April 26, 2013
After wrapping up spring drills last week, fourth-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Ruffin McNeill sat down with ECUPirates.com to discuss a myriad of topics regarding the current state of his program, including a review of the practice period, coaching philosophies, personnel, positional overviews and X's and O's:
ECUPirates.com: Three years ago, you inherited a program that lost 34 lettermen from the previous season, which ranked among the most in the nation. This spring you arguably had your deepest and most experienced team, mostly with players you have brought into the program. Please talk about the difference and how that changed your approach during the spring.
Ruffin McNeill: It all starts with recruiting and making sure we have plenty of depth. In addition to enabling us to survive the nicks and bruises that come during the course of a season, depth provides competition which I think is the key to being a good football team and a good program. Each position knows they have to perform at a high level. So, going into the spring, we knew we had guys that have been around our program, have been through the off-season with (strength & conditioning coach) Jeff (Connors) and understand what we demand. What made this spring so enjoyable and fun was that we were able to focus more on fundamental things and I was able to focus on intangible things - attacking the process, winning the day and those types of things. The development of team chemistry through the off-season has been so important too, so it was great to see that continue to bond.
EP: Coming into the spring, what were your primary objectives?
RM: On special teams, we wanted to make sure that (coordinator) Kirk (Doll) had the speed he needed to make those units weapons for us. We have some young players who can really run and are ready to contribute, so making sure Kirk got his schematic things in and personnel in order on punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return teams was big.
Offensively, with a lot of guys returning, (coordinator) Lincoln (Riley) was able to run, speed up and "NASCAR" things even more than we have in the past. Seeing fundamental improvement, things like footwork and body position, on the offensive line, where cohesiveness is needed, was important. Lincoln emphasized footwork and balance with the quarterbacks in the offseason and I saw that play out in practice. Donnie (Kirkpatrick) and Dave (Nichol) did a great job with the receivers. I think everyone saw Danny Webster's progress. Justin Hardy is Justin Hardy thankfully, and in fact, I thought both Justin's (Jones) did a super job. Lance Ray's spring was a good sight to see, as was the one Reese Wiggins had. I think we're pretty deep and talented in that area heading into the fall.
Defensively, with (coordinator) Rick (Smith) coming and installing his personality into the team, I knew that it would be an overall transformation of sorts and I thought it went very well. Seeing what schemes he would add, coverage wise, which is an area he excels in and vital to what we're going to do, and watching guys learning and adjusting was another process. Observing the staff work together with a new guy in charge, which I thought was seamless, was another thing I was looking for overall. As a staff, we have a group of great teachers and I loved watching that part coming together on defense.
EP: Offensively you return a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher? What does that mean for Lincoln's unit and the scheme in general?
RM: It adds balance and confidence that we can move the football in a variety of different ways. We have to be able to run the football to win games, so being able to do successfully is important. There's no substitute for Shane (Carden) having game and war reps under his belt obviously, and that's a critical element of this offense. We have to have the ability to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally, and then be able to run the football as the third part of that. This offense has been designed that way for years and I feel like we're in a position to be successful doing that now.
EP: Talk about Shane Carden and what he brings to the team, both on and off the field? What are some things you and Lincoln feel he can do to take his game to a higher level?
RM: I think of leadership and toughness when I see Shane - two things I'd like our program to be known for. He does a great job extending plays, so I know he'll continue that strength of his. I saw continued improvement on his footwork this spring, as I did with his trust in the pocket, letting the routes develop. I thought he made a lot of progress towards the end of last season when he stayed patient in the pocket, giving guys maybe half a second longer to get open. He continues to get better with that and there's nothing that ever slows him down from getting extra reps and staying focused in the learning process.
EP: It's still hard to believe with the numbers he's put up in just two years that Justin Hardy arrived as a walk-on. Please talk about his progress and what has made him successful? How is he similar and different than Dwayne Harris?
RM: Justin's a competitor, catches the ball extremely well, continues to improve understanding the game, gotten stronger and is back to full health after getting nicked up a little bit last year. He'll really benefit from going through Coach Connors' entire summer program this year. He and Dwayne are similar in the fact that both have a high competitive spirit about them. They're both quiet on the field, don't say much to opponents, but they just beat you. They want the ball in their hands in clutch times. They're different in some ways on the field in their mannerisms, but they're much more similar than different.
EP: Please provide an overview of the offensive line, which during your first three years here probably received more criticism than any other group in the program.
RM: I think what's happened is that (coach) Brandon Jones finally has depth there now. We lost a lot of lettermen when we first got here and now he doesn't only have players, but quality depth as well. They understand the physicality we need up front to run the football, but also the athleticism we need to protect Shane and our quarterbacks. They've made fundamental progress and work together as a unit. I always say five pennies are one nickel, and we're at the point where anyone that Brandon puts in there understands the value of working together as one nickel. I think we've upgraded our talent level over the past three years and I've enjoyed watching that group really grow. I also believe Jeff Connors deserves so much credit for developing this group, making them stronger, bigger and quicker.
EP: Defensively, how was the adjustment with new coordinator Rick Smith this spring?
RM: As I mentioned when Rick joined our staff back in January, he more than met every criteria I had put in place during the search - he's a great secondary coach, has successful experience as a coordinator, is a tireless and extremely well-connected recruiter, and understands ECU and our program. Rick is demanding and honest with our players and he's an excellent teacher who can present the total package both individually and to his entire group. In the staff room, he does a great job of delegating with a level of accountability, but also understands that he is the coordinator - it's a fine line at times.
EP: Coach Smith said late during spring drills that he believes the front seven on this team doesn't have to take a back seat to any in the past, including the group that played a key role in ECU's two C-USA championships (which includes three guys who recently won Super Bowls).
RM: I certainly wouldn't turn away guys like Linval Joseph, C.J. Wilson or Jay Ross who are Super Bowl Champions (laugh), but I really like our overall depth there. I feel good about the quantity and quality of the guys we have up front, which gives me a lot of confidence that we can develop a nice rotation. I like our speed and athleticism at linebacker, all of whom are a specific type of player that we recruit to fit what we do. Our current personnel fits the 3-4 scheme, things like height, size, speed and length. Rick and I also want to bring some 4-3 looks back into it and that type of athlete works for both.
EP: Speaking of schemes, do you have any concerns getting away from what many people thought was an exclusive 3-4 alignment to what Coach Smith calls a "multiple" look?
RM: None whatsoever, in fact, I invite it. To the kids, it's not as multiple, but to the opponent, it'll be multiple if that makes sense? The way we presented it to the defense was that the different looks will be like tools in a toolbox. You have to be able to have answers for the offenses today, which are so extreme moving the football. It's not like the old days where it was three yards and a cloud of dust, you have to have answers to make adjustments. So, the multiplicity Rick is looking for isn't only welcomed by everyone, it's needed.
EP: If there's any position or unit on the team that's listed as a possible concern heading into the spring, it'd be the secondary. You should get FS Damon Magazu back this summer, return Chip Thompson at SS and one of your corners in Adonis Armstrong - that's three of four starters. Why the concern? Lack of depth perhaps?
RM: There's no question about that. The reason I like our front seven is because of the depth and competition. We know we can rest guys and the productivity won't fall off up front, and in the secondary, we need to get to a point where we feel the same way. We need to know that we have 10 guys we can go with on the back end - that's the number in my head I feel comfortable with - that can participate in different pass defense packages and on special teams as well. On one end, it's a depth thing, but not in a back-up sense, but as a situation where guys continually compete to play on the first team. Quality depth to me means that a second team guy can beat a first team guy, and that's what we need back there.
EP: Many people have talked optimistically about the return of 16 position players and that's great. Yet, you also return every single member of your kicking game. How important is that?
RM: When we started this conversation, my first topic was special teams. That's how important it is to me, especially being a former special teams coordinator. One of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, Eddie Robinson, told me a long time ago to make sure your special teams are up to par. Having Warren (Harvey), Trent (Tignor), Charlie (Coggins) and C.J. (Struyk) in line is a bonus for us and they are a key to our success. Every time Warren goes on the field it's for points or we just scored a touchdown and he's kicking off. Punting is a defensive weapon where we need to change field position. You need good snaps with both of those, so Charlie and C.J., and Trent as the holder, are critical to our success. Having those guys back is as important as having any of the skill guys back.
EP: If you were writing a 2014 NFL Draft preview guide, who would you include as a sleeper from ECU?
RM: Everybody has told Damon Magazu from Day 1 that he couldn't do this or couldn't do that, so I would include him just based on that. He's made a believer out of me.
EP: People talk about the greatest learning curve for a coach being between Year 1 and Year 2. For you, this is Year 4 - what types of things are you still picking up and learning as a head coach?
RM: It's always about learning to communicate effectively. The ability to communicate is the biggest item, weapon and teaching tool we have - player-to-player, coach-to-player, coach-to-coach - so continuing to improve that always remains a goal. Finding different ways to motivate our players and coaches, and the teaching part, both off and on the field are the other two. I think those three things for me are always in developmental mode and I'm always looking to better myself personally in those areas.