GREENVILLE, N.C. – Head Coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff guided East Carolina through a pair of two-hour workouts Thursday to complete its fall two-a-day schedule at Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex. The Pirates also continued preparations for Saturday’s scrimmage, donning full pads in the morning before returning to shells under the lights.
“I thought we got a lot of good work in today, especially in the team periods,” McNeill said. “One of my goals as the head coach is to expose the team to as many game-like situations as possible, so I wanted to get the team out under the lights and start making the adjustment with their night vision.“
During the morning, the Pirates worked on the quick game, routes on air, team screens and one-on-ones before concluding practice with 30 minutes of extended team-on-team work focusing on third and fourth down situations.
The evening session opened with wide receivers focusing on timing routs and the linebackers working on run coverage. The quarterbacks then went through a series of scramble drills with the receivers before another 10 minutes of screen work. During the skeleton phase of the workout, the offensive and defensive lines worked on pass rush, which led to the final 20 minutes of team vs. scouts.
ECU will practice Friday morning to finalize prep work for the team's second, and final, intra-squad contest of the fall Saturday.
Friday’s Practice Time: 8:45 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
Season Opener: Aug. 31 vs. Old Dominion in Greenville (7:00 p.m.)
Today's "Q&A" format will highlight the Pirates' secondary:
Defensive Coordinator/Secondary Coach Rick Smith
We've asked all your position coaches about the adjustment of offering more multiple looks out of the 3-4 this year and how it might impact their units. Speaking solely as a secondary coach, how will that affect your corners and safeties in comparison to what they did the last two years? “Honestly I didn’t really know what they did over the last two years. I watched film and that showed me what they were capable doing on the field. When we started spring ball and fall camp, I told them the best guy would play – period. From that point on I moved into a teaching role and started with the basics of the defense and techniques. All I have asked of them is to learn five techniques (one-third deep, one-fourth deep, jam force, jam funnel and man coverage) and from there we can run multiple coverages and make adjustments throughout as needed. Right now I am pleased where that group is at, but we still have things to fine tune.”
There's usually a lot of optimism when a backfield returns three (CB Adonis Armstrong, FS Damon Magazu, SS Chip Thompson) of four senior starters, but you haven't seen anyone play on game day yet. Is last year's film, the spring and preseason camp enough for you to get a really good feel of what you have to go into battle with? “Yes. I really liked what I saw, but there were some things that I thought needed to be corrected from an assignment and technique standpoint. I tell these young men that when I looking at film, I am looking at a number, not the person. For example, when I’m looking at Adonis (Armstrong), who wore No. 3 last year, I want to know if the person lined up correctly, did he do the technique right and did he do his assignment. I talked with them about this yesterday that they can’t take correction personally. Our relationship off the field has nothing to do with me coaching them. When I’m coaching a guy on the field, I’m coaching his technique, alignment and assignment. It’s not personal. That technique is either right or it’s wrong. If I get on them because they did something wrong, when we walk off that field we are still friends. But if that technique isn’t right on the field, they have to understand that we have to separate the way they are coached on the field and the way we act in the meeting and film room. So when I am criticizing them, I don’t want it to be aimed at a person rather the alignment or technique.”
On a similar note, what has impressed you with this group so far? “Well until yesterday I was really impressed with their work ethic. We had 15 practices in the spring and we only stunk it up two days out of those 15. Today was our 15th practice this fall and yesterday was not a good day, but today I thought they responded well. What has really impressed me has been their ‘want to.’ We talk all the time about the three “W’s,” which are: Work, Want to win a championship and Willing to sacrifice. Everybody wants to win a championship, but who is willing to sacrifice and put in the work to do the things that it takes to win a championship. They sacrificed over the summer and put in the work. I really believe in my heart that this is an uncommon team. I don’t think a common person is willing to give up what it takes to win a championship, because it’s not easy. Everybody can’t be a champion and it takes a lot of sacrifice and work, and again they did that over the summer. They moved out of the dorms this week and now they are out on their own. Are they willing to eat right and get the proper amount of rest? So there are things they have to give up for us to accomplish our goals. I told the seniors the other day that you are guaranteed 12 games this season and you might not play another down of football the rest of your life. So take care of your bodies for these next three months and let’s see what happens.
On the other hand, what are some things you tried to address during the spring and still placing a lot of emphasis on during camp from an improvement standpoint? “The main thing is that we gave each of them a body weight to report at and all of the defensive backs made their weight. The other, as I mentioned early, was making sure we do all the little things right on the field with technique, alignments and assignment football. We have to be able to play smart, trust that each man knows what he is supposed to be doing and that they do their job. If all that happens we will be successful as a secondary group. If one piece falls apart, then everything we are trying to do will crumble.”
Who are some younger players that have caught your eye during the first few weeks of preseason workouts? “DaShaun Amos probably has more interceptions this fall than anybody else. He is just one of those guys that steps up and makes plays and its been fun watching him play. I know he is not a young guy, but I’m very excited about Damon Magazu. He didn’t practice during the spring, but I recruited him to come to East Carolina and knew what kind of player he could be, and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. He is an instinctive player, great leader and I couldn’t be more excited about watching him play out his senior season. Michael Dobson has done a great job transitioning from offense to defense and Chip Thompson can be a game changer, which Pirate fans saw a glimpse of last year. Nate Mays, a walk-on freshman, has been playing with the second team as a strong safety. At corner, Adonis had a great spring and has picked up right where he left off in terms of his physicality and understanding the defensive scheme. We have a heck of a battle going on at the boundary between Detrick Allen and Josh Hawkins, and the two freshmen out of Atlanta, DaShawn Benton and Travon Simmons have come in and excelled, and both are pushing for playing time. Overall I am pleased with where we are in the secondary and like the depth and work ethic this group have shown.”
What are some of the differences of your current personnel in comparison to what you had during your first tenure at ECU from 2005 to 2009 - a group that consistently ranked among the interception leaders nationally? “We didn’t have as much depth back then as we do now. My first two years here Travis Williams got almost ever snap at the boundary position. Once Emanuel Davis and Travis Simmons got here, which was the third, fourth and fifth year, I was still lacking depth, but the talent was there. I hardly had four safeties, so I always had to play a walk-on. Even on the defensive line and at the linebacker positions, we have more depth now than the first time I was here. If you remember we had to move Van Eskridge from his linebacker spot to the secondary. So having more depth and team speed is better now than when I first arrived in 2005.”
Speaking of that time period, other than the two C-USA championships, is there maybe one game or moment that stands out as the most memorable for you? When you reflect back, how do you define those five years? “More than anything it’s the relationships from those early years. Greg (Hudson) and I are really close. I always joke that he is like my younger brother and he says I am his father because I am so much older. That staff we had here was a lot fun. I worked with Greg for seven years, Rock Roggeman for five and Vernon Hargraves for seven. So I miss the camaraderie more than anything. I was real close with the players and that staff, heck we worked together for five years which is a long time in the football world. I guess the biggest memories from a game standpoint was the Virginia Tech win in Charlotte, beating Boise State in Hawai’i and West Virginia in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Those are memories that I will carry with me for a lifetime, but its all because of the players and coaches during those early years.”
Senior free safety Damon Magazu
What are you working on during camp? What are some of the team goals for the 2013 season? “During camp I am working on being more of a vocal leader, something I’ve had to do more of the last two years. I’m also working being able to read the quarterback and the receiver at the same time. Finally, just trying to be a sponge with Coach Smith. He is a brilliant mind and I’m trying to absorb as much information as I can from him. The overall team goal is to go undefeated, win a championship and a bowl game. We have gone to a pair of bowl games since Coach Ruff has been here, but came up short both times. So we want to bring two trophies back to Greenville before we move into the new conference next year.”
From a scheme standpoint, what would you say is the biggest responsibility you have as a free safety? “Don’t let the ball over my head. I know it sounds simple and everyone says that, but as long as we can keep the ball in front of us, we can play the next play.”
What would you list as your most memorable ECU Pirate moment to date? “Hopefully its going to be at the end of this year when we win a conference championship. That is our focus and I really think we have a team that can accomplish that goal as long as we play together and for one another.”
There always appears to be a lot of talking going on with the opponent receivers - what exactly are you guys discussing? “I think the main thing that really gets on a receiver’s nerve is when you hit them or they make a good play and they get up and start talking a little bit, you look at them and start laughing. Then the next play you stick them again and now they know what I am laughing at. It’s all about mind games and trying to get the opponent out of their comfort zone. Once you have done that, you have the advantage on the field.”
Senior cornerback Adonis Armstrong
What are you working on during camp? What are some of the team goals for the 2013 season? “My main focus is building self confidence – trusting that I can go out there and guard any receiver on any play, and know that I can get the job done. Win a Conference USA championship is the primary goal. We want to be the best defense in the league, Top-25 nationally and keep getting better each day on the field.”
What were some of the biggest adjustments you had to make last season, moving from junior college to this level? Was there anything that surprised you or was unexpected? “There weren’t any surprises. Nothing is ever just given to you, so last year I came in and worked hard to show that I can play at this level. I struggled last year with self-confidence, as I mentioned before, but that is something I have been working on with Coach Smith. At first I was a little timid coming to a new school and questioned if I really belonged, but after the first game against Appalachian State I realized that I can play for a Division I school.”
Most people usually see corners in one-on-one coverage with receivers, so let's go to another part of your game. What's your top responsibility on rushing plays? “Plain and simple – contain the football. Do not ever let the ball outside of me.”
What was your most memorable ECU Pirate moment during your first year? “I would say the double-overtime game against Marshall. It was a high-scoring game with a lot of excitement and the crowd was really into it. As a team, we knew once we scored to tie it up at the end of regulation, we were going to win that game. Nobody was going to take that away from us. A close second would be my first game in Dowdy-Ficklen against Appalachian State.”
There always appears to be a lot of talking going on with the opponent receivers - what exactly are you guys discussing? “We just talk with one another on the play that just happened. If I get a good hit on them, I let them know that I will be back for more, and the receivers do the same thing. We try to play mind games and get into one another’s head – get them off their game. Some of the receivers respect that and I know that I do as well, especially if it is a hard-fought game.”