GREENVILLE, N.C. – First-year East Carolina University Head Football Coach Ruffin McNeill addressed members of the media prior to this week's game against North Carolina. The following are selected comments:
On The Virginia Tech Game
"Wrapping up Virginia Tech, I thought it was a tale of two halves. I thought we came out and played a good first 30 minutes. Virginia Tech was a team that was at 0-2. The team's back was sort of against the wall after it had lost a couple tough games and battles. We had to go to their place and knew it was going to be a well-coached team. Coach Beamer has done a great job building that program to what it is now. I don't think anybody can question that.
"I give all the credit first to Virginia Tech, Bud Foster and his guys on defense. I thought we played a really good first half. Virginia Tech did some things in the second half. I give credit to them, but also, we stopped executing on things we do pretty well normally.
"We had penalties called against us in that game. When I watched the film, it was basically a technique or physical thing that can be corrected.
"It was a tough loss for us. We felt we played spurts of that game. Part of the development of a team is teaching it to play the game for 60 minutes or more. Our next goal is to get our team progressing to the point where we can do that. I feel very confident in our coaches and players and that we'll be able to take that step.
"I like the way the team bounced back on the Sunday following the loss. We were very resilient and had a very short practice Sunday. We gave them off that Monday and then had two long work days on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"They were very physical days without much meeting time. We corrected fundamentals, technique and execution. We also added some things like having officials there for those two days to monitor our penalty situation. We had done a very good job on penalties in the first two games. We don't want to give teams yards. We work hard enough to gain yards on offense, let's not give them up to the other offense. We have to make sure we get off the field on third downs as well.
"I thought we had a really good off week. The kids did a great job of preparing. We had a good work day each day. Thursday was a shorter practice, but it was in the stadium with noise. We wanted to give them some sort of game simulation. We also went ones-on-ones for quite a bit of practice last week. We also spent a portion of Thursday preparing for UNC.
"We gave the team off Friday and Saturday and our coaches had a chance to get on the road and do some recruiting. We brought the team back last night for a normal Sunday of study hall, lifting, treatment and practicing. We had a short night last night."
On The Timing Of The Off Week
"We now come to game week again. It's good to get back into it again. I thought the off week was at a pretty good place for us. This is a tough stretch of games coming up. The bye came at a proper place because we had a chance to evaluate us after three games as a football team and personnel wise. We got to see who is above the line - playing at a winning-performance level and with winning capabilities. After three games, we were able to analyze and watch each person on offense, defense and special teams and see who is above that line of winning and which are close to it that we need to push over. I thought that helped us quite a bit."
On Possible Lineup Changes
"You saw some kids last week who had played special teams the first two games move up and will figure into major playing time. Lamar McLendon and Damon Magazu are two. Lamar has done a great job and you'll see Damon play a lot more. He has earned it.
"On offense, you may see some adjustments up front with Brandon Jones and his crew. You might move D.J. Scott to a tackle. We have also worked Will Towery and Jordan Davis at left guard to strengthen that position. It's not that Grant Harner is doing a bad job, but we want to make sure we develop depth there.
"The point of emphasis is that we saw some guys who are beginning to step up and grow. Mike Price is another one of those guys. He had to learn how to practice and participate and compete in practice. He started doing that and he'll be moved to the `Z' outside receiver position behind Andrew Bodenheimer. Joe Womack will also figure in there. Price deserves to have opportunities now too because of his work habits. That's what we base everything on, work habits in practice. That's the underlying key - what do you put on tape for us."
On North Carolina
"We face a UNC team this week. I know Butch Davis. Coach Holland and I had a chance to go to some sessions when everything started happening there and we know the athletic program and Butch are going through some tough times.
"When I look at the staff, maybe because I've been in college football for quite a while, I know the majority of it really well. I know they've had a tough time at it. They have gone though some adversity. But you have to take hats off to them as they've held that team together, even missing some guys. They've done a good job coaching.
"Offensively, it starts with T.J. Yates, the quarterback. I think I've heard some criticism of him, but it's unfair. He is a really fine quarterback. He has great pocket presence, understands the offense, commands the offense and does a great job distributing the football.
"I was watching him this morning on film against Georgia Tech. I kept going through the computer and I saw him make some throws like someone I competed against a few years ago - Phillip Rivers. Yates can throw off balance and with different angles. He has mobility to escape in the pocket a little bit and buy time.
"I think he has some really good people around him as well, starting with tailback Johnny White, who is a good running back. Virginia Tech had a good crew of running backs and North Carolina has two good backs with White and Shaun Draughn, who we all know locally as he went to Tarboro. White and Draughn are really down-hill runners. They have excellent speed, size and vision.
"Coordinator John Shoop's offense is based on motions, shifts and a down-hill running game. He also uses the play-action pass. Their run game makes it a very good play. The screen game is also big for them.
"I like to watch their receivers on film. They are very competitive and athletic. Dwight Jones, Jheraine Boyd, Erik Highsmith and the rest have great athleticism, size and catch the football well. UNC does a good job getting the football to them and spreading it around.
"One of their top receivers is their tight end, Zack Pianalto. He's a very athletic tight end who fits well in this offense with his ability to get open. He has a great hands and catches the ball very well. He's second on the team in receiving yards.
"You'll see some guys they blend into the offense who they call `H' backs. He will be a fullback/tight end, hybrid player. Ryan Taylor is one who is a good football player. He has a great ability to block as they use him in passing situations frequently.
"The offensive line is very solid. I like them. They have good size and are well coached. They have really good footwork and technique. It will be a great challenge for our defensive line.
"Defensively, coordinator Everett Withers, who I've known since he began coaching and helped him get started in coaching, has done a great job for himself. He has moved around in the profession from Texas, to the Tennessee Titans, to the New Orleans Saints and now to UNC. He does a great job.
"He has lost some guys due to what's happening but the guys are well coordinated. They have a 4-3 front and will also give us what we call a `50' look against a two-back set. They also have some zone, zone blitzes and man concepts as well as some distinct blitzes. Everett does a great job letting his guys run around and make plays.
"This is a well-coached team. They have some guys who can really do some special things defensively. Up front, Quinton Coples is the one who really stands out. He is a 6-foot-6, 245 pound junior who is really active inside and does a good job. They move him around a lot. Tydreke Powell is their most experienced guy. They lost some players with everything that's going on, but those guys do a great job.
"They have two linebackers in Quan Sturdivant who is a really good football player, along with Bruce Carter. Those two guys are NFL talents who are All-America types and all-conference picks. Those guys have great explosion, athletic ability and size to rush the passer. You see them in coverage quite a bit as well, and they really carry themselves well.
"In the secondary, Matt Merletti came back and has done a good job. Tre Boston, a true freshman, is playing and has had an exceptional season so far.
"On special teams, Casey Barth, brother of Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth, hasn't had many attempts, but is three-of-three. Grant Schallock is the punter, averaging over 44 yards per kick. Every punter we face is really doing a good job. It feels like everybody is 44-45 yards per punt.
"The top returner is Todd Harrelson and Jheraine Boyd, who is a receiver, also returns kicks.
"Butch has always had a very physical team. They have always been well coached. They'll pound the rock offensively but with their mixture of play-action, which will provide a challenge for us. Everett, with Butch's influence, has that 4-3 front and plays a lot of man, subbing to get to more defensive back packages.
"We know we're facing a very talented and well-coached football team. We know they have been through a lot of adversity and have held it together. It's a really big challenge for us, but at the same time a really big opportunity. It's very important for us to have a great week of practice. I'm looking forward to preparation this week and getting ready to go to Chapel Hill."
On The Rivalry With North Carolina
"The guys on my staff have been a part of rivalries with facing Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Nebraska becoming a rivalry. Our guys have been exposed to rivalry games. We as a staff, since day one, have not put more emphasis on any one game over another. Each game we play is important. Tulsa was the biggest game on the schedule that week because it was the only game. It was the same thing with Memphis and Virginia Tech. This game is important this week because it's in state, but also because it's the next game on the schedule. It's a chance to make sure we improve and do things we need to do to be successful Saturday.
"The rivalry is there. I know our fans love the competition. We loved it when I played. It was great. It'll be intense. This is a grown man's part of the season. I'm looking forward to the challenge.
"The rivalry part, we can't get caught up into because then we'll lose the focus on the little things. I won't have to worry as much about getting the team up to play. But, I want them to focus on making routine plays, playing for 60 minutes and playing four quarters. We need to understand the parts of the game that are important like the first quarter, right before the half, right after the half and the fourth quarter. We also need to make sure we improve fundamentally and on our technique.
"If we get too caught up in the rivalry, we'll neglect the things we worked on during the off week. It's a big game because it's the next game. Every game on the schedule is a big game because it's the only game we play that week. That's how I look at it."
On If UNC's Linebackers Will Change ECU's Offense
"No. We do what we do. I'm sure Everett will make some adjustments. I don't think he'll keep four linebackers on the field for us the whole time. He could because they all run well enough, but most people go to some five-defensive-back packages when they play us. Sturdivant and Carter have the ability to not just cover, but rush the passer as well. They have great instinct, explosion and are very powerful players. They have NFL ability. I'm not sure how Everett will play them.
"My main concern is execution. One of the things we worked on during the off week was not just execution on defense, which I know is the spot we need to shore up, but also execution on offense. We keep fine tuning it and making sure Dominique Davis is improving on his reads and distribution of the football. Our receivers need to continue to make routine plays. I'm more concerned with what we do and how we do it."
On Confidence Going In To The Game
"Believing in yourself is where it starts. It starts with me because I believe in our players and coaches. That has been non-wavering. We work as hard as any team I've ever been around. Our coaches understand the teaching process it takes to develop and individual and group and their particular positions.
"The confidence comes from belief in fundamentals and technique. In the second half at Virginia Tech, it became a competitive battle and some guys reverted to things that were not necessarily taught to them. That happens when guys have not gone through it enough to rely on technique. When you get put in adverse situations, you have to fall back on a technique in your tool box. That comes from game experience and going through it time and time again and understanding that the technique coach teaches me works.
"It seems real simple for us, but during the game, you have to rely on technique. Confidence to me comes from that belief in technique. I believe in them, every one of our guys in this building. I believe that work ethic and progress will pay off for us. It has already and will continue to play off for us throughout the season as we continue to improve as a football team."
On ECU's Outside Linebacker Spot
"Lamar is one of the most athletic guys on the football team. He was banged up in the spring and did not participate. He came back in fall camp and started a little slow. He has been a factor for us on special teams so far. I've seen guys grow on special teams to be able to help us.
"On our staff, based on my demand, whoever makes the most plays should start. That's how we judge who plays. It's the same thing with Lamar. He has made plays on special teams. During the off week, we identified those guys who were above the winning line and playing with a winning performance and mentality. He stepped in during practice and really took advantage of his opportunity. He's a guy who stepped up."
On The ECU Defense
"On the defensive line, Jimmy Booth got 13 reps in the Virginia Tech game. He has done a good job battling back from injury. He was projected to be a starter and definitely in the rotation. Michael Brooks is also progressing. Josh Smith is playing the best football up front of anybody. He's playing hard and making plays. He's playing with the passion we need. As the oldest guy up there, he should be. Antonio Allison is still battling the ankle, but he is really pushing himself and doing a good job. Robert Jones is another guy who is coming along up front.
"At the end position where we're the youngest, Justin Dixon is doing a good job improving. He has to improve his practice habits, which is easier said than done. It's not that he doesn't want to, he just has to learn how to. Once he does, he'll be an unstoppable guy for us. Marke Powell is athletic enough up front to help us. He is improved. We had to rest him a little last week because of a toe injury, but he'll be back. Derrell Johnson also has explosion and power. Matt Milner has done a solid job and AJ Johnson is a journey-man player who can give you some reps. "In the secondary, Emanuel Davis has been steady. Bradley Jacobs has done a great job. We've asked Derek Blacknall and Travis Simmons to step up their play."
On Going Through North Carolina Week As A Player
"Coach Dye didn't really have to say much to us. Most of our players knew their players by going against them in high school games or all-star games when I was playing. It was more emphasizing the fundamental and technique aspects of the game. That's how I was raised and that's what I fall back on.
"Confidence is belief in those things. I really believe the team must be technically sound in games like this. It'll be emotional. That's the fun part. That's the part that gives you goose bumps because it's going to be exciting.
"Coach Dye emphasized execution in our wish-bone offense. We do sort of the same thing; we distribute the ball to a lot of guys, it's just via air. Defensively, we made sure we did things the proper way like lining up right and having the right fits. That's what we worked on last week. We want to be sound in coverage.
"One of the things Coach Dye talked about was making sure we played as hard as we possibly could. We represented eastern North Carolina. Not just East Carolina or where you're from, but the whole part of the state. There are a lot of people who look up to our team and players.
"It was always a very hard-hitting football game. It was not a place for the faint of heart. It was always the mentality that we know you, but we're going to try and tear you up. Now I look at the guys on the sideline and I know the majority of their coaches. I know our players know a lot of their players, too. It'll be fun."
On His Players Knowing Many Of The North Carolina Players
"I'm sure our guys will be excited. We know who we're playing, it's on the schedule. We know their name. I asked last week if everybody was good and then said let's focus on East Carolina because we can control how we prepare and focus on us.
"The emotion of the game will increase as we get closer to the game and I'll probably have to hold them back a little bit. That's a good thing. I don't want to have to push them out to play. I want to be able to hold them back a little bit. There will be some emotion early because of the excitement. But it has to come back to execution, fundamentals and focus on technique. That's where my big job comes in."
On Playing At Kenan Stadium And The Environment On The Road
"I'm glad there will be purple there. I like seeing that. I'm excited for that part.
"With our team, what we learned is that we must feed off one another. Offensively, we must feed off the defense. If the defense gets a turnover or forces a punt and we get a good return, the offense has to feed off that. It's vice versa for the defense. If we score and have good kick coverage, we need a good defensive stand.
"In the first half of the Virginia Tech game we were playing off each other. We have a board on the sideline where we keep track of consecutive good plays and it got up to six or seven in the first half. In the second half, it was one or two times and then it broke.
"From the Virginia Tech game, what we must learn and carry over to this game is that all three sides have to feed off each other. That's been a big point of emphasis.
"How do you do that? I try to simulate it in practice. We have nine periods of practice. The first three periods are the first quarter, periods four and five are the second quarter, six and seven are the third quarter and eight and nine are the fourth quarter. I try to make them believe it's a game situation. That's still no substitute for the game itself.
"If we start practice off at a pretty good pace, let's finish it at a good pace. If we don't start practice at a good pace, we'll be disappointed, but there's still time to improve. We've tried to bring it up as good as we can without being in an actual game."
On Advantages Of Coming Off A Bye
"I don't know about an advantage. For us, it gave us a chance to prepare and focus on fundamentals. When we played Tulsa Sunday and then had a short week for Memphis Saturday, which caused a reduction in our fundamental time.
"Getting ready for Virginia Tech helped prepare us for a somewhat-similar offense. It's not quite the same as the quarterbacks will be different. Tyrod Taylor was a big scrambler where T.J. Yates can move, but also has pocket presence and ability to distribute the ball and command the offense.
"The advantage, hopefully, is that we got to work on our technique and fundamental execution. With this team, at this stage, with all our inexperienced players, that was big for us to have that week to just focus on fundamentals and not worry about preparing for an opponent. We gave them two days off to get away from it all before getting back into it Sunday."
On Going To A North Carolina Basketball Camp
"My first camp, we saved up and the church helped me too, I was able to go to Dean Smith's basketball camp. Somebody noticed I had some ability. My mom and dad were teachers, so we didn't have much money. Along with their savings, my dad's savings and the church chipping in, I was able to go to a Dean Smith basketball camp.
"My goal growing up was to always do the best I could and never let my parents down. I was fortunate that Coach Dye found me on film. Once he did, the recruiting picked up. I was in a place where I could have been overlooked, but by the grace of God I was found on film. There was nowhere else to go after Coach Dye met my mom and my mom met him. This was the only place I was going to be able to go. I'm glad I came."