GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Fifth-year East Carolina University Head Football Coach Ruffin McNeill addressed members of the media Thursday about the start of spring practice, which opens Friday afternoon. The following are selected comments:
“This is the second phase of spring practice we’re beginning. It’s always a great time. The first phase is with Coach Connors after the bowl game and he does a great job. This was one of the best off-seasons we’ve been around, even with the snow, delays and cancellations of school. As Coach Connors always puts it, ‘The main thing is the main thing.’
It’s a time of the year for me that goes back to training. Spring ball is for fundamental development. That’s where you get the chance to develop the core of your team’s toolbox. I think we do a good job, aggressively, each year and the kids are grasping that and doing a good job on their own. There was a Saturday when B.T. (Director of Operations & Personnel Brian Overton) and I were speaking at a Nike Clinic and the kids were calling (and saying), ‘Coach, we can’t get into the field.’ Here we are on a Saturday and they want to throw and defend. That’s what we’ve been trying to get to, where the kids do those extra things. There was an old-school smile on my face to see them want to come out on weekends. All of that fundamental time is paying dividends and we knew it would.
Now we get to go on the field and coach them. We’ve had a chance to meet this week and get a semi-practice rehearsal of what we’ll be doing this spring. Like always, Monday, Wednesday and Friday will always be afternoon practices, while Tuesdays and Thursdays are off days. That has not changed.
The whole goal of spring is to develop depth, and not just depth, but competitive depth. I think we saw that last year when someone was banged up or nicked or subbed, we had guys who could step in and rise to the occasion. This year, offensive line-wise, we’ll be down to eight guys, but the positive side is that we’ll get some young players the chance to get a lot of attention. As coaches, we have to be smart and limit total reps. We’ll have some NCAA-regulated full-contact days, but we’ll be smart. We’ll begin practicing NFL-type style where we stay up and have athleticism, keeping our feet. We have already planned for that. We have to be smart and take care of one another.
When we start practices at this time, it gives our coaches the chance to do the quality control part, watching film study of what was effective and ineffective and what we did in this particular defense or offense or special teams. That part I think is very important. I know some people start early, right after (National) Signing Day. I don’t understand that. We use that time as Phase I.
I’m really excited to see and find out this team’s personality. We’ll have some additions during the summer with signees, but the core of our team is here and we know the guys coming in will be adding to it. I’m looking forward to getting those guys here.
In the off-season with Coach Connors, the thing that was really impressive was seeing the guys competing. Worth Gregory, one of our contenders for the starting punting position, set some strength and conditioning records for Coach C, and his standards are very, very high. The most improved player was Josh Hawkins. I was proud of J-Hawk. Most improved also was DaQuan Barnes. There’s a lot of guys that fit into that category with a really high standard that you have to reach for, like Dayon Pratt, who had the most improvement in size, gaining weight to speed strength and those things. Chris Hairston really stepped up and that’s what competition does; it will cause people to step up. That’s where you start developing your team. You contend and win championships in the offseason, spring and summer, and not waiting until the fall.
Our skills positions are really deep. We have some guys that have played and some young guys that are really “biting the bit” to get back on the field. Defensively, Randall Anderson is a guy you haven’t seen play yet, but he’s going to be a special player. He’s one of those guys that we redshirted last year, but he’s going to play up front.
I met with probably about 18 guys on the team that I’ve asked to step up as leaders. The Captain, Shane Carden, and Justin Hardy are two of them, but I’ve asked those guys to step up leadership-wise. At linebacker for example, Zeek Bigger is one of them. I’m anxious to see him. He got a lot of playing time last year when Jeremy Grove went down. He’ll be the signal-caller on defense and get things lined up. He’s relishing that role. Terrell Richardson is a guy that we’re going to move around a little bit and see how he can handle the linebacker position because he’s so physical. We’ll experiment with him there. He got hurt early last year, but he really came along on special teams. Terrell is going to be a really good player. Another guy we called in was DeShaun Amos. DeShaun is one of those guys who filled in at the nickel position last year, but I’m looking for him to compete not just for playing time, but to battle for position at the boundary corner position for us.
Offensively, Shane had a great off-season and worked hard. He’s one of those guys that you don’t have to worry about. He has earned it. He is the quarterback of our team and as humble as they come. He also understands what his position is and how he has to not just lead, but take charge. I trust Shane and the team does, too.
Justin Hardy has done a great job. He’s maturing. He reminds me of No. 17 (Dwayne Harris) in how he carries himself. I’m proud of Justin. He has a great balance in his life. I know losing his dad last year set him back a little bit, but he overcame and you wouldn’t know it.
Special teams-wise, one of the things Coach C likes to do is develop speed. Coach Kirk Doll is one of the best. Our overall team success has been that glue of special teams holding our offense and defense together. We’ll find ways to use that speed a lot more.
On the injury situation heading into spring practice:
There will be some guys who are banged up and limited, but we will get the chance to see Jeton Beavers. We’re going to move him to outside linebacker where Derrell Johnson played. Jake Geary is going to come back, but we’re going to limit his reps. Jacen Murphy – a young walk-on receiver that we had last year is limited, but I’m anxious to see him. We thought a lot of him coming out of high school. Jimmy Williams, who got hurt during the Middle Tennessee game, will be back at some point.
Guys who will be out are Edward Fulp, one of our walk-on free safeties who I think has a chance to be a special player, Ike Harris, Cory Hunter, Cody Keith, Christian Matau, Mike Myers, Terrell Stanley and C.J. (Struyk). I expect those guys to be back by summer and fall this year.
On balancing spring reps while trying to establish depth:
“Lincoln Riley and Kurt do a really good job of sharing reps. I’m looking forward to that competition. When I talk about depth, it’s competitive depth. I’m glad we have a guy like Breon Allen back who has experience, but at the same time, competitive depth means you can’t sleep on your laurels or what you did last year. None of those touchdowns or tackles carry over from last year. If Player B can push Player A, then Player A will be better, and then Player A knows he can’t let up because Player B will take his spot. We’ll be able to blend those reps at all positions.”
On being worried about the depth of the offensive and defensive lines:
“I’m pleased. I’m excited about them. In that week where B.T. and I were at the Nike Clinic, the offensive and defensive line guys were on their own, too, working on blitz pickups and things like that. When you get to the point where the guys on the team know what you want done, and you have some older guys there, they understand what they have to work on. It’s not a worry. It’s exciting to see the other side of it. The game is won in the trenches. I talked to those guys last night on the transitions and there are two parts. There’s the academic transition and then the physical transition. They have both. I’m looking forward to the challenge. It’s always fun, but there are never worries.”
On the limited body count at some positions and how it effects running scout team drills:
“It will be a little different. We want to expose our team to various offenses or defenses we’ll face next year. We just have to be smart. We won’t be able to divide up as much, but when we do, we’ll be creative, but mostly on our offensive team.”
On where there are tight position battles entering spring practices:
“I think (wide) receiver will have some competition. We want to find eight guys and there will be some battles for those eight (spots). I think in the secondary we will see some competition there. Detric Allen and DeShaun Amos is going to be a great competition. Those two guys have worked hard. Detric had one of the best off-seasons and set records for his position, and DeShaun is ready to go. I would say the skill positions and up front. Right now we have six guys up front, but I would like to have nine for depth purposes. The skills and the mids, at linebacker, will have some great battles going on.”
On losing four seniors in the secondary, but if he feels they have experience:
“I do. You’re not going to find a better secondary coach than Rick Smith. He’s been around a lot of them and he understands that. When we were out on the road, the secondary guys called us, too. When you look back, a lot of those guys were on special teams and those reps count too. We exposed these guys during the bowl game during practices. They’re ready to go.”
If it’s different coming into the spring with a bowl win under the team’s belt:
“It is with momentum going into recruiting and the off-season. The kids understand that when you buy in, it’s all about team success from top to bottom. They’ve realized when you buy in and are ‘selfishly unselfish’ as Zico Pasut says, and put in the work, it does carry over to the off-season. One of the things I know was key for us was our leadership core. I think this team will have one, too. I challenge our seniors to be as strong of a leadership core as we had last year. They saw and felt it. We have a lot of room to improve, but I’m ready to attack each day, attack the process and get back to going one play at a time. All of that carried over from the bowl victory.”
On how much Shane Carden will play during spring practices and scrimmages:
“Shane will get his reps. Lincoln has a really good method of counting throws and reps, and Shane is a competitor and wants to get out there, but Kurt Benkert does, too. Kurt is always over here and throwing. We won’t hold anybody back, but we’ll also always try and develop. Those guys are not afraid to teach and share information with each other. You’ll always see that at practice. They’ll be in each other’s ears and listening to what’s going on.”
On keeping the coaching staff together this offseason:
“Continuity is important. This week, planning practice for example, Rick and Lincoln have already gotten together and discussed things at positions. There’s no substitute for having staff continuity, especially going into the new league. When I had off time, I went back and looked at what was successful in the American (Athletic Conference), from the Louisville’s and those guys. We know about Central Florida and what George (O’Leary) does. There is no substitute for having those same voices. I’m very fortunate to work with a great staff because our guys are always around (the office).”
If it feels like a new era in the wake of the conference change (i.e. first year of competition in the American Athletic Conference):
“It does. Our administrative staff has already been attacking it. It is a new era and it’s exciting. We’ll see some new faces and even some old ones. All of that is new from that perspective.”