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 Tulsa. The following are selected comments:
"We're finally to game week. It's finally here. There is great anticipation from the outside and there is even more within this building among the players and coaches. It's really neat.
"I was adding it up this morning and this is my 25th college season I'm getting ready to start. The excitement is even more than it has ever been. The place is a little different and the position has changed. For me it's an exciting time for the program.
"After the spring and summer, we had a chance to introduce our schemes and packages to the team. The change was made with [Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning] Coach Golden over the summer for the conditioning to add what we knew we would need for our offense, defense and special teams packages. I know everybody thinks just the offense is up tempo, but defensively, we want to be up tempo as well. Coach Golden and his staff did a great job of mending, adapting and changing the offseason conditioning skills and drills to accommodate what we needed. My hat is off to him.
"On August 5 we had our first meeting and on the 6th we had our first chance to see where the players were and where we were as a team."
On The Goals Of Fall Camp
"Going into the fall, one of the things I wanted done by our staff was to develop competition at all positions. There is no entitlement here. That's still at the forefront of what I believe in. Going into fall camp, we wanted to establish that competition. I think we're getting close to doing that.
"There are some positions where we're still developing that competition. The one position everybody asks about is the quarterback. There is competition there. But my goal is to have that competition at every position. That way, everybody has to play at the top of his game. When the football team is pushed from within and day-to-day work has to be at the top level, the football team will improve. Competition was a key factor as a staff and for me.
"After the loss of 28 seniors and Linval Joseph leaving early for the NFL, a lot of people mentioned the talent lost. There were a lot of talented individuals. I've seen many of them on film when watching Tulsa and some other games from last season. That was a very talented group.
"The one thing that sometimes gets left out is leadership. Those guys brought leadership on a day-in-and-day-out basis. Coaches don't always see it and I know the outside world doesn't see, but leadership is making sure a guy is at a certain place at a certain time and understanding the game procedures. That was one of the major losses of that group of seniors, so going into fall camp, we needed to develop leadership and leaders.
"Guys lead by three different ways. The first is by example. Those guys are very quiet, but how they play and carry themselves is leadership enough. That's fine with me. Some guys are vocal leaders. That's OK as long as it's done in a positive way. The third way is leading by both. They can lead vocally and by example.
"Leadership is still a work in progress, but I've seen some emerge on offense and defense. I see some special teams' guys coming through as well and taking that leadership hat. You have to be careful not to overload a player with leadership and find what he can handle.
"The next item was to develop depth. Playing an up-tempo offense, defense and special teams, depth is very important. The seniors last season provided a lot of depth and we have to get there. We're getting close and I like where we are.
"The thing that's always important to me is fundamentals. That's the old-school part of me and the part I learned from my father, Coach [Pat] Dye and Coach [Danny] Ford. I always have to develop the fundamental parts of the game.
"The basic fundamentals are blocking and tackling. The schemes are great. I love our offensive, defensive and special teams' schemes. The fundamental aspect is where the confidence comes from in a tough game. Players will fall back on that confidence. Confidence is belief in your technique and fundamentals. When you're playing a tough opponent and that guy may be a little bigger or faster than you, the guy with the best technique will always be the most successful.
"Fundamental emphasis was very important this fall. I believe the fundamental part of the game is sometimes overlooked with the awe of what fancy "Xs" and "Os" you can draw. With me here, we will not practice one schematic play if the fundaments are not where they need to be. Our coaches and players know that.
"The final thing we wanted to establish in the fall was developing our personality and brand. Each year, each team is different. Even during the back-to-back championships, if you asked Skip Holtz, each personality was probably a little different. We needed to establish our personality and brand during the fall. For me, that's an attacking team that plays with great effort, fundamentals and tempo. When opponents watch us on film or when people come watch us in person, we want people to see that from our football team. I feel we made progress in a lot of those areas.
"We still have a week left to prepare. I'm really excited and pleased with where we are at this moment."
"We start Conference USA play right off the bat. I've known Todd Graham for a long time being in Texas. He has done a great job.
"Todd moved back to coaching the defense this year and hired a new offensive coordinator who is from Lake Travis High School, which is a really successful football program in Texas. It'll be similar to what they have run in the past on offense. Everybody knows about Damaris Johnson, but they also have Ricky and Trae Johnson at wide receiver. It's not just about the Johnsons.
"Damaris led the nation in all-purpose yards and is coming back. He'll be a handful. I was asked what you do about him. It's hard to stop a guy like that. You just hope to contain him and keep him under wraps. You also have certain packages where you can put a few guys around him or be assigned to him. Damaris is a good player and they move him around.
"G.J. Kinne is a really good quarterback. He's a duel threat in that he can throw the football or run it. I like what he brings to the table when I watch him on film. His touchdown to interception ratio was good for a young quarterback. Charles Clay is a back like ours will be. He can run or receive. He has done a good job for them. When you watch him on film, you know you have to have eyes on him.
"They had some changes up front last year with injuries, so that's still a group they have confidence in. They had some junior college players come in who fit well.
"Offensively, I think they have a real good nucleus to work with.
"Defensively, they have three of their top five tacklers coming back. They have a great linebacker in Tanner Antle, who I know from recruiting. Defensively, they have a solid group to work with.
"They have really good skill guys coming back, too. Damaris Johnson as a returner is special. Also, Kevin Fitzpatrick and Michael Such do a great job. Fitzpatrick went 13-of-14 on field goals and Such had a 44.5-yard punt average a year ago.
"We know we're facing an opponent that has been together. They have key guys returning, but I feel good about where we are with them."
On Last Week's Mock Game Week
"Last week we went through a mock week and got our guys used to what we expect as a football team. We also had a chance to touch on Tulsa a little bit. We didn't want to get into them too much too early, so we're getting into them pretty heavy this week. All our focus this week will be totally on preparing for Tulsa. I feel good about our football team and where we are."
On The Injuries
"We still have some guys nicked up. Antonio Allison will probably not be ready for this game. He's still struggling with an ankle injury. There are some other guys who we're still not sure about. Diavalo Simpson came back this week and got some reps Sunday.
"Some guys were not able to practice much during the fall and are now starting to come back. Allison will definitely be missed this week. He's working really hard with Mike Hanley in the treatment area and with Coach Golden to rehab. He's battling, but he will not be able to run around with the high tempo right now. Hopefully he'll be back for the Memphis game.
"Steve Spence has been nicked for about a week and a half. He's getting some reps again now. Melvin Patterson has done a good job ceasing the opportunity. Those two guys have been battling at middle linebacker since the spring. That's what I want, to have that competition there. I feel good with all six linebackers. They're all interchangeable. They'll be a major part of our defense and special teams."
On Opening The Season With Tulsa
"The most important thing is that it's a conference game. It's also our season opener. All our focus will be on Tulsa this week. I can't speak for any past rivalry and history that might be.
"I can only focus on what we can control. That's going against a well-coached team. I know Todd and the programs he has been around, so I know he will prepare the team well.
"I know our staff and players have worked very hard to prepare. The motivation will be that it's the first game. That's enough motivation for us. We respect everybody we play.
"I'm glad we are at home and get to open in the renovated stadium. I'm anxious to get our kids out there with Pirate Nation sitting in the bleachers. I'm sure they will be very loud. I'm looking forward to that."
On The Quarterback Situation
"Some positions are still a battle. Somebody asked what Rio Johnson did wrong. Rio did nothing wrong. He's one of the most improved guys we've had from spring to right now. He sees the coverages and throws.
"Dominique Davis came in and learned the offense very well under [offensive coordinator] Lincoln Riley. Brad Wornick, and Rio, had a 15-day jump on Dominique. However, Dominique has come in and done some really nice things.
"In this offense and what we do, a strong arm is great. But, it's where to deliver the ball, when to deliver it and how to deliver it that are the most important. Both guys are doing a great job. I just have to get the team focused. There is nothing we're trying to hide. Those guys are battling each day. If you had a chance to watch the film, you would see one guy during seven-on-seven complete great throws and then in team-on-team, the other guy does the same thing. It has been back and forth. The competition is what I want.
"Both guys are getting enough reps so that we feel comfortable. We keep a count of everybody's throws in practice. Landon Hoefer monitors all that. We know those guys are getting the majority of the reps. They're getting enough to make us feel good about the preparation.
"I worry more about the offensive linemen than the quarterbacks. The offensive and defensive lines are where you win championships. The quarterbacks are battling each day. They are both immersed in the challenge, which is unique. I'm glad we promote this environment and that they are not afraid of the competition. We'll see and it might come right down to the wire."
On The Strengths Of Each Quarterback
"Brad reminds me a lot of the guys we had at Texas Tech. His advantage comes from being around Lincoln this spring and going through that practice period. Brad went through the initial teaching and introduction of the packages. He got it from day one.
"Dominique has experience under his belt having played in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and leading Fort Scott Community College to an 11-1 record. He is a talented, athletic quarterback who is also very bright and has caught on well. He understands the offense, too. He's going to get his lunch plate during camp and you see him in the film room. That work ethic and understanding has put him in the mix.
"Brad also has some movement to his game. He's not a standard, five-step drop, type of quarterback. When Brad sets his feet and throws, he reminds me a little bit of Cody Hodges and Kliff Kingsbury, who we had at Texas Tech."
On His Expectations For The Quarterbacks
"I need both of them to stay calm and poised. We put them in a lot of pressure with blitzes, even during camp. We need to keep them poised and making the correct reads.
"They need to just to get us in the right play. In this offense, we may huddle once in a while but not much. The offense is run through the quarterback. After Lincoln makes the call, the quarterback has a lot of options to get us in the best play. Lincoln and his guys have a great way of monitoring. They keep a record of everything imaginable. We're going to ask them to develop and stay poised."
On The Importance of Focus
"We need the team to focus during football time. That's tough for a young team. They're getting there. We also need to get them to play the next play. During a game and this season there will be some great plays made. If we get too caught up in those, you'll miss two or three or four chances to make another play. Bad or tough plays will also happen during a game. If you worry too much about it, it may multiply. One of the things we've tried to do is make them understand to play the next play.
"The two quarterbacks understand that. The good throws are great, I love those. I watch them after the tough throws, too. After good throws I see them going to celebrate. After a tough throw, I see how they react. Both of them, and Rio, are very calm and poised, which is what you want."
On Picking One Quarterback Or Having A Rotation
"Initially, what you want is for one guy to stay in there and get most of the live reps during games. This year in this offense was the first time we've ever had a rotation. You hope to get one guy and let him lead it, learn and develop.
"However, it's not a bad deal to have two other guys ready to go. It's a pretty good situation. I have confidence in Rio, too. If you ask Lincoln he'll say the same thing. If you ask the football team, which is more important than Lincoln or I in my opinion, it is confident, too. To have three guys who can run and operate the offense is really a good position for us to be in.
"We hope to single in on one guy. I've never been a part of flip flopping guys. We'll try and let one guy win it and work through the edges. Most of the time, a guy earns it, keeps it, works his way through it and by the end of the year is rolling. I don't want to wait until the end of the year. I want to get it started this week."
On Playing In Renovated Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium
"I've had a chance to play in some unique venues the past 10 seasons in the Big 12. We've played in some tough arenas at Nebraska, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Walking into Dowdy-Ficklen and seeing the development that Coach Holland, the administration and donors have done in such a short time is amazing. It's a magnificent facility that is second to none in my opinion.
"The video board just adds to it. The Boneyard where our students will be is great. I can't wait to see those students get in there and raise the volume. I want them to be very loud and intimidating to the opponent, but in a classy way."
On Will Towery
"Will Towery has been nicked and missed some practice time. Dalton Faulds has done a real good job and may go into the game starting. We were able to have Will go out yesterday and he did some good things during practice. He's still got a few bumps. In this offense, he has to be able to do certain things. He got really great work in Sunday.
"Dalton has gotten some very valuable reps during practice and work with blitz pickup, which he'll need as most people blitz this offense. He has done a good job leading. The center makes all the calls. It's a very important position. The line doesn't substitute very much. It's a five-man unit just like in basketball. Those guys have to know each other and work like a hand. I feel very good about when Will comes back. That position will have competition and we will have two solid groups. If we had to go today, Dalton would start."
On His Nerves For Sunday
"Some people think this is my first job ever. It's my 30th year doing it. I've been in just about all situations you can be in as a football coach. I've been very fortunate. Every situation has been a learning experience for me. I've been in meaningful games that have meant a bowl bid or not, a championship or not and the like.
"I'm looking forward to the game. The only thing I can control with the game is preparation. I feel good about that, though. I like our schedule and how we installed it. I have great help.
"I'm not a micromanager. I let the guys work. I treat the coaches as I would like to be treated as a coach. When I was a graduate assistant, Coach Tom Harper told me to remember the mentality you have as a GA when you become a full-time coach. You go through it and respect everybody. You don't forget where you came from and you outwork everybody. I remember that.
"When I became an assistant and defensive coordinator, I remembered to treat coaches how I want to be treated. I'm not a micromanager. My deal is to load the wagon and give it parameters. I trust my staff members and have verified their trust. The trust and verification among the players is still a work in progress. We're still learning each other. I have the trust of the guys around me and that makes me feel very comfortable. I don't need to be in there to watch every little move.
"One of the things about the game that I learned a long time ago was to make sure the team was prepared fundamentally and in great shape. We also have to keep it simple. When the game comes Sunday, I want the team to have a clear mind and fast legs. You don't want cloudy minds, leading to slow legs. We will delete things before we add things. That's why the nerves don't really bother me. Before we go into that game, we're going to be fundamentally sound and in great shape. For me, that removes all the nervousness. There are always those butterflies."
On The Team Picking Up The New Schemes
"I think they have adjusted well. Kids are like clay a lot of times. They adjust, mold and adapt, but only if you're honest with them and if you give them expectations before you ask them to do things. And you have to be honest with them and talk to them and not at them.
"I just try to talk to them. They know if they come in my office, I'll be very blunt with them. I love the kids too. I'm not afraid to tell them that. I think that's very important. One of my jobs is to be a role model for those kids. It's my job and responsibility to take care of their parents' most prized possession, which is their young man.
"The guys we were able to hire know how to motivate and relate to young men. They can demand so much from a kid and he'll say thank you. We love our kids, but we're not afraid to demand from them. No one is excused from that. We demand the highest levels of focus and play."
On The Punting Situation
"Ben Ryan is doing a good job punting. He came back in the fall and has done a good job battling with Michael Barbour for the kicking duties. During the past week we had him doing the punting. [Special teams coordinator] Clay McGuire really liked the ball coming off Ben's foot. It had some punch to it.
"I feel good about Ben. He has a lot of confidence. He has done a good job kicking field goals and kicking off for us, too. I know he can do what we need him to do.
"He has punted before. Some of the guys I don't like crossing over. When I was a special teams coordinator, I didn't want a field goal kicker ever kicking off. I felt they were totally opposite muscles working from field goals for accuracy to kicking off for power. I never wanted to mix those guys up. It's the same thing with punting and crossing over to a field goal. But Ben is able to do it and has done a good job."
On The Field Goal Kicking
"That's very important because those are points on the scoreboard. The most important parts of the special teams are the field goal and punt teams. Those we will work daily because of the center-snap exchange that is required.
"Barbour has done a good job. We've put him under a lot of pressure during practice in different situations. It's gone well so far. He has to get in the ballgame, like a lot of our guys do.
"During our mock Saturday night meeting, there are a lot of guys who do not have significant reps. The defensive line played the majority of the games last year. Michael Brooks and Josh Smith played a little bit, but that's about it. The three seniors and Linval played most of the game. Barbour, the team and a lot of our players will go through on-the-job testing. Barbour has done well so far in practice and that's all we have to go on right now.
"Right now, he's in that 40-47 range. I feel comfortable with him there. Range varies with kickers and how the wind and field are. I'll find out before the game from Clay and see how far we can go."