New offensive line coach Don Mahoney has been to East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium before as part of staffs at Tulane and Central Michigan. He will be there Saturday for ECU’s Purple-Gold game at 1 p.m.
“I’ve had a chance to come into this hostile environment,” Mahoney said. “I remember it all too well, unfortunately, being on the other side of it. … I left here saying it was one of the more passionate fan bases I’ve ever been around.”
After 3-9 seasons in 2016 and 2017, Mahoney is about restoring that passion.
“That was something that was very exciting about this opportunity,” he said. “That’s something you never forget. Obviously, I left here angry and upset, but understanding there is a high importance on football here. That’s exciting in a lot of ways.”
Mahoney has been in some noted football environments. He was a productive offensive line coach at Tennessee, where Neyland Stadium has a capacity 102,455.
“I grew up in western Pennsylvania and experienced four Super Bowls as a young kid — that excitement and that energy,” said Mahoney regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I’ve been fortunate to go on and coach in some venues where the fan base and the passion is through the roof. … It’s something that goes with the game. You always appreciate that piece of it.”
Coincidentally, Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery is a former Steelers assistant. He brougtht Mahoney aboard in January after an extensive overhaul of the defensive coaching staff.
Mahoney will be on the Gold staff Saturday, which will be directed by new defensive coordinator David Blackwell.
ECU opened spring practice on Feb. 19.
“We’ve been making strides,” Mahoney said of his blocking corps. “I’ve been very pleased with the group in the fact that they’re eager to correct the mistakes that have been made. I’ve been able to watch them grow in a short period of time. I’ve really enjoyed this group of guys I’m working with because of the importance they’re placing on each and every day. This has been one of the most enjoyable spring practices I’ve been a part of because, collectively, not just our position, but as a team you can sense the urgency to do well, the disappointment of not doing well and wanting to correct things. … The bottom line as I said on day one is ‘be coachable.’ … It’s not personal when we’re working to correct a mistake or a technique. They really have gone out to do that.
“The energy has been very good. Coming off a very, very physical day Saturday with a turnaround real quick on a Monday, which Coach Mo wanted to do to collectively to challenge the team. I’ve been excited to watch the growth. We’ve still got a ways to go but I like the fact in which they’re attacking the day that’s being put in front of them.”
Lots to see
Fans on Saturday will be able to get an idea of how Blackwell and other recent staff hires may impact the program. Quarterbacks Reid Herring, Holton Ahlers and Kingsley Ifedi will be on display.
Mahoney will be watching, too, and he wants to see continued progress.
“The building on of practice 12 to 13, 13 to 14 and kind of finishing this up,” he said. “I would like to cut the film on Sunday and say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten better technically at this. We’re playing with a physicality that we expect and Coach Mo is demanding of everybody on the team, much more of an overall effort to sustain a block, to play at the level that we set forth.’ That’s the biggest thing.
“We’ll go ahead and use the summertime to improve on some of the technique stuff, but I want to see the overall effort continue to build in which we’re working to maintain blocks longer, whether it be run or pass, but just the overall temperment of what he’s expecting of us as a team and seeing those guys do that. I see strides being made each and every practice. I expect that to be the same for Saturday.”
Mahoney shared thoughts on personnel, starting with left tackle.
“D’Ante Smith has had a spring in which he’s really finishing strong as to where he started out in the start of spring,” Mahoney said. “He’s really getting into a groove. … It’s one of those positions where, until you put the pads on and go through the actual physical pounding and the technical part, you just don’t pick up right away. He’s really making strides. Been pleased with his progress as well as understanding of some of the things that we’re doing a little bit different and his leadership.”
Cortez Herrin is on the first unit at left guard.
“Cortez Herrin has been very consistent this spring, day in and day out,” Mahoney said. “We know what we’re getting out of him. There are some things that have got to get better by him, but he’s been very consistent with his approach. He’s been an every day guy for us. That’s been very encouraging and we expect him to continue to grow.”
John Spellacy started some games at center as a true freshman in 2017.
“John Spellacy … has really come on these last few practices,” Mahoney said. “Location of his snaps has been consistent. His command of the O-line with the calls being made with the playing experience last year obviously benefits him, but he’s playing at a level at which we’re excited about.
“Sean Bailey has been working at the right guard spot. He may have been at either guard last year but he’s working at the right guard spot. He’s made some strides. He’s getting better. There are a few things that we’ve got to clean up with him technically, especially so he knows he’s 330 pounds. That can come down some. That’s more of a summer conditioning thing. He’s mentally understanding things. He plays hard. We just need to clean up some things technically.
“Garrett McGhin has been at the right tackle spot. … He’s played center. He’s played guard. He’s played tackle. We’ve really tried to focus on him being at one spot and getting good at that, with his stance, his footwork. It’s asking a lot of a young man to play numerous positions, which I’ve been a part of and understandably so for whatever given situation but he’s focusing on that right spot. He’s been a tremendous leader in our room. He’s been very demanding of what Coach Montgomery wants with us with an expectation of how we approach things. I really like what he has brought to the table thus far.”
Redshirt freshman Matt Morgan has been working behind McGhin at right tackle.
“He’s been making strides,” Mahoney said of Morgan. “He’s put on quite a bit of weight. From where he was at ending the season to now, he’s at 290 pounds. He’s one of the younger guys who has put on weight and he’s been able to handle it well with his movement. He’s continuing to make strides. He’s continuing to be a work in progress in a good way in which he shows flashes. He just needs to get more consistent.
“Donovan Noel has been working at the right guard spot this spring. As any freshman that should still be in high school getting ready for prom right now, there’s been some growing pains with him along the way with speed of play in terms of the defensive speed of play. Everything that goes with it for him has been an eye opener. We’ve just got to get to a point where the summer is beneficial and in the fall the game starts to slow down for him a little bit where he’s using his natural athletic ability, power and toughness. He’s been battling his tail off and we’ve been excited about what he’s been able to show to this point. He’s just obviously very, very young.
“At the center position the guy that’s coming off an injury that’s been practicing as of late is Branden Pena. He’s doing a good job. It’s like I told him, you don’t just come off an injury last year and throw your pads on to where you’re in combat of practice in three days and have it mastered already. He’s getting back into the groove of things and he’s given us some valuable reps. We’re excited about what he can do for us this fall.
“At left guard has been Dqmarcus Shaw. He’s not played as consistent as he needs to at this point. For having reps in game situations and having played last year, he hasn’t played as well as he needs to. That’s been stressed to him and he needs to play better and not be as inconsistent. He needs to be more consistent in his play, more physical. For his classification (senior) and for the amount of experience that he has, he needs to play better. He’s been playing at the left guard spot with the twos.
“Jack Doyle at left tackle has battled his tail off this spring. Been very encouraged. He’s working on gaining weight. He’s at 280 pounds. He needs to continue to grow and get stronger, but he’s a guy who works to find a way to get it done. It may never necessarily be exactly pretty in terms of the technical part of it, but he’s battling his tail off and we just need to clean up the technique part. We’ve been encouraged with what he’s done.
“Peyton Winstead, the other true freshman who is here, early enrollee is the term, for being a young guy — and I’ve had the opportunity to coach some guys who have been early enrollees, he’s a guy, especially with the demands of the center spot with a tempo offense, with the technique required, with the calls to be made, is a guy who’s as far ahead of the curve as I’ve ever been around. He’s extremely talented and very, very athletic. He has the toughness that we’re looking for. He’s going to be a valuable player for us, come this fall. I love his work ethic, his attitude, all that. Very encouraged with what he has shown to this point.
“Jaison Fournet has been able to get some valuable reps because of Pena coming back a little bit later due to his time of recovery from the fall, but Jaison Fournet has done a really good job for us this spring as well at the center position.
“At the center position, we do have some guys who have the ability to have the ball in their hands and provide depth for us that allow Garrett to be at tackle and focus on that.
“I’m very encouraged overall with the group and their approach. We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but if we keep staying the course and work like we do, I think we’ll like the end result.”
Capable skill personnel
The quarterbacks and running backs have the potential to enhance the offensive front.
“Everything in what we do with the tempo offense is really based on the quarterback’s decisions,” Mahoney said. “Reid, to me, is really an exceptional talent. He gets rid of the ball quick. He knows where issues are if there’s any sign of pressures. He’s really schooled well and he’s really a smart young man and a competitive guy. He’s exciting to watch when we cut on the film the next day and I see some of the throws he makes. … It’s a little more than you think initially. …
“Holton is another guy in the same breath, but even more so than Peyton Winstead, because he’s an early enrollee that’s back there taking command of the entire offense. I’ve never seen a guy with the presence that he commands and the confidence that he displays in his ability with what he can do — how he can run, how strong he is and, again, just watching his overall presence. You’re out on the field sometimes and you see guys get those wide eyes, like, again, the game’s too fast. It hasn’t been fast for him at all. He’s been very exciting to watch. He’s fun to protect for.
“Kingsley just keeps progressing as well. Competition, obviously, makes a lot of guys better. In the room, I think they’re all just building off each other. Reid has just set the bar and Holton is growing. That’s a group that’s fun to have behind us.”
There is depth at running back and a variety of talent.
“Hussein (Howe) has been very, very explosive,” Mahoney said. “He has very good vision. More importantly, what I love about him, what I’ve seen in pass protection, that’s just as important to him as the running game. I’ve been blessed to be around some very talented running backs. He is a very competitive and tough young man. I love that. … The guys are feeding off a successful run. They’re seeing why it happens. … The receivers blocking is a piece of the running game that is sometimes overlooked. Those guys are doing a heckuva job as well.
“Anthony Scott has done a nice job of carrying the ball with strength and power and all of that. [Darius] Pinnix, early on, has power. He runs angry. Keyshawn [Canady] has done a nice job as well.”
Canady is making a transition from the secondary.
“He’s a little bit behind in the learning curve as far as playing as fast as say Hussein and Anthony,” Mahoney said. “But he’s a guy that if we get just a crease in there, can really make good things happen in a big play opportunity.
“It’s a neat group with a little bit of a different skill set amongst them, whether it’s Pinnix with his power, Hussein with his vision and slashing or Anthony with his speed and power. All three have skill sets that are exciting to block for.”
Mahoney and ECU offensive coordinator Tony Petersen both played at Marshall. Mahoney was a student assistant with the Thundering Herd when Petersen was working with the Marshall quarterbacks.
“I’ve always respected his knowledge,” Mahoney said. ” . . . It’s been great working with him and the offensive staff in general.”
Petersen will be head coach of the Purple on Saturday.
“We had a draft [Wednesday],” Mahoney said. “We’re going Purple and Gold. It’s very exciting for our kids. . . . We had a very, very spirited practice (Wednesday). The kids know what teams they’re on, but we stayed in the structure of how we’ve been practicing. . . .
“Us as coaches have been split up. We’re passing each other in the hallway to get a cup of coffee, talking a little bit of trash about how the Purple is going to whip the Gold and the Gold is going to whip the Purple. . . . You really are finishing the spring like you would like to. . . . Coach Montgomery is really having fun with it. The trainers, the strength staff, the secretaries — you name it, they’re on a particular team.
“We’re all in on this. There’s a lot of energy with it.”
Mahoney and Petersen are on opposite side of Saturday’s rivalry.
“I’m living with Coach Petersen right now until we get our family moved in here,” Mahoney said. “It’s been a little hostile in his house at night right now. Thank goodness, his wife is here. She can keep us separated. We’ve been having fun with it. It’s been good.”