CHERUBINI CHIMES IN
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
By Ron Cherubini
Taking Stock of
and Looking Ahead to Fall
with Lincoln Riley Elicits Candid Insights
All rights reserved.
(ECU Media Relations Photo)
Bonesville features writer Ron Cherubini
conducted Q&A exchanges with East Carolina
offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (left) and
Pirate defensive boss Brian Mitchell (right).
The net result: candid
glimpses into the thinking inside the
program heading into the 2011 season.
Links to the interviews:
Lincoln Riley Q&A
Brian Mitchell Q&A
Heading into spring practice, East Carolina offensive
coordinator Lincoln Riley had high expectations. For the most part,
there was more experience coming back than leaving for his offense.
Those guys who were not starters or getting game reps in 2010 were
continuing to absorb the offensive schemes.
Spring, in general, lived up to his expectations, though
there were some frustrations that were simply out of anyone’s control,
chiefly the result of minor injuries that decimated the center position.
On the positive front, the experience on the unit showed.
The spring schedule was more precise, the routine plays were more routine,
and the battles being waged for starting jobs were more intense and closer
than a year ago.
On the downside, losing the service of all three centers in
an offense that relies heavily on precision (read: timing of play
initiation) can distract from understanding what exactly you're seeing.
Case-in-point: the Spring Game. If you back out the errant
snaps (errant defined as a snap that is less then adequate for this
offense), the offensive performance was very good. On the other hand, if you
count those plays, the offensive output was disappointing by any measure
that this offense lives by.
Still, Riley’s confidence in the unit is high as the players
progress through Camp Connors and summer workouts. Confident enough that,
when asked if he had to field an offense today, he was quick to answer.
It would look something like this:
— QB – Dominique Davis
— RB – Torrance Hunt
— OWR – Lance Lewis
— OWR – Andrew Bodenheimer OR
— Joe Womack OR
— Dayon Arrington
— IWR – Justin Jones OR
— Justin Hardy
— IWR – Michael Bowman OR
— Danny Webster
— LT – Jordan Davis
— LG – Doug Polochak
— C – Hugh Parker
— RG – Will Simmons
— RT – Grant Harner
Of course, that is if he had to play TODAY. Expectations are
high for RB Reggie Bullock to turn the running back competition on its head.
And with with certain players back to full health (e.g., Faulds), there is a
lot of room for change in that lineup, but it was fun to hear who he would
go with. And, he said he would feel good about that group.
Coach Riley talked extensively about the offense and the
spring. Since it is best to take in his thoughts directly, the following
is the Q&A with Coach Riley:
Bonesville (BV): What is your general assessment
offensively of spring ball… did you accomplish what you wanted to
Lincoln Riley (LR): Yeah (I’m optimistic) I think so.
It was generally more productive than last spring just because the guys knew
where they were going and so the drills were much more efficient, the
practices were a little more efficient. We got quite a few more reps in than
we did last spring and I can see the improvement there.
I saw some young guys step up in key positions where they
have to step up in, which is part of building a good program. You know when
you lose good players, you expect to have guys who are ready to step in
there and may even be better. I saw a lot of that this spring.
I see the personality of this team a little bit as a team
that is going to out-work people. This team works really hard, and
offensively, I think we have a pretty confident group, we just have to
continue being more efficient at what we do. I think as we narrow down some
of these position battles, I think that will come. We have a lot of great
battles that will go into summer and to fall camp. Who is going to be on the
field for us in a number of positions really is a mystery right now because
we have good players. A lot of these battles are going to come down to the
wire. That’s why we are excited for them to get back in there and have a
great summer with Coach (Jeff) Connors and then see how these guys come in
for camp and who is ready to take (positions).
BV: Lincoln, did you have any disappointments with
LR: Yeah… the center position was a disappointment
just because of the guys we that we lost, that we really wanted to work this
spring. We really wanted to work Mack Helms this spring and we got about a
week… wish we could have had him a little longer, definitely. Dalton Faulds
was out with an injury and I wish we could have had him. And then Hugh
Parker who had the best spring of any of the centers and if we played today
would be the starter… Hugh was having a nice spring went he went down. Just
having some many guys go down at one position… in a shotgun offense that
center position is probably… is the most important position and so seeing
them go down was disappointing. Other than that, there are some things I
think we can do better… things we need to improve at… I see a more focused
and more experienced group and a group that is really hungry. I hate we had
those injuries there at center, but that is part of (spring) and those guys
will all be ready to go (in the fall).
BV: Do you feel the center injuries in the spring had
an impact on your ability to see what others are doing and where they are at
on the offense giving the timing required to run the offense?
LR: Yeah, a little bit. We would like to have seen
more of Doug Polochak at left guard which he played the last several games
very well last year. But we didn’t get as much of a look as we would have
liked because he had to go over and snap some. Drew Gentry had to bounce
around because of it but the silver lining is that a guy like Taylor Hudson
got an extra 25 percent more reps than we had originally planned on. So we
are talking about some young guys that we had to pump a lot of reps into
which will pay dividends down the road. Benefits Drew Gentry down the road,
him being a guy going in who would have gotten 30 percentof the reps at best
was going in on many days getting 70 percnetof the reps. Guys like that,
short on experience, it was also beneficial. So for every disappointment
there is a silver lining and that was it for us.
BV: Any post-Dwayne Harris impact on the team in the
spring? Guys looking for a leader, stepping up in the wake of his departure?
LR: We should be good at the inside position no doubt
about it. We have some really good battles going on there. At Y, Justin
Jones and Justin Hardy are both going to play. At least at this point, they
both have showed us that they can play and play well. How much either one
plays is going to be a good battle. Do you play them 50-50 or does one play
more than the other — it’s that kind of battle. I think that they both had
very good springs. At H, a hell of a battle is going on over there with
(Michael) Bowman and Danny Webster. Bowman has made a lot of good plays for
us and has good experience but he has got to work hard ... to hold off
Danny. Danny enrolled at mid-term and is a guy who it feels like has been
here for three years already. He made the transition really quick and made a
lot of plays in the spring so that is one that, I think, will come down to
the wire and both will play a lot on special teams. That is one of the
battles to really watch.
BV: On the quarterback front, you said after last
season that you and Dominique Davis understood the things that he needed to
work on to get better. Did you see the things you were hoping to see with
LR: Yeah, I did. His footwork is much improved…
drastically really. Really, not just for Dominique but all of (the QBs).
Improvement of how the ball is coming out. It is closer to the rate that we
want them to all have. Less mistakes — crucial mistakes — as a group we saw
It is a tough situation because at the beginning we are
repping four quarterbacks and then we narrowed it down to three and it is
hard to rep that many guys because they have a hard time getting into a
rhythm and then the offense has a hard time getting into a rhythm around
them. Overall, I think that they did pretty well. The footwork is going to
be key and I can already see that improvement.
BV: Would it surprise you at all if the depth chart
looked different than a year ago at QB come the fall?
LR: No, not at all. I think that Dominique didn’t do
anything in the spring to suggest he shouldn’t be the guy this year but
after him, who knows? Flip a coin. You know, you got Rio (Johnson) and Shane
(Carden) who had the best spring and really passed Brad (Wornick) this
spring, but Brad has experience and a gamer-like quality so I would be
surprised if he didn’t come into camp and make another run at it. Both of
the young guys are really talented and they don’t want to sit anymore… they
want to be on the field. Again, it is another good battle… we want those
battles to be going on… we want to push them all out of their comfort zone.
BV: Talk about the backs a little. Spring brought
news that Torrance Hunt would move to running back. It seemed at the time
like it was about numbers, but he was impressive… does he stay there?
LR: That was a big move. It was a numbers thing in
the beginning but also knowing Torrance’s skillset, it made a little bit of
sense and we took a chance and we felt like that chance paid off. Torrance
Hunt brings a kind of speed there that not many players have on any teams
anywhere… we are a talking about big time speed and he really showed us some
toughness with an ability to be a physical blocker in the passing game. He
is so small and our lineman are big and getting bigger and so guys have a
hard time seeing him and when they do, he is gone. He has made a big
difference, giving us an explosion back there. He is a competitive kid and
he made a big impact for us last year on special teams. He is intriguing
there because he is very, very explosive and he is tough. A lot of guys are
fast but not very tough Torrance has a toughness about him. I think he can
really give us an explosive person there that we did not… you know, we
really have not had a take-it-all-the-way guy… even last year as good as
those two guys played for us, we didn’t have a home run hitter type and I
think Torrance can be that guy for us and that is huge.
(Michael) Dobson came in and wasn’t great… wasn’t himself at
the beginning of spring but at the end of spring played well in the spring
game. He is very solid, you know just a work-hard-at-it, go-to-war type guy
who is going to be there every day... he doesn’t miss assignments… he’s
getting better and better at carrying the ball every day… he’s going to be
an efficient runner and efficient football player… he catches the ball well
and does things well. He had a really good spring, particularly at the end
there where we saw him do some really good things. And then Alex Owah, right
now, would be the third one. He had a decent spring carrying the ball but he
has to get better at playing without the ball. For the running backs,
because we do throw the ball, you have to be able to protect and and be
sound on the catch. You can’t just be good at carrying the ball, you have to
be able to do all those things and Alex needs to work on those things to
have a chance to play in the fall.
BV: Do you think that the improvement of the running
game that you saw in the spring is a function of Hunt’s explosiveness, the
line’s physical play, or a combination of the two?
LR: Yeah, it’s a combination, but more importantly, I
think it is the line. We are going to be a more physical group. Just like we
talked about the footwork with the quarterbacks and that probably I couldn’t
focus on that quite as much as I would like to have, it is the same thing
with the O line… there are a lot of small things that come with this scheme
that we need to work on and get better at …things we can correct. I think
this group as a whole, has a pretty nasty disposition… they are a mean group
who all get it after people. We are going to get some movement up front in
the running game. I feel good about those guys. I think any good running
back that you see is the by-product of a great O line, so 99 percent of it
is the O line. I think we do have some backs that can take advantage of
those guys up front. Yeah, the improvement is in the offensive line.
BV: With the emphasis you put on recruiting running
backs for this season, do you expect to see a more intense, new battle this
fall for these three backs?
LR: We are going to let everyone we got have a crack
at it. We recruit people that we think can help us. With (Reggie) Bullock,
he’s a junior college kid and you don’t sign a junior college kid unless he
can help you right away. So, the fact that we did sign him speaks to what we
think about him, so we think he can jump right into the competition. Whether
a high school kid can do that or not is always a crap shoot, you just never
know. There have been years where the guy I thought was the worst in the
class plays his freshman year. You might as well flip a coin with the high
school, but the junior college guys, you have to expect them to play or at
least compete so we expect Bullock to come in here and compete.
BV: You and the other coaches have preached to these
players about the need to make the routine plays routine and it was an area
Coach McNeill said needed to be improved. Did you see that with the offense
in the spring?
LR: Yeah, it is a combination of two things. First,
it's knowing what you are doing and feeling comfortable, which comes over
time, and the second thing is that they have to understand that the routine
plays are good enough for us. We do not have to make a great play every play
every play. Great plays are a by-product of the routine plays. We are
starting to think about the routine plays this way and, yes, you saw a lot
more of the routine plays this spring… definitely saw more of them… there is
no comparison. This year the big thing is going to be… you know last spring,
we just weren’t very good at things but by the time we got to the first
game, we made a ton of improvement. If we can see anything close to that
type of improvement this time around, we will be sitting in a good position.
We need to focus on making on that improvement.
BV: The assumption is that each year into this
program, the entire group will improve with understanding of the offense,
repetitions and working together, so the expectations are that the offense
should improve. What are you expecting defenses in the league to do now that
they all have had an up close look at your offense?
LR: Well… you never really know… you got to think in
terms that you are going to see a little bit of everything. Different people
have different ideas of what the best way to play against you is and all
that. You try to figure what it will take. In the end, I think you might
outcoach a guy on a few plays or pull out a few tricks that fool them and
they might do the same to you for a few plays, but in the end, it still
comes down to out-executing the other team. I think in the games where we
played well offensively, yeah, we might have had a trick play that worked
here or there, but really, it was because we out-executed them. In the games
we didn’t play well …they out-executed us. So I think we need to get to
where we execute at a higher level... at a higher percentage of the time.
Every little thing we do right now gets us closer to that. If we are a team
that executes at a high level 80 percent of the time, it shouldn’t matter
who you are playing. We want to have the mentality that if we go play well
it doesn’t matter. Are we going to game plan people? Absolutely. Are we
going to study people? Yes. From a coaching perspective, it is how we coach
kids... how do they handle certain situations? How mentally tough are they?
How much trust and faith and belief do they have in the system? And how well
do they execute? I think that is what separates the good offenses from the
bad offenses and the good teams from the bad teams.
BV: After the Spring Game, you seemed a little
disappointed, at least from the scoring output. How much of that do you
attribute to the amount of time given to the young quarterbacks or the
issues at center and how much is attributed to a rev up on defense?
LR: That is always the question in spring. You never
know when you are playing against yourself every day. Spring Games are
funny… I don’t totally know why… I have been involved with, I think, now
nine spring games — maybe eight — and I can think of maybe one good spring
game ever. From an offensive standpoint, it seems like there is never really
a huge offensive explosion… or at least I haven’t been part of one.
We went and scored on the first drive with Dominique and
that was good. And that was with our Ones and that was pretty smooth. The
other two guys didn’t really play well and we lost 100 something yards in
snaps and that was tough with the center position. You know, we had one snap
last year that we didn’t field and that was in 13 games. And we had 9 or 10
in the (spring) game. A few of them were the quarterback’s fault and a
combination of everything. So, yeah, I was a little disappointed. I have
seen those quarterbacks play much better in scrimmage situations in the
spring, so that was disappointing.
We did run the ball good, but it doesn’t show up in the
stats because of all the (bad) snaps, but we did some good things and then
shot ourselves in the foot. Driving down to the 8-yard line and snap goes
through the quarterback’s hands or over his head — whatever it is — and now
its 2nd-and-goal from the 45-yard line. It is stuff like that that can’t
happen if we want to score points. It’s one of those deals, where part of it
is just spring games and another part is that we didn’t like the execution
there and that really wasn’t indicative of the quality of the spring that we
have had. Am I worried about it? I’m not worried about it at all.
BV: You have talked in the past about the three
things that get you worked up the most, those being turnovers, penalties,
and negative yardage plays. Did you see indicators that they are improving
LR: Yeah, really all three. I think, if you look at
the first scrimmage, we had several penalties and turnovers. And it was
something we have really emphasized. And as the spring went on, way less
penalties, way less turnovers, and not nearly as many negative plays. Not
counting the (bad) snaps, not nearly as many. And then in the Spring Game,
we had maybe 1 or 2 penalties the whole game. I don’t know if that was us or
maybe the refs just wanted to get out of there before a tornado showed up
and you can’t blame them for that… but either way, way less penalties and
didn’t turn the ball over much, maybe one. As a group, they see we want to
play with guys who don’t turn the ball over. If you turn it over, we’re not
going to play with you. If you commit penalties, we are going to play
somebody else. If you create negative plays, we are going to play with
somebody else. I think now, with everybody having a better understanding of
what we are doing, there are so many guys who can compete and do it well,
they are making a conscious effort. It is a mindset and an expectation level
and how we have improved that over the course of the spring is a good
indicator that we are on our way.
BV: Looking at the first part of the schedule, there
is no way around the fact that it is a tough schedule. It seemed that the
offense could play with anyone last season. Do you see the maturity on the
offense as something you can depend on to see these first four games as just
four football games on a long schedule?
LR: I don’t really think this group really cares who
we are playing. That is how you want it. If you sit there and worry all day
about who you are playing and you quit worrying about yourself and what
you’ve got to do, you are going to have trouble executing and that is what
is most important. I think when our kids want to play in big games and prove
themselves against good competition. I think we did that last year.
Offensively, our kids feel that we can go out and play with anyone
offensively and that we are only going to get better as long as we keep
working. Right now there is a confidence that we can do whatever we want to
do against anyone as long as we keep working and we stay who we are. I think
if you ask any guy in this offense about that, they will tell you the same
thing. There is a confidence level there… let’s worry about us and play as
good as we can and if we play as good as we can, things will turnout in our
favor. We try to stay focused on that and not worry about who we play but
how we play.
Ron Cherubini Archives
06/16/2011 02:28 AM