College football is virtually a
year-round commitment for student-athletes but NCAA regulations
limit coaches' contact with players in the offseason. That's
where Jeff Connors comes in. As director of strength and
conditioning at East Carolina, he supervises player development
in the winter and summer.
With the start of preseason
practice, Connors' role diminishes but he will still be involved
in conditioning during ECU's upcoming season. In his first
summer back in Greenville after a decade at North Carolina, the
Pirates apparently were able to make needed improvements under
his demanding supervision.
"One of the things I think we
were very effective in doing is improving our foundational
strength as a team," said Connors, who directed strength and
conditioning at ECU from 1991 to 2001 before going to Chapel
Hill. "That was most evident in our numbers with our primary
lifts. That was one of our goals coming in here in January and I
think that we accomplished that across the board with most of
our athletes. We're pretty happy, particularly with our linemen
that they made some progress there. We're not completely
satisfied with it yet. We did make some strides and we have the
numbers to show that."
Connors doesn't just address
physical development in his relationship with the players. He
deals with the mental requirements for success.
"I believe that mental toughness
is directly related to physical conditioning," Connors said.
"Every military organization believes that also because that's
essentially what you use to get to the next level. We're going
to continue to believe that. In conjunction with that, I really
believe in some of the intangibles such as accountability, a
great work ethic, having integrity and having tempo and things
of that nature. We put a lot of emphasis on those things because
we feel like those are universal, lifelong principles that are
not only going to help us be more successful with football but
help each individual become a better person as well.
"All of those things, with
regard to mental status and attitude are very, very important,
if not the most important. One of the things that I think is
glaringly important is discipline. I've been through some
situations where I felt like (discipline) should have been
emphasized more. We're going to make sure that's taken care of
here in this program."
The last statement from Connors
sounds like a reference to Butch Davis. Connors is on record
saying that he questioned the former Tar Heels coach's degree of
commitment to conditioning during the season.
The Pirates have reinstituted a
conditioning test prior to the start of preseason practice. The
majority of ECU's players participated in the voluntary summer
workouts. They had about a week off before returning to school
for preseason camp. The tests apparently went well early Friday
"The defensive line really
surpassed my expectation," Connors said. "We had kind of a daily
battle with them since we've been here because we have high
standards of conditioning. I really wanted them to make
significant improvement and make sure that they worked to be at
the standard I need them to be at. I was not particularly happy
with where we ended up with them toward the end of the summer
but when we showed up to do the test the other day, I knew all
the confrontation that we had over a period of time really paid
off. They showed up big time. Every one of them made the
"Every one of them had a great
day (Friday) and I was really happy to hear coach (John) Wiley
(associate head coach) say that he was very impressed with how
explosive they were off the ball. That was a pleasant surprise
and overall I thought the team physically looked good, looked
impressive. I've got some pretty high standards there. We've had
a pretty good-looking football team at (North) Carolina for me
to compare these guys to and I think they compared favorably
with regard to gaining lean mass, losing body fat and looking
more athletic — things of that nature."
The Pirates are still a work in
"We're not quite where we need
to be yet," Connors said. "We have a little bit of depth issues
in a couple of different areas but essentially I was very happy
with the conditioning test."
Even though Pirate coach Ruffin
McNeill and staff can now work with the players, Connors will
still have a role as ECU will have sort of an old-school
approach to maintaining their conditioning edge.
"We're going to go back to what
we did here my last 10 years here," Connors said. "We're really
going to put a great deal of emphasis on conditioning. We'll
talk about the fourth quarter every day. We'll talk about the
fact we have to be prepared to win the fourth quarter and we
have to set specific goals. We want to see fatigue in the
opposition. We don't want to show fatigue. We want to step it up
and make sure we finish strong week in and week out. One of the
ways we're going to do that is we're going to continue to
condition throughout camp and also throughout the season. It's
something that I did under Bill Lewis and Steve Logan (former
ECU coaches). I think it's very important that we continue to do
"Things have changed in
collegiate football a little bit through the influence of the
NFL. I don't think it's been a particularly favorable thing.
With some of the things that have happened with tragedies with
players across the country, you have to be very careful with
what you do and you have to be safe with what you do. At the
same time, you have to continue to challenge these athletes if
you're going to gain an edge over the competition so that's what
we're going to do."
ECU had a record for
outperforming the opposition in the fourth quarter during
Connors' first stint with the Pirates.
"I feel confident that we are
committed to doing things that not everybody else is going to be
doing," Connors said. "We want to develop that mentality and
that attitude within our team that when they see that it pays
off and when they feel that they can dominate at the end of a
football game, they're going to buy into it at a higher level as
well. I think our standards can continue to be improved year in
and year out. They're going to have to see a little bit of the
reward that comes from the investment and we're very confident
that they will. I think their attitude is such going into this
season. We're excited about that. We're also anxious to see how
it's going to pan out."
McGuire has voids to fill
As running backs coach and
special teams coordinator, Clay McGuire has some significant
personnel losses to deal with from the 2010 team. Running backs
Jonathan Williams and Giavanni Ruffin are gone. So is No. 17,
Dwayne Harris, who was productive as a return man in addition to
his vast contributions as a receiver.
"We've got six guys right now,"
McGuire said of the running backs situation. "The position is
wide open. We've got six scholarship guys right now and they're
all competing for the job. The only one back that actually has
had some reps in a game and the farthest one along right now is
Michael Dobson. He'll be a sophomore. We're real young at that
position but we've got some talent there and we've got some guys
who kind of fit what we do.
"I think we'll be able to kind
of get these guys out in space and maybe give them the
opportunity to have success for us within this offense."
Reggie Bullock will get a good
look at running back after rushing for 1,830 yards last season
on the junior college level at Arizona Western.
"Reggie is doing real good,"
McGuire said. "Reggie got here in the summer and has been
through a whole summer with Coach Connors. He's put on some
weight, some good weight and did some good stuff in there. The
biggest thing for him is how fast he can pick up the system and
be ready to play. He did some very, very impressive things in
junior college. I think he ran for over 100 yards in 20 junior
college games. He's very productive, very durable and a very
good running back. We're very impressed with him, bringing him
in here. He's really come in here and done everything we asked
him to do so I'm anxious to get the pads on him. You can't
really tell anything with running backs until they get the pads
Williams ran for 847 yards and
10 touchdowns in 2010, plus 431 yards in receptions with one
score. Ruffin netted 384 yards on the ground and had 157 yards
"It just depends," McGuire said
in regard to the depth of the running back rotation. "Last year,
we played two guys. We always intend to have one guy as the
featured guy and then having a back-up for him and then a third
guy as some kind of specialty player, a role player, some kind
of a package player, but you never know. Every year it changes.
Last year we played with two. The year before at Texas Tech, we
played with two but there's been years we played with one. We'll
figure it out as it comes. By the time we get to the South
Carolina game (Sept. 3 in Charlotte), we'll be ready to go for
Mike Barbour gives the Pirates a
proven kicker. He hit 56 of 57 extra points in 2010 and made 16
of 18 field goal attempts. On his only missed PAT, freshman
defensive back Damon Magazu took up his slack with a game-ending
interception to preserve
a 33-27 win over N.C. State
in overtime in Greenville.
"Barbour's on a lot of watch
lists right now (including the Lou Groza Award)," McGuire said.
"He definitely earned it. Ben Ryan, who had never been a punter
before in his life, went out there and Ryan Dougherty, who helps
us here with the program, really did a great job with Ben."
Dougherty averaged over 40 yards
per punt for the Pirates from 2003 to 2006. Ryan averaged 39.4
yards per punt last season.
"I'm anxious to see Ben get a
year better," McGuire said. "We've got our deep snapper back,
Will Smith, which is huge. That's a very important position."
In the many facets of the game
that special teams encompass, returns are an area where the
Pirates are lacking a proven performer.
"Without Dwayne Harris back
there, you don't sleep as good at night," McGuire said. "We've
got about four or five guys we're looking at right now. I had a
couple of guys do some really good things in drills (Friday).
Maybe it will be the same thing as my first year at Texas Tech.
They had about three or four guys out there working that they
really felt good about and all of sudden they put this one guy
out there named Wes Welker and the rest was history.
"You never know. We might throw
that guy out there first or second game of the year and eight
touchdowns later, an NCAA record later, we might have that same
type of person."
Bullock watched ECU in bowl
Coincidentally, Reggie Bullock
watched ECU's 51-20 loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl with
"It was crazy because I just
turned it on and they were on," Bullock said. "My uncle (John
Bullock) said, 'What would you think about going to East
Carolina?' I said, 'Yeah, that would be a great place to go to.'
I like the colors and everything. Coach McNeill was here and
that was a big plus. My running backs coach (at Arizona Western)
knew some of the coaches here when they were at Texas Tech."
Bullock is preparing himself
mentally to make the adjustment from the junior college level.
"It's going to be a big
adjustment," he said. "There are a lot bigger and faster and way
more coachable players. It's going to be a big competition and
hopefully I get used to it quick, fast and in a hurry."
Bullock is aware that North
Carolina has a basketball player named Reggie Bullock, who is
"Yeah, I figured that out when I
was on You Tube," ECU's Bullock said.
Holland weighs in
ECU starts the season with South
Carolina and Virginia Tech, teams ranked No. 12 and No. 13
respectively in the initial USA Today coaches poll. The Pirates
also take on North Carolina and Navy in addition to their
Conference USA schedule.
"We've got a great challenge in
our schedule," said Terry Holland, ECU athletic director.
"That's one of the things we've done. We've played a tough
schedule. This one's a little bit tougher than they have been
because the conference has picked up. I really think our
conference games have become much tougher. Everybody in the
league is paying more attention to football and, of course,
everybody is recruiting well.
"It is a very challenging
schedule. It starts with South Carolina in Charlotte and
Virginia Tech at home and it's on from there. The great thing
about it is we have terrific fans behind us. They've already
purchased more season tickets than they did last year, which was
a record. So they'll set another record for this year and they
have created the best game atmosphere that I've ever seen in
college football. ... There is no place that is more fun to
watch a football game than Dowdy-Ficklen. You don't sit way up
in the stratosphere somewhere where you can't really tell what's
going on, having to watch on the big board.
"We've got the big board, too,
so you can watch the replays and stuff."
Holland seemed satisfied with
where the program is going into coach Ruffin McNeill's second
season at the helm. McNeill noted Saturday that Holland also has
undergone a hip replacement.
"I think we've got another good
recruiting year to get in the players that this particular
coaching staff wants to have to be able to do the things that
they do best," Holland said. "We're certainly getting there. The
transition last year was not an easy one and the schedule was
not easy last year, but until we suffered those injuries a
little past the halfway point, we were playing extremely well at
5-2 with losses to Carolina at Carolina and at Virginia Tech."
Rough time for Ruff
Coach McNeill said in his
remarks at media day that the pain that resulted in his April
hip replacement was unbearable at times. Having dropped about
130 pounds from weight loss surgery, McNeill certainly looks
better and he indicates that he feels better.
Ruff said one of his relatives
told him that he "lost a fourth grader," in terms of the excess
pounds he had shed.
"I want to lose a sixth grader,"
he told Conference USA media at the league's football kickoff in
Not all aspects of the weight
loss have been good. McNeill said the hardware in his hip
replacement set off the airport metal detector on his way to
Memphis and created a delay.
McNeill reiterated Saturday that
he is committed to building the ECU program the right way with
the values he believes in. He said the transition from a 4-3 to
3-4 defensive alignment was not a quick fix but was a long term
commitment. That means the Pirates will likely recruit a higher
percentage of linebackers relative to defensive linemen in the
McNeill said he didn't intend to
"microwave" the program with temporary measures such as bringing
in an inordinate number of junior college players.
McNeill may have lost mass but
he has not lost his sense of humor.
Despite his weight loss, he said
he didn't plan to run on the field ahead of his team prior to
games. McNeill wants to avoid the possibility of getting tripped
up and trampled as ECU players surge forth. McNeill did say he
could outrun Cary Godette, his director of football
administration, now that he has lost over a third or his
previous body weight.
No word on whether Godette, a
former Pirate gridder and member of the ECU hall of fame, will
make Ruff prove it.
Defense has something to prove
Kidding aside, the 2011 season
won't be much fun for the Pirates unless the defense plays
significantly better. The struggles of the unit have been well
chronicled. The coaching staff has sought to make adjustments
schematically and through recruiting. Marke Powell has moved
from defensive end to outside linebacker in the current 3-4.
There were several key injuries to defensive personnel in 2010.
Powell played in seven games last season before going out for
surgery on his right wrist.
"It was frustrating personally,"
Powell said. "I had to sit on the sideline and watch my team go
to work without me and then they struggled as a whole. Knowing
there was nothing that I could do, it hurt me."
Powell's rehab and preparation
for the 2011 season was enhanced by the arrival of Connors as
strength and conditioning coach.
"This past offseason has been
like no other," said the 6-foot-3, 222-pound junior. "Them
adding coach Connors to the mix was a great move for all of us,
coaches and players. He's done everything he could to prepare us
for this upcoming season."
Powell said he is healthy and
"Being where we were last year I
feel like puts a chip on our shoulder," he said. "We have to
come out here each day just to prepare and perform. We have to
prepare to be the best defense we can possibly be. I'm itching
to see what we've got Sept. 3."
Tom McClellan, ECU's assistant
AD for media relations, said ECU will wear white and be on the
home sideline for the season opener at Bank of America Stadium.