trying to see how far they've come. We saw the development during bowl practice, but now I want to see how they do with major reps and specific reps this spring.
"The wide receiver position has the most individuals. Those guys who are going to be in that top eight or 10 that we'll travel each game and use in this offense need to step out. We have to find their certain skill sets. We don't just replace a Dwayne Harris. We hope to have a group of guys who accumulate his importance to the team in terms of yardage and performance. Making sure we establish those eight to 10 guys we'll count on is another of the things we're searching for offensively.
"At the running back position we lost our two top guys due to graduation. We were only planning on having three guys there anyway this spring, but then Damonte Terry was doing a community service event and broke his wrist. He'll be out for the spring. We thought he might be back, but he should return for summer and fall.
"The running back position is one where we have to find out who will step up and swing the bat. That position has a lot of different responsibilities with blocking, receiving and running. The two guys we'll have for the spring are Michael Dobson and Alex Owah. We'll also move Torrance Hunt there this spring. That position is one where we'll be waiting on our incoming signees, who we feel very good about. They'll have a chance to contribute right away. We're counting on those guys to be a part of that rotation.
"The quarterback situation is one we feel very good about with the five guys we have. Dominique Davis I feel has established himself as one of the best in the country and league. He has done a great job in the offseason working. I've talked to Coach Connors and he says Dominique has been a guy who has really stepped up. Coach Connors has to back Dominique off, which is what you want from your quarterback.
"Just like last year, Brad Wornick and Rio Johnson will join Dominique, as well as Shane Carden and Cody Keith, who are both on campus. It'll be fun to watch. That position I feel very good about."
On The Defense Going Into The Spring
"Defensively, everybody knows now we're going to a 3-4. A bigger deal is made out of that than necessary in my opinion. Even with a 3-4, you'll still have some even-man fronts that are necessary against spread offenses. They'll come in various forms.
"We'll go to a 3-4 package because of personnel issues. We have a lot of guys like Justin Dixon and Marke Powell who can stand up on two legs and run around a little bit better. Also during recruiting, we were able to find those guys that fit 3-4 needs.
"It's going to start up front like it does with any defense. We have to establish those guys. We'll have ends and noses. We'll start with three men on the line. If we have a four-man front, the fourth might stand up, or have his hand on the ground. Regardless, the defensive line is still the major focus.
"The next group is the linebackers. In a 3-4 defense, having a group of eight linebackers is essential. You need two outside, two inside and four backups. We have some guys on campus who fit the need at linebacker.
"With both the linebacker and defensive line positions, there will be some experimentation. You'll have to be very patient. We're not going to have a two-deep lineup during the spring. We're counting on some guys who are coming in for the fall up front. We have some guys we signed at linebacker who are going to be given the chance to play right away, too.
"We feel with those two positions this spring and summer will be very big. Duane Price will coach the outside linebackers and John Wiley will be with the inside linebackers. Marc Yellock will lead the three down linemen and Brian Mitchell will still have the four secondary guys.
"In the secondary, we've moved Derek Blacknall to corner. That's what he was when he first came in and we're trying to find a guy there who can do what we need. Everybody else is in the same spot within the group. That's the only move we made at the back end. Damon Magazu and Bradley Jacobs are going to be guys we count on. Detric Allen, Desi Brown and Lamar Ivey are guys you haven't seen yet, but we're anxious to get around. We want to see how they've grown and developed. Those guys really gave notice during bowl practices of what they can do. Those three showed that they have a chance to be great and productive for us."
On The Influence Of Coach Connors During The Spring
"We will involve Coach Connors during the spring. We'll add some things that I wanted to do with more lifting. We'll incorporate him with spring practice so he can get his philosophy ingrained with the team. It won't interfere with our time slots, but we'll involve Jeff a lot during the spring. The progress he's made has been great. We have certainly emphasized our strength game.
"Also, this summer, all of those days are going to be of the utmost importance with what we want to accomplish as a team. We're facing one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, as well as a challenging C-USA slate. We look forward to the workload, challenge and process. I'm really excited about the next 15 days and am really looking forward to it."
On The Quarterback Situation
"It's very comfortable to know it's settled. The thing about Dominique is that he accomplished everything he did without going through spring ball. His first introduction to the offense was August 6. Now he's gone through a season, offseason, spring, summer and fall camp.
"He's a film rat. He knows there are a lot of things he needs to improve on and will improve on. Some of it will be a natural result of being around the offense, but he's a competitor, too. He has the mindset we want as a leader of our football team. He sees and recognizes a lot of things he can become better at within the quarterback position.
"It's a comfortable feeling knowing we have a guy there who has taken significant reps and been successful. He's one of the best in the conference and country."
On The Defensive Changes
"Every one of our defensive staff members has 3-4 experience as well as with the 4-3. It was during our offseason that we came to this decision. We have offseason professional development and in-house professional development. During our in-house development we talked about a 3-4 and mentioned it as a group. We were all in agreement that we felt personnel wise on campus and in our recruiting efforts that we're finding the guys who better fit the 3-4 system."
On The Goals For The Defense
"I just want them to get better each week. Everything is being built block by block. I'm not going to microwave it. I feel the expectations I have are going to be higher than anything outside the program. We want to become and get better at each position on all three sides of the ball. Our coaches and players are looking forward to the challenge."
On The 3-4 Implementation
"We'll be able to get the base and thought processes in during the spring. The new guys who join in the fall will be able to come in and hit the ground running. I'm looking forward to the introduction this spring and for the new guys to come in later.
"It's not as big of a deal as you might think. We have film that we'll take during the spring and watch throughout the summer. We also have our defensive book ready to go. We already mapped out a lot of adjustments as we've been preparing to make this switch for two or three months. We're ready for the spring and the new players to arrive."
On Advantages Of The 3-4
"We'll have more guys standing up on two legs. There is always some deception within a 3-4. It's a flexible package you can use. It is a 3-4, but don't get enamored with that. There will still be use of a four-man front in some instances, whether it's in a spread or goal-line look."
On His Personal Health
"It's one day at a time and making sure I follow the doctors' orders. I work hard and do what they tell me to do. I keep my head down and keep working at it. I have a great coach at home with my wife Erlene. She's hard on me, but I'm also hard on myself. It's still a process for me.
"I feel better. My diet is very limited and strict. I'm so stubborn and hard headed that I'll stay by it. It will not be a flash in the pan for me. I'm very serious about the change. I won't waver. It has been an adjustment and challenge. It's probably been one of the most challenging things of my life. At the same time, I knew it was something I needed to do.
"The players will feel it today I imagine. I'm able to move around a lot better and my mind is much sharper and clearer. I'm really looking forward to being around the guys. We meet with them during the offseason, but getting on the field and getting after them again is going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it.
"I'm still planning on getting the hip work done in about six weeks."
On Wednesday's Pro Day
"The players will come by. I've already fielded some calls from NFL teams. Most of the coaches will be involved in practice, but the guys will come by in the morning and can visit their position coaches if they would like to. I wish them well, hope they run fast, jump high, catch every ball and do every drill correctly."
On The Spring Game
"We'll be able to go toward both ends this time around. We'll look at our depth and if we can divide up and go Purple-Gold then we will. I want to get a work day. It's a spring game but, at the same time in my mind, it's the 15th day of work. It'll be a game atmosphere of offense versus defense. Special teams will be limited with what we do. It'll be a full-fledged field deal. We don't know if we'll divide teams up yet due to depth."
On Danny Webster
"He's had a great offseason. He can run. He's quick and tough. Webster, Leroy Vick and Cody Keith came in at midyear. They've been around the team since January. That's an advantage.
"Danny has done a great job during the offseason. I was talking with him the other day. He has the fire in his eyes. He's looking forward to the challenge. He'll be competing for playing time and a starting spot. I told him that."
On Torrance Hunt Playing Running Back
"He played there a little bit in high school. You saw the plays we did last year with Dwayne Harris. We shuffled him back there to get his hands on the football more. Torrance is excited about the move. He's a really good athlete with great speed.
"In this offense, you can get away with a smaller back with his speed and our split and spread thought processes. The biggest thing with him will be being able to pick up the blitz protection. Our running backs are involved in our block protection up front. That'll be the biggest adjustment for him. I don't think catching or running the football will be a big deal, it'll be the block protection. We've had small running backs in this offense before. The communication between Torrance and the offensive line will be key. Running backs coach Clay McGuire knows it inside and out and he'll get Torrance coached up and ready to go."
On Starting The 2011 Season In Charlotte
"It is like a bowl game. We had a chance to play at some neutral sites when I was in the Big 12. It's like a bowl game with the neutral site travel. I know we'll have a bunch of Pirate fans there. Pirate Nation will be in full force.
"We're playing a great football team that is likely to be one of the best in the country. South Carolina had one of the top recruiting classes this February. It'll be a great challenge for us. We have a lot of work to do between now and then. It'll be exciting. Charlotte was a great venue. We played there against Virginia Tech in 2008 and we'll face a great team again this fall."
On Going Into His Second Season
"We have our season, planned out up to next spring, already in place. We have each day planned out, even including my speaking engagements. Having that calendar ready is one of the biggest comforts. We can sit back and know where we're going when, what our recruiting schedule looks like and what the bowl preparation plan will be. The bowl work is the one that requires the most preparation.
"Being around the staff another year and keeping those guys together was vital. The players and getting Coach Connors in here have been very important. It wasn't a big adjustment because Jeff is a Pirate. He has been here before and understands what we're about and stand for. He hit the ground not running, but sprinting. Those things have all been very vital."