GREENVILLE, N.C. – East Carolina completed its preparation efforts for the second and final scrimmage of preseason camp with a two-and-a-half-hour workout in shells Friday morning at Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Facility.
The contest, which will be held at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Saturday morning, will be another critical contest that will help define the depth chart heading into game-plan mode for the season opener against Old Dominion. Following the simulated contest, players will return to the stadium to meet and interact with fans during the 19th Annual Meet The Pirates Night - an event which begins at 5 p.m.
“We had to push through practice following a two-a-day, but I thought everything went well,” fourth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “It was a good long team day where we put the guys through situational work. The primary focus was on first down on both sides of the ball and then I added some third down surprises for both groups to see how they would respond.”
Friday's workout consisted of three team periods totaling 42 minutes where the Pirates' worked on screens, the run and third-and-long plays. The skill positions spent the first 21 minutes working on the quick game and routes on air, while the offensive and defensive line continued work on pass protection and pass rushing drills.
Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage, which McNeill indicated would span 40 to 50 plays, is closed to the public.
In the event of inclement weather during ECU's Meet The Pirates event, all activities will be moved under the north side of the stadium with public access through Gates 7 and 8 ... In addition to inflatable rides, games, hot dogs and free promotional items, McNeill will be joined by his coaching staff and all players for a personalized autograph session from 6-7:30 p.m. ... RB Breon Allen (left leg), DE Randall Anderson (left toe), DE Jeton Beavers (back), DE Justin Dixon (left knee), DB Domonique Lennon (concussion), DB Terrell Richardson (right knee) and Chrishon Rose (left knee) will all be sidelined for the scrimmage because of injuries ... Additionally, Chaz Lowery (left knee) and Pat Green (left leg) are listed as doubtful and questionable, respectively.
Saturday's Scrimmage Time: 9:00 a.m. - 10:30 a.m.
Season Opener: Aug. 31 vs. Old Dominion in Greenville (7:00 p.m.)
Today's "Q&A" format will highlight the Pirates' special teams:
Special Teams/Running Backs Coach Kirk Doll
You've certainly earned a highly-regarded reputation in the special teams business during your career - a critical element of the game which obviously can win and lose many games. What was the origin or background of your desire and interest to specialize in special teams? “You are always looking to better yourself as a coach and help the people you’re around on the team. I kind of started out slow with some of my first coaches giving me things to do, so I embraced it on the football field. It taught me about responsibility, which then helped improve my organizational skills not just with regard to special teams, but with the position I was coaching. It has been a great experience. Being on offense and defense, that’s what special teams is. It’s the first play of offense or the first play of defense, depending on how you want to look at it. So I think a lot of the background that I have helps in terms of technique and fundamentals.”
Unlike a year ago, you enter the 2013 season with established veterans at the place-kicking, punting, holding and snapping positions. Is it now just a matter of working on fine-tuning and addressing consistency issues with the kicking game or are there other things you're addressing? “Well it has been a little bit easier. We are all working towards consistency because that is something that place kickers, punters and snappers can all do better. Everything is going to improve because most of the players are familiar with our basic set, so now we can start to expand our special teams scheme. That doesn’t mean that we will be in 5,000 formations, but now we can do some different things because of their comfort level. Last year we set the foundation and had success in certain areas, but there are still things that we can improve on and that’s what we are working on this fall.”
From a return standpoint, Justin Hardy handled the majority of punts and Lance Ray enjoyed early success with kickoffs last year. Are those two in the mix to serve similar roles again this season? If not, who are some other players who have stood out during the spring and camp so far who might be candidates? “Yes, they will both be out there on special teams units. We have a lot of exciting players and there is plenty of competition for those spots. It’s a good situation to be in and we can take advantage of both Justin and Lance’s skill sets. Some other guys we have run out there this camp have been Breon Allen, Davon Grayson, Isaiah Jones, Quataye Smyre and Danny Webster. All have proven that they can run with the ball and do the things we ask of a punt and kickoff returner. A lot of times it’s not the scheme, but the players in the scheme and I am excited with where we are at in that phase of special teams.”
Speaking of Hardy and Ray - is there an unpublished code or protocol of sorts in place for the need to protect (i.e. injury risk) key offensive and defensive starters by keeping them off certain special teams squads, especially returners? “Right now both the offensive and defensive players know that they are going to be on special teams, again because it is a part of the offense and defense. We don’t try to overload them but we try to give the one area that they can excel in and go from that point and start filling around the edges.”
We always hear an awful lot about the kickers, punter and returners, but coverage teams don't quite get the same billing. What are some things you look for to establish a quality coverage plan on both kickoffs and punts? “I thought we did some very good things on kickoff coverage last year, but we had three plays that was really upsetting. Not because of a lack of effort, but the lack of lane integrity. So we are working hard to correct that, not only on kickoff coverage, but punt as well. We started out slow in punt coverage last year but got better as the season went along. Now what I am hoping is the understanding of the scheme will be more aggressive and physical in terms of getting down the field.”
It is often said special teams offers younger players a chance to play and get experience. Is that a common practice across the board, and if so, how does it help in the development process? “Every young person is different in terms of how they except a role in college when they come from high school. There are a couple of young men that come from high school that I’m excited about how they have already developed and they are going to be part of special teams. Then there are some that take a little more time because of all the distractions going on at the field. Some of them have never played on special teams before because they were the so-called star of their high school team and that’s not what it is here at ECU. The special teams unit is truly a part of our football team.”
Junior Place Kicker Warren Harvey
What are your personal and team goals for the 2013 season? “Personally, I just want to improve on my game and do whatever I can to help us win. The team goals are the same and that’s to come out and be the best we can and strive towards winning a conference championship and getting a bowl win.”
After a 2-of-6 start last year, you finished by converting 13 of your last 14 field goal attempts and earned a place on this year's Lou Groza Award Watch List. Was there a defining moment where you regained your confidence and were in comfort mode? “Honestly I think it was just getting over those first-time jitters. I definitely felt comfortable those first two games and I just wasn’t connecting. I think I was able to mentally block all the previous kicks and focus on the one ahead of me. Once I finally got one under my belt I felt like I had a good grip on how things went and just went from there.”
What would you list as your most memorable ECU Pirate moment so far? “You know I enjoy them all. But coming out into Dowdy-Ficklen for the first time and out of the tunnel and seeing the Pirate Nation in full force was an unbelievable moment and one that I will always cherish.”
Coach Doll has a reputation as one of the top special teams coaches in the country - what are some of the things you've learned from him that has helped in your development? “Taking a practice and treating it like a game. Putting myself and the special teams unit in game-like situations where we can be comfortable and successful.”
Can all soccer players become productive football placekickers? Is there a natural connection there? “I believe there is a natural connection, but there are some differences like striking the ball a different way. I think kicking is something that is unique, just like punting, throwing and catching a football.”
Senior Punter Trent Tignor
What are your personal and team goals for the 2013 season? “Personally I want to build on what I did last year and help put this team in the best position to win. Athletics director Jeff Compher met with the team a couple of weeks ago and stated that we should be shooting for a BCS Bowl game, and we have all been saying and thinking just that since getting back on campus. But hearing him say that and to know that he believes in us has been a great source of encouragement for the team. I honestly believe that we can accomplish that goal.”
How much has former Pirate punter and current staff assistant Ryan Dougherty helped with your development (which now includes inclusion on the Ray Guy Award Watch List) from a "been there, done that" perspective? “Coach Dougherty was actually hired the same week I came to ECU as a freshman, so he has been with me every step of this wonderful journey. He has been very helpful along the way, not just with help in the film room or on the field, but also away from the field. We have gotten really close over the years and he is someone that I turn to for guidance.”
What was your most memorable ECU Pirate moment so far? “There are several that come to mind. One that comes to mind is against South Carolina last year, I believe it was my second punt of the game, and I was able to punt the ball over Ace Sanders’ head and we pinned them inside the 10-yard line. It was a good confidence builder being that it was my first season punting. Even though I am comfortable punting and confident in my abilities, being able to do it in that atmosphere helped me start out. Another would be the Southern Miss game where we had a couple downed inside the five-yard line. There have also been some not so great moments that were memorable, like when Ace Sanders broke one on us last year and I made the tackle on the sideline. But even from the bad moments, we were able to learn something and improve upon our mistakes.”
Much has been said about your standing as a consummate student-athlete. How do you balance your time between football and academics, as well focusing on your future business aspirations? “I think one thing some people may or may not know that the big thing I put emphasis on outside of football is my Christian faith. I’m the President of Fellow Christian Athletes on campus and I am an active member at my church. I think when I have made time for God, He has made time for me to be able to do other things. I trust in Him knowing that He will make the clock work out. There are only so many minutes in the day, but if you are productive with each one of them you can get everything done.”
You've also served as an extremely reliable holder since your freshman year. Most are probably curious how one dismisses the fear of getting your fingers kicked under such duress. “Its real simple. If you are holding the ball with your left hand, then your fingers aren’t in the way – there is no risk of them getting kicked.”