GREENVILLE, N.C. -- First-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Ruffin McNeill and the Pirates opened the 2010 spring practice period with their initial workout Monday afternoon at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.
McNeill, who was appointed to ECU's top football position Jan. 21, led his 108-member squad through a two-and-a-half-hour workout, the first of 15 scheduled practice sessions which will culminate with the playing of the Purple-Gold Spring Game April 17 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I thought for the first day, I liked the way we came out," McNeill said. "We were very enthusiastic and I thought the team moved around very quickly from drill to drill. I was very pleased with the effort. I believe everything moves in sequential order. This was day one and we have 14 more to work, but we had a good starting point.”
The Pirates return five starters on offense, only two on the defensive side of the ball and welcome back a total of 43 lettermen off a squad which recorded a 9-5 mark and captured its second-straight Conference USA title under the leadership of former coach Skip Holtz and 28 seniors last season.
Headlining the list of returnees are five players who earned Conference USA post-season honors in 2009, including first-team selections Dwayne Harris and Emanuel Davis. Harris, who was also chosen as the league's special teams player-of-the year after ranking among the top 20 nationally in kickoff returns, topped the Pirates with 83 catches for 978 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. He became the program’s career reception leader during the course of the 2009 campaign and needs just 105 more yards to break the all-time reception yards record.
As a sophomore, Davis stood 15th nationally in passes defended after picking off two and knocking down 12 more from his cornerback position. He was among the unit's top five tacklers with 69 stops, four resulting in lost yardage.
McNeill's primary goal during spring workouts will be the installation of new offensive and defensive schemes, moving from multiple looks on both sides of the ball to a spread lineup and an attacking 4-3 alignment, respectively. While his implementation of Texas Tech's "Air Raid" offensive system is considered a visible and significant change, McNeill and his staff's tweaks on defense will not go unnoticed despite a similar base look in recent seasons.
"One of the things we’ve been able to do in the off-season is talk a little football with the players, and that has allowed us to get a start on things of sorts," McNeill said. "This spring, in particular, is real important for the players to grasp the offensive, defensive and special teams’ concepts. As far as a certain level of knowledge obtained, that’ll be determined by each player, but they’ve really picked up things already this off-season."
In addition to the return of Harris, East Carolina also welcomes back three senior starters on the offensive line in all-conference tackles D.J. Scott and Willie Smith, and guard Cory Dowless. Tight end Kevin Gidrey, another senior, is the Pirates' fifth returning starter after opening all 14 games a year ago.
One particular goal for McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is the development of a new quarterback in a pass-oriented system after the departure of six-year signal-caller Patrick Pinkney. From an experience standpoint, ECU’s cupboard is bare as only sophomore Josh Jordan (3 career games, 5-of-7 passing, 61 yards), redshirt freshman Rio Johnson and walk-ons Covair Frost, Zackary Illing and Brad Wornick will take snaps this spring. The Pirates did sign Shane Carden (Houston, Texas) on Feb. 3, but he won't report to campus until August.
"I expect all of them to compete," McNeill explained. "It’s open and we’re not going to make a decision until we get a guy we feel comfortable and confident with. All the guys who are here will have their chance to compete and go after it."
McNeill expects a stable of running backs to battle to replace 1,000-yard rusher Dominique Lindsay. Seniors Norman Whitley, who was ECU's top ground-gainer in 2008, Giavanni Ruffin and Jonathan Williams, along with junior Brandon Jackson and four freshmen, will try to emerge on top in one of the unit's deeper positions.
East Carolina's defense suffered the biggest personnel losses as the entire line, linebacking corps and half of its secondary starters completed their collegiate careers following a 20-17 overtime loss to Arkansas in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Jan. 2.
The Pirates' were completely stripped of its front seven when All-Conference USA tackle Linval Joseph opted to leave after his junior year to enter the NFL Draft. End C.J. Wilson and middle linebacker Nick Johnson were long-time regulars in a defense that consistently ranked among the top 1-2-3 in C-USA in the four major statistical categories and were regulars in the top 10-15 nationally in most turnover-producing categories.
On the other hand, returning with Davis in the secondary will be senior Travis Simmons - another cornerback who earned All-Conference USA honors a year ago. Simmons, who has also served as ECU's top punt return specialist the last two seasons, was credited with 52 tackles in 2009 and recorded one interception. In addition, the Pirates bring back a total of 23 defensive lettermen that should provide McNeill and coordinator Brian Mitchell with plenty of competition throughout drills, including many who experienced significant action a year ago such as DL Josh Smith, DL Michael Brooks, LB Dustin Lineback, LB Steve Spence, LB Matt Thompson and DB Derek Blacknall to name just a few.
McNeill and special teams coordinator Mark Nelson will use the spring to identify replacements for All-America punter Matt Dodge and long-time kicker Ben Hartman, who closed his career by setting a school record for scoring. Junior kicker/punter Ben Ryan (10-of-10 FGAs in 2009) and senior punter Nathan Przestrzelski will compete with redshirt freshman Matt Millisor for jobs in those areas.
Several players will miss the entire spring practice session because of injuries and subsequent rehabilitation assignments, including former depth chart members DB Dekota Marshall (right lower leg) and LB Cliff Perryman (right shoulder).
McNeill also mentioned at least three position changes when drills opened, moving former tight end Michael Byrd to the defensive line and former wide receivers Jacobi Jenkins and Wes Pittman to defensive back and linebacker, respectively.
East Carolina will return to the practice complex Wednesday as part of a Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday workout schedule during the next four weeks. After planning on spending its first two practice sessions in shorts and shells, McNeill indicated ECU would conduct its first full-pad workout Friday to begin preparation efforts for scrimmages April 3 and April 10 prior to the playing of the annual spring game.
EAST CAROLINA'S 2010 SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE
Next Workout: Wednesday, March 24 (3:45-6:00 p.m.)
Remaining Workouts: March 26, March 27, March 29, March 31, April 2, April 3 (scrimmage), April 5, April 7, April 9, April 10 (scrimmage), April 12, April 14 and April 17 (Purple-Gold Game, 2:00 p.m.)
General Public/Open Practice Dates: March 24 and April 14