Jeff Connors’ office looks out on Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at field level, which is appropriate. At this time of year, he is closer to the playing personnel that drive the program than anyone.
Connors began his career at East Carolina in 1991 when the Pirates went 11-1 and defeated N.C. State 37-34 in a Peach Bowl thriller.
That team is the measuring stick at ECU and three straight losing seasons have created a longing for past success.
“My whole mantra for the summer is Pirates on the rise,” said the assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning. “That’s what we break it down on every day, making sure that we know that we’re on the rise — that the Pirates are going to be back.”
Connors left ECU in 2001 and worked at North Carolina in a similar capacity until returning to Greenville in 2011.
“That’s why I came back to East Carolina, my love for the whole tradition, my love for the fan base,” said the 2016 inductee into the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame.
Connors acknowledges the hard times, but he’s not jumping the Pirate ship.
“I like to be able to donate what I can,” he said. “If we’re going through hard times, let’s not stop showing up for the games. Let’s not stop giving money. Let’s continue to support the program. . . . I just want us to stay on board. . . . If the program takes a hit financially, we’re all going to take a hit and we’re not going to be able to provide what we need to provide for the players if we take a hit.
” . . . I’m with the players every day. I do believe the circle of success starts with the athletes. . . . I think Coach Mo (Scottie Montgomery) is doing a good job recruiting. I’m really excited about our new staff guys, too. I think our players are excited about that.”
Alumnus and defensive coordinator David Blackwell leads an infusion of new additions on the coaching staff. Blackwell coached linebackers in 1991 at ECU.
Connors has been working to make players bigger, faster and stronger during the first session of summer school. His efforts are continuing.
The Pirates open the 2018 season at home against North Carolina A&T on Saturday, Sept. 1, at 6 p.m.
“This next month, we’re going to try to make things competitive,” Connors said. “We’re going to try to make things highly enthusiastic and we’re going to try to peak at the right time. I congratulate everybody for getting through summer one. We’re going to crank it up to another level for summer two. Another part of that is going to be competitive scenarios, having great spirit and enthusiasm and, from a physical standpoint, getting ready to peak for camp.
“That’s what I would say about my objectives for the next month.”
Offseason development, individual assessments
Connors didn’t have a roster when interviewed last Friday, but he did his best from memory to assess personnel across the board in terms of their developmental work under his guidance.
“We started on May 14,” Connors said. “The whole time from March 24 on, was discretionary. It was challenging but we did have good participation. A lot of these guys are self-starters so that helped us to get into our summer program.
“Our summer program, of course, is mandatory with the exception of one week, which is discretionary. We started our mandatory program on May 14. . . . Things are going very well. I’ve been impressed with the young men that coach brought in mid-year. I think a lot of those young men are going to help us with our depth. Some of them may get to play a lot. Every one of them has done pretty well.
“Chandler Medeiros, I think can help us. His strength level has improved significantly. Same thing with the other linemen, with size and strength. (Donovan) Noel is up to 295 (pounds) and looks extremely good. The kid really works extremely hard. Peyton Winstead, the same thing, about 290 pounds. I think these individuals that came in up front are going to help us with our depth. I’m encouraged about them because I’m always looking at depth. I’ve got a 66-strong philosophy. I think you’ve got to be three deep at every position, but particularly with the D-line because you have to rotate D-linemen into the game.
“Our older defensive linemen, I’ve been very impressed with, in relationship to strength. I think that Raequan Purvis and Jalen Price are getting to the point where they have excellent strength for defensive linemen. They’re benching over 400 pounds. They squat the house. They’re 600-plus squatters. I’ve been impressed with them. Alex Turner as well, same category, a very strong young man. He did 34 reps on bench with 225 pounds, which is exceptional. Mike Swift, who earned a scholarship, also has exceptional strength. He did 30 reps with 225. He has really good strength, total body-wise.
“The kid that hasn’t helped us in the past who I think will be significant, is going to show up very early, is Chance Purvis. I’m looking for him to do some exceptional things this year. He’s very athletic. Kendall Futrell as well. Kendall Futrell jumped a 10-9 broad jump, which is really good for a defensive lineman. We had over 15 guys jump over 10 feet on broad jump. We’ve been doing some testing so I’ve been impressed with that. We’ve got some explosive power on this football team.
“I think we have more depth at linebacker. Nate Harvey has really come around. [Cannon] Gibbs has been rehabbing but now he’s full go into the program. [Bruce] Bivens is another guy that’s very impressive physically. Xavier Smith is a guy who has impressed me because he’s close to 245, 250 pounds and he ran a 4.7 (seconds) 40 (yards) the other day. He has been rehabbing as well. He’s another guy who I think is going to help us with our depth at inside backer. I see more depth at inside backer and I’m encouraged there.
“When you look at Warren Saba, the corners that we’ve brought in, and [Michael] Witherspoon. Witherspoon ran a 4.5-flat for us the other day. He’s probably gained about 10 or 15 pounds of body weight. He’s got good size. I think he’s going to help us adding some depth at corner. Warren Saba is 180, 185-pound young man. When you look at Corey Seargent and Colby Gore, who are returning, Colby Gore is fast. He’s got some good speed. He’s got some experience. I think he’s got a chance to be really good.
“Corey Seargent has struggled with his body weight, struggled with staying healthy. He is probably now more healthy and is heavier than he’s ever been. He’s one of the only young men I’ve ever seen at 175 pounds power clean 300 pounds. He is pound-for-pound one of the strongest kids we have on our team. I’ve been impressed with him. He’s doing better than he has been in the past. I hope he stays healthy. I think the fact that we have more competition at corner is going to help us as well.
“Nolan Johnson is doing a very good job for us. I think he ran a 4.55 for us the other day. He’s going to be working at safety. He really works hard every day. He really showed a lot of promise in the spring. He’s another guy that could be in the rotation in the back end that’s been an impressive young man.
“Generally speaking with that whole class that came in mid-year, those 10 guys, I’ve been very impressed with them. The skill guys coming in did not really have very good strength but they’ve really come a long way since they’ve been here. Looking forward to seeing what they can do in the fall.”
Story continues after picture…
Work ethic a plus
An early spring practice gave the Pirates an early start with Connors on a voluntary basis.
“These guys were really good with showing up and working hard and being consistent as they need to make gains,” Connors said. “I’ll say that about them. I’ll say that the defensive linemen and linebackers did a really good job continuing to work hard and make gains and gain strength.
“Now, let’s start talking about the O-line. [John] Spellacy (center) is a guy who is going to be returning. I think he’ll do well. Of course, Garrett McGhin, is a guy that’s leading that group. He’s got great numbers across the board. He power cleans over 350 pounds, which is excellent for an offensive lineman. He’ll bench press somewhere around 430 pounds. He’s very athletic and has good feet. He’s got all the tools to be exceptional up front. I just keep talking to him about physicality and using what he has to be as physical as he can be in his run blocking and pass blocking. I think we’re got a number of guards. We’re pretty deep at guard. I really think that Donovan Noel is going to be in the mix there with what he’s done since he came in the door. He’ll be somebody who can play this year for sure.
“I’m very happy that [Branden] Pena is back. Coming off the injury that he had, his numbers are good. Cortez Herrin has got some really good numbers right now. He had had some issues with his lower body. He’s healthy now and doing very well. Probably the biggest concern I would have would be depth at tackle, but we’ve got a couple of kids coming in this second session of summer school who are going to have a chance to possibly help us there providing some depth. [Matt] Morgan has done very well. I’m happy with his numbers. [Jack] Doyle is finally over 280 pounds. He came in here at 240 pounds. He was recruited by the last regime, a very tough kid but not very big. He’s finally over 280 so I’m happy to see that. Also [Dalton] Montgomery has done well with regard to his development. Possibly, those guys can contribute some now.
“The bottom line is I’m always going to be very optimistic. I’m always going to be optimistic because we’re not going to tolerate anything but a great work ethic. I am very happy with what I’m seeing with the strength gains across the board. We have a few guys with exceptional speed.
“Keyshawn Canady ran 4.32 indoor the other day and has a 41.5-inch vertical jump, which he broke his own record there. Tank [Davondre] Robinson had a 39.5-inch vertical. He continues to come along with his development. He bench pressed 315, which is really good for him because he never lifted weights in high school. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t lift weights in high school but when he came in he just said he never lifted weights before. I said somebody with the nickname Tank, that’s pretty good. . . . Let’s see what we can do if you lift weights. Maybe we’ll call you ‘Halftrack’ or something like that. I’m impressed with those guys. We need safeties and we need depth at safety. [Devon] Sutton is back and Sutton always does well physically. He’s always in great shape. He does very well with the lifts. He’s got good strength. I’m looking for him to do better this year as far as making plays on the field. I think he’s poised to do that because he does have experience. Kenyon Taylor, I’m looking for him to step up this year. He hasn’t done a whole lot since he’s been in the program, but he’s got some good tools. He’s a pretty tough young man. He’s got good range, good height, that type of thing. Of course, Tim Irvin is back again so we’re looking for him to stay healthy and show us what he can do as far as competing for that job at the Pirate position.
“I’m really looking forward to these young men just coming in now. . . . I’m not real familiar with where they’re at physically. … We’ve got more defensive backs coming in with [Damel] Hickman. We’ve got another tight end with [Johnny] Bogle. [Ben] Norris has been a little bit banged up this summer with the hamstrings. [Anthony] Watley has been back in the mix so we’re looking for somebody to step up there (tight end) for that starting job. I think Bogle is going to be able to compete as well. . . . Watley has got to get stronger to be very effective there. He’s got average speed. We’re working with him to try and develop him. I think Norris is going to provide some physicality there because he’s a big, strong kid. It’s going to be interesting there to see who emerges. Watley has got to continue to work.
“The running backs as a group, Anthony Scott, of course, is very fast. He’s one of the fastest people on the team. He’s right there with Keyshawn Canady with speed. Terrell Green (wide receiver) is right there with those guys as well. Terrell Green has got really good speed and he’s got some other great attributes because of his height (6-4). I’m really looking for him to get on the field. I think all the individuals that we have there coming back, [Darius] Pinnix had a little problem with a muscle pull here and there but he’s back looking really good with the lifts. He’s between 225 and 230 so he’s going to be our big, strong back, the kid who can do damage.
“Trace Christian showed what he can do in the spring. He’s another guy that’s going to provide us with some depth. I think Canady is moving back to defense. I’m assuming he’s going to be back at corner. Of course, he provides size and speed there at corner. There’s another guy that brings some great tools with him to the table. Hussein Howe is having a great summer. He’s never going to be a really big guy but when we run, when we do our max effort speed days, he’s right there a step behind Anthony Scott. The biggest thing that I can say about Hussein Howe is that I’m very impressed with the fact that he has gained some speed. He already has great feet. Him having another step or two from a linear standpoint is going to help. I haven’t been working with the new running back. I’m going to have to familiarize myself with what we have coming in the door. From what I know, it looks like we’ll have some pretty good depth there, particularly if the young guys coming in are going to step up as well. But Pinnix looks good. Hussein Howe looks good. Trace Christian had a good spring. He still has a ways to go with his strengths, but he’s already a fairly big kid. He’s got very good size.
“With Anthony Scott there providing speed, we know he’s got exceptional speed. Whatever else he can do is yet to be seen as far as being consistent and adding something to the mix. We have seen flashes of him in the past. I think that’s kind of how it’s looking at running back.”
“Reid Herring, moving to the quarterback position, Reid is up to 197 pounds. He came in here about 170. I think I said this in a radio interview once. He had the skinniest arms I’d ever seen of a collegiate athlete. I told him he had to do something with the angel hair pasta. I think now we’re up to linguine. He looks better. He is fast. He’s going to be a high 4.6 kind of guy, 40 time. (Holton) Ahlers is a low 4.7 guy. I timed him the other day in a 4.72, which is excellent for somebody that weighs 236. [Kingsley] Ifedi is a guy who’s getting really strong in his lower body for a quarterback, just overall strength as well. He’s looking thick. He’s going to be more physical running the football. I thought that in the spring he made strides in relationship to consistency with his throwing. I think all those guys are doing well and working very hard.
“Receivers, of course, should be a strong point. Everybody knows that Trevon Brown is a guy who can do some great things on the field. Some people don’t know that he is an individual that has exceptional lower body strength. He has hip rotary power. I had Hakeem Nicks [at North Carolina] that power cleaned 350. Trevon Brown has got that type of power. He’s similar to Hakeen Nicks where that’s concerned. Of course, he’s deceptive with his speed because it seems like on game day he’s got another two steps. He outruns people. He also squats over 500 pounds, which is excellent for a receiver. Of course, everybody is looking for him to make plays and do some great things.
“We’re looking for [Leroy] Henley to get back in the mix. His rehab, he’s done well. He looks really good physically. He benches over 300, 325, somewhere in there, which is good. He worked really hard in the offseason to accelerate his rehab. Blake Proehl has really amazed me with his rehab. Indoor, I timed him anywhere from a low 4.4 to a high 4.3. To say that right now in his rehab is kind of amazing. Blake Proehl is bringing a lot to the table. Of course, you’ve got some depth there with guys that have experience like Deondre Farrier. I think Duce Fuller is a guy that can help us. Of course, Terrell Green is a guy who is going to have speed. You’ve got [Juwan] Moody coming in that door, [Andre] Pegues. . . . I’m anxious to see what they bring to the table. Then, of course, Mydreon Vines really impressed me in the spring because he looked like he got faster. He’s been working hard as well. I’m not sure who I’m missing there but I think we’ve got some pretty good promise there with what we’ve got returning.
“People will say Coach Connors is optimistic, but I don’t think you ever know what you have with regard to a football team until you step on the field and play somebody. Everybody is out there working. Everybody is out there recruiting. We always play a tough schedule and we’re really happy to see how we match up this year.”
Conditioning has changed
Connors has devoted more attention to safety in conditioning as concerns have increased over the years.
“Conditioning in the summer time is important obviously and that’s where we switch our focus from speed,” Connors said. “We’re still going to focus on max effort speed, but we focus on conditioning and tempo three days a week in the summer.
“Here’s a few things. The NCAA has provided us with a lot of guidelines. I think they’ve standardized conditioning across the board. . . . Another young man died recently at the University of Maryland. I don’t know what the number is in the last decade and a half, but it’s too many. So the guidelines now, when you have a couple of weeks off and you come back they want you to give them a one to four rest relief ratio. That means if I run a 300 around the field in 60 seconds, I have to have four minutes rest. We run one 300, we have to take four minutes rest.
“Now, here’s the standard that I had in the ’90s with our skill guys. At the end of the summer they ran 10 300s with 30 seconds rest in 55 seconds. They would put you in prison right now for that. I’m not exaggerating, because somebody could have went down and somebody could go down. I consider myself fortunate that nobody ever went down, but I also consider that our players, not me, were the ones that set the standard and kept raising it. Kevin Monroe came in and ran eight 300s the first day he was there as a freshman. The seniors said, ‘No way we’re going to tolerate that. We’re going to kick it up to 10.’ That was kind of the mentality back then.
“There’s a lot of things you can say about conditioning but, in season, I don’t dictate what we do in season as far as conditioning goes. Our coaches, particularly Coach Mo, feels like he has a pulse on that. I just take his lead in relationship to what he wants to do during the course of the week. The main thing is keeping it safe and picking and choosing when you think you need to condition more or less in relationship to what you see during camp or during game week or what you saw the last game.
“I really believe that winning in the fourth quarter, there’s a lot of things that factor in. How many people do you have to rotate in the game? There’s some degree of mental toughness. That is part of the deal is mental toughness. How bad your players want to win the game. How well you coach in the fourth quarter. I just think there’s a whole lot of things that factor in.
“We hung our hat on it in the ’90s, but I think it was easier then to hang your hat on it and make it a big deal in the summer and say, ‘What we do, nobody else does.’ It’s truly hard to do that now, say ‘What we do, nobody else does,’ because everybody is going to condition. The trend now is to condition using shorter-type bouts, like shorter sprints or shorter shuttles, as opposed to doing longer-type conditioning.
“I think you need a combination of both. For instance, here’s what I’ve changed. I’ll give an example. On Monday, we do a power unit. I’m looking to hit every energy system specific to football. We run two 300s around the field to start it. We take a two-minute rest. We run 10 40s or 10 30s, for instance, so you’re only going to get 20 to 30 seconds rest between those sprints. Now, you rest two more minutes. Now, you run six 80s. Rest two more minutes, run 10 20s. Finally, rest two more minutes and run two more 300s. Now if you put yardage on that, you can calculate that and you’re going to say that’s a lot of yardage.
“I look at a power unit and equate it with a football game as far as yardage goes. That’s something that we kind of do every Monday. It’s different than what we used to do but I think it’s effective because that’s a lot of conditioning. On Wednesday, we condition with gassers, full gassers and a conditioning circuit on the field. On Friday, we run our 110s every Friday morning as a team. This morning (June 22) we ran 14 110s. When we report to camp, we’ll run 20 110s. Here’s what I can say about 20 110s. Back in the ’90s when we had a lot of success that was great, but we finished our 300s probably about mid-July. When we reported to camp, we ran 16 110s. So we run four more 110s now when we report. I don’t think it’s that much different.
“Did we do more things for mental toughness and did we do more things a decade ago or two decades ago where we say, ‘Well, we’re going to grind these guys and we’re going to challenge their threshold of mental toughness’? I think we did that more back then. Now, if you look at the research out there and what people are saying, a lot of people are saying you can not improve someone’s mental toughness. Do I believe that? No. I don’t particularly believe that. I believe you can. But I’m just telling you what people are saying.
“I think that you have to be extremely careful as a coach, not only to protect yourself but also to protect your staff and to protect your program and to protect your university. In my association, when we go to our national conferences that is all people talk about is keeping it safe. Because, how would you feel if somebody went down. I don’t know if I could coach anymore if somebody went down. I just can’t even imagine that.
” . . . If you want to talk about we lost in the fourth quarter because of me, that’s fine, but I’m not going to put myself in jeopardy in 2018 and I’m not going to put anybody I coach in jeopardy either about what we’ve found over the last decade.”