March 16, 2012
by Sam Hickman
After finishing with a 5-7 record in 2011 and coming one game short of a sixth-straight bowl appearance, East Carolina will officially begin its 2012 campaign with the start of spring drills Monday inside the Cliff Moore Practice Facility.
Third-year head coach Ruffin McNeill said he and his staff are looking forward to hitting the gridiron for the season's first organized practice session after beginning offseason preparations in early January.
"We've been working hard during the offseason to be ready for Monday," he said. "I think everybody is excited. As coaches, we're ready to see the kids compete. The goal is to grow as a team every day. We need to walk off the field each day better than we were the practice before."
The Pirates enter the spring practice period with an experienced roster as they return over 70 percent of lettermen from a year ago, including nearly 64 percent of their positional starters (seven on offense, seven on defense). McNeill and his staff aim to use the time as an opportunity to fill four openings on each side of the ball and initiate an overhaul of the program's special teams squad while also seeking to establish additional depth at several other key positions. He explained an area of focus this spring will be cutting down on giveaways and forcing more turnovers as a defense.
ECU approaches practice aiming to continue the development of one of the nation's most high-octane aerial attacks. Led by quarterback Dominique Davis during the 2010 and 2011 campaigns, the air game flourished in the spread system as the Pirates ranked among the best among FBS squads statistically - finishing with top-20 standings in passing offense both seasons.
However, the high-scoring system will be tasked with producing similar numbers without Davis and East Carolina's all-time leader in career touchdown receptions, Lance Lewis. Both finished their eligibility last November after record-breaking stints donning Pirate uniforms.
The staff has not labeled a starter on the pre-spring depth chart, but several candidates are viable options to fill the void left by Davis - junior Rio Johnson, senior Brad Wornick, sophomore Shane Carden and freshman Cody Keith are all listed. Johnson and Wornick have played in backup roles while neither Carden nor Keith have experienced action behind center in a collegiate contest.
Johnson was the only player that took snaps in 2011. The Atlanta, Ga., native appeared in four games as he completed 20-of-29 attempts (69 percent) for 157 yards. He connected on a personal-best 13 passes Oct. 8 at Houston. Additionally, he entered a Nov. 5 tilt against eventual Conference USA champion Southern Miss and threw for 47 yards (five-of-six) on a drive that culminated with a touchdown.
McNeill said it is critical for the quarterbacks to step into leadership roles despite their lack of game experience.
"All four of those guys have a great opportunity," he explained. "They worked extremely hard in the offseason and they have a great understanding of our offense. They have the chance to develop into great leaders for this program. We're excited to see that group compete starting Monday."
East Carolina welcomes the return of 2011 rushing leaders Reggie Bullock, Torrance Hunt and Michael Dobson - a trio that accounted for over 67 percent of the squad's total carries (267/397) and just under 87 percent of the Pirates' yards on the ground (1,138/1,309). The three upperclassmen also tallied nine touchdown runs in 2011. Bullock was sidelined for six games during the campaign as he spent several weeks on the disabled list, but the senior speedster is expected to participate in spring drills.
McNeill said he and the staff expect junior Zico Pasut (17 career carries) and North Carolina transfer Hunter Furr to bring a more physical element to the ground attack. McNeill mentioned Pasut as a player that "you can put in a lot of different spots." His 6-foot-3, 234-pound frame provides the Pirates with football's version of a utility man has he has played inside receiver, tight end, halfback and fullback, including three starts in the backfield in 2011.
For the second consecutive campaign, ECU must deal with the loss of an all-time great at the wide receiver position. Following the departure of 2010 Conference USA Player-of-the-Year Dwayne Harris, the unit was led by Lewis (60 receptions, eight touchdowns) a year ago.
The corps returns several playmakers from last year's group, including five that corralled 23 or more passes in 2011 - Justin Hardy (64), Andrew Bodenheimer (46), Danny Webster (43), Reese Wiggins (29) and Derrick Harris (23).
The influx of young talent that complemented Lewis was highlighted by Hardy's breakout season as the former walk-on inside receiver earned Conference USA All-Freshman Team honors. The Vanceboro, N.C., native averaged over six catches per contest (6.4/25th in FBS) and led the team with 658 reception yards.
Wiggins shined late in the season, using his breakaway speed to boast scoring grabs of 72 and 84 yards against Southern Miss and UCF, respectively. Standing 6-foot-8, Justin Jones should continue to offer ECU a dangerous redzone threat while Dayon Arrington and freshman Donte Sumpter will certainly be in the mix. Webster will not take part in spring workouts due to a right knee injury suffered late during his rookie campaign.
Of the four starters lost on offense from the 2011 roster, the offensive line had just one departure - tackle Steven Baker. Heading into the spring, the group is anchored by four juniors - right guard Will Simmons, left guard Jordan Davis, left tackle Adhem Elsawi and right tackle Grant Harner. Josh Clark and Taylor Hudson are expected to compete for time at the center spot while C.J. Struyk and former defensive lineman Jimmy Booth - he was moved to the offensive line in an attempt to create more depth, according to McNeill - could also see action.
The Pirates proved themselves as one of the nation's most improved defenses from 2010 to 2011 following a shift to a 3-4 scheme, which McNeill called a "personnel move."
Whatever the reason, it worked.
East Carolina returns seven starters from last year's "D" that gave up an average of 376.3 yards per game after the 2010 version surrendered over 475 ypg.
The vastly improved group must overcome the loss of three starters from the secondary - corners Derek Blacknall and Emanuel Davis, and strong safety Bradley Jacobs - but will benefit from the return of free safety Damon Magazu, who finished the year with 80 tackles, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Seniors Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins are expected to experience increased roles as cornerbacks in 2012 while junior college transfer Adonis Armstrong will serve in a similar role, seeking to bolster a defense that finished second in Conference USA in passing yards per game allowed (202.2) in 2011. Letterwinner Lamar Ivey and Hinds Community College transfer Godfrey Thompson are tentatively listed as the top strong safeties heading into 2012.
McNeill said stopping the opponents' rushing attack and generating sufficient pressure on the quarterback with the "guys up front" helps any secondary. The coaches expect the return of six starters in the defensive front seven to help the less-experienced defensive backs adjust more quickly during spring workouts.
The staff has elected to make a positional change for one of the returnees as Derrell Johnson will begin the spring as an outside linebacker after starting every game in 2011 at defensive end. McNeill indicated it is often a misnomer that teams in a 3-4 scheme constantly show the same look. He said Johnson's versatility offers the defense a chance to attack in different ways as his former down-lineman can now use his skills and athleticism to strengthen the unit in various capacities.
The defense benefitted from remarkable consistency during its initial year in the new scheme. Michael Brooks was a season-long fixture at nose guard. His chief reserve, Terry Williams, appeared in 11 games, forcing two fumbles and recording three tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Leroy Vick also figures into line coach Marc Yellock's plans after returning from a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire campaign.
Matt Milner began all but a pair of games opposite Johnson at end. Lee Pegues received the nod in the two contests in which Milner did not start. The experienced duo will serve as veteran leaders on each side of Brooks while Terrell Stanley, Johnathon White, Chrishon Rose, John Lattimore and Justin Dixon could see significant playing time at those spots in 2012.
The linebacker corps was anchored last year by inside linebacker Jeremy Grove. The Frederick, Md., native recorded a Pirate rookie record 122 tackles while also leading the squad with five quarterback hurries and 3.5 tackles for loss yardage. The gaudy numbers and Grove's role as the leader of ECU's defensive resurgence earned him Conference USA Freshman-of-the-Year accolades. A Freshman All-America performer in 2011 - as tabbed by four national publications - will sit out the spring workout period to allow his battered right shoulder time to completely heal. Sophomore Jake Geary will be limited to non-contact work as he continues to recover from a left ankle injury suffered in a win over UCF in mid-November.
The inside linebacker positions will be filled by returnees in senior Daniel Drake and junior Ty Holmes while Kyle Tudor offers another veteran presence on the spring depth chart. Outside linebackers Chris Baker (seven starts in 2011) and Maurice Falls are early picks expected to experience action in the same role in 2012, but the Pirates are looking forward to seeing what local standout Montese Overton can deliver after redshirting last fall.
Although the offensive and defensive positional rosters are highlighted by depth and experience, the ECU staff is forced with solidifying the specialist department.
Following the loss of kicker Michael Barbour, punter Ben Ryan and deep snapper William Smith, McNeill introduced a handful of roster members as potential replacements. Long-snapping duties could be shared by C.J. Struyk and Charlie Coggins, while the punting job is up for grabs with returner Phil McNaughton the only rostered member in 2012 to experience game action at the position last season. The only returning specialist, Trent Tignor (holder), will punt in the spring as well. Matt Millisor and Warren Harvey will compete at the placekicking position, trying to fill the void left by Barbour's departure.
The Pirates suffered from inconsistencies in the special teams facet during their last campaign as evidenced by a top-30 FBS statistical standing with a 10.8 yards punt return average opposite the country's worst net punting (29.6) and punt return defense (18.3) averages.
McNeill said recently-hired running backs coach and special teams coordinator Kirk Doll will play a critical role in strengthening ECU's kicking and coverage units.
"He brings great experience and a great background to our program," McNeill said of Doll, who also graduated from ECU. "He's well-respected and has been a great coach for a long time. He has a strong plan for improving our special teams and we're going to follow it and get better. Those plays can change the course of a game and I'm very confident Coach Doll will bring consistency in that area."
East Carolina will return to the practice complex Wednesday as part of a closed Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday workout schedule during the next four weeks. After planning on spending the first two practice sessions in shorts, ECU is scheduled to conduct its first pad workout on Friday in preparation efforts for scrimmages March 31 and April 7 prior to playing the annual spring game April 14.
EAST CAROLINA'S 2012 SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE
OPENING WORKOUT: Monday, March 19 (3:25-5:45 p.m.)
REMAINING WORKOUTS: March 21, March 23, March 24, March 26, March 28, March 30, March 31 (scrimmage), April 2, April 4, April 6, April 7 (scrimmage), April 9, April 11 and April 14 (Purple-Gold Game, 2:30 p.m.)