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View from the 'ville
Sunday, December 26, 2010

By Al Myatt

ECU's wise men size up Terps

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The three wise men are an integral part of the Christmas story. They came from afar.

The East Carolina football program has traveled, too, this holiday season — to its fifth straight bowl game. As Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill said, it's usually not a good thing to be home for Christmas in his profession.

The Pirates, who spent Christmas in Washington, DC, will be depending heavily on the preparations of coordinators Clay McGuire (special teams), Lincoln Riley (offense) and Brian Mitchell (defense) as they face Maryland in the Military Bowl on Wednesday at RFK Stadium at 2:30 p.m. (ESPN).

If ECU's three coordinators can prove themselves wise men in Washington, it will go a long way toward an upset of the Terps. All three were on Texas Tech's staff last year as McNeill guided a 41-31 win over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl as interim head coach of the Red Raiders.

McGuire, Riley and Mitchell recently summed up the challenges that Maryland presents, shared their thoughts on their particular unit's performance this year and even looked at the bowl game as a bridge to the 2011 season. One advantage of a postseason game is that the extra practices can be used like an additional offseason workout period to help develop younger players.

McGuire, special teams

Special teams involves many aspects of the game — kicking, punting and coverages.

Regarding Maryland: "Our main goal for special teams is to win the field position battle," McGuire said. " ... If we can flip the field with our punt team and kickoff coverage and get good field position for the defense, if we can make a big play in the return game and give our offense field position, I think we've got a good shot to win that field position battle."

Maryland has a potential field flipper, Tony Logan, who has averaged 18.8 yards per punt return with two touchdowns for the Terps.

"Looking into the film, they have a great return man," McGuire said. "It's going to be tough to stop but we've got some plans to go out there and combat that."

Maryland's leading receiver, Torrey Smith, also returns kickoffs and has averaged 18.9 yards per return.

"A lot can happen in these bowl games," McGuire said. "You've got a whole month to prepare usually. Teams will come out and they'll usually have a couple of new wrinkles that you haven't seen. You've got to be able to play sound football. We're going in there, preparing to play a good football game and win our side of the game."

Interestingly, ECU placekicker Mike Barbour was in the Maryland program last year.

Evaluating 2010: "We were solid," McGuire said. "At times we were really good and at times, we were just okay. For the most part, we did a good job with field position. I was really pleased with the specialists. Mike (Barbour) came in and had a great year. ... We're really excited and pleased with his performance."

Barbour has made 14 of 16 field goal attempts for the Pirates in 2010 with a longest of 52 yards. He is 54 of 55 on conversion kicks and leads the team in scoring with 96 points.

McGuire also has been pleased with junior Ben Ryan, who has averaged 39.8 yards per punt and 63.9 yards on kickoffs. The average kickoff return for ECU opponents has been 20.3 yards this season.

"We had a three-game stretch in there where we did not have one punt returned," McGuire said. "We had a stretch where we had about a 44-yard net punt going. ... (Ryan) did a good job with his rugby punts."

Senior Dwayne Harris has averaged 10.3 yards on punt returns and 20.6 yards as ECU's primary kickoff returner.

"We turned it on a little bit there with punt return," McGuire said. "We ended up averaging over 10 yards a return, which is our goal. We want to average a first down. We didn't score on that team. We had an opportunity to block two punts on that team early in the year. We got there and just didn't make it happen. I thought the punt return team did a good job.

"I was a little disappointed in the kickoff return team. When you've got guys like Dwayne Harris, Jon Williams and Michael Bowman returning the ball, you expect big things every time. We had a touchdown against Southern Miss (89 yards by Williams on an exchange from Harris that McGuire designed). ... We only averaged 20 yards a return, which is maybe a little bit below average, but if you look at our drive starting point it was really good.

"Teams were obviously not going to come in and kick it to Dwayne. They're scared of him and that's a respect factor towards him and that team. Half the kickoffs to us were probably pop kicks. When we get a 15-yard return, it doesn't look very good but we're starting at the 35- or 40-yard line. That's a good thing. Our average on that team was a little skewed.

"I still thought we should have made a couple of more plays than what we did but that's just part of it. Teams didn't give us a chance to set many returns up on them.

"The kickoff team, with the exception of the first game, I thought played really well. The first game, I didn't do a very good job of coaching those guys. We fixed the problem and, for the most part, had a really good kickoff coverage team. We didn't give up a special teams touchdown all year so I was proud of that. That says something."

Going forward: "These practices have been good for our young guys," McGuire said. "A guy that sticks out in my head is Kyle Tudor. He's a guy who's played some reps on special teams this year. ... He's had some wonderful practices and made some big plays.

"We've got our specialists (Barbour and Ryan) coming back. It's good to have your punter, kicker and snapper (Will Smith) back. That's great. We don't have to go out and get another one.

"The big thing is how are we going to replace Dwayne Harris. Kickoff return, I'm not worried about so much but (on punt returns), you've got to have a special guy back there — first of all just to catch it and then second, to be able to do something after it. Some of the big punt returns we had this year, the guys did a great job blocking but a couple of them, Dwayne just made a play.

"It's something we're going to have to look at. We might change our philosophy a little bit on the punt return, going from a return team to a pressure team, depending on who's back there."

Riley, offense

ECU has made a successful transition to the spread passing attack that Texas Tech utilized under Mike Leach. Junior quarterback Dominique Davis, who played earlier in his career at Boston College, could become the first Pirate to pass for 4,000 yards in a season depending on his numbers in the bowl game. Davis played at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas last season, leading his team to an 11-1 record. Fort Scott's only loss was 31-26 to Blinn College of Texas, which featured 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn.

Regarding Maryland: "I think we match up good with everybody," Riley said. "I don't really care who we play and that's not a slap in the face. I don't mean that arrogantly. I feel good about anybody. When we're playing well, we can move the ball on anybody and I think that's been pretty obvious this year.

"Maryland has a lot of athleticism. When you watch a couple of the games from last year and then watch some of the games this year, it looks like they've really tried to upgrade their athleticism. You see 11 athletic guys on the football field. You see some pretty big safeties. I think the linebackers are really the strength of their defense.

"They got after some people. When you look at the stat book, not many people have put a lot of yards or a lot of points on them. They've been impressive. They've played hard. They've gotten better as the season went on. They played some of their best ball there at the end. They played very well against N.C. State (38-31 Maryland win), which we know has a very good offense.

"But we're confident, too. We present a lot of problems for people, too. ... We'll attack 'em just like we attack everybody else. They show on film that they bring a lot of pressure but at the same time, a lot of people have and then when they played us, they haven't. We'll be ready for it. We'll be ready to execute. We'll be ready to spread the ball around like we always do. We'll try to play fast."

Evaluating 2010: "This offense, their confidence has grown," Riley said. "Their expectations are high. ... I've really been harping to the guys on playing more consistent. Every game we've had stretches where we play well and we get on a run and it really doesn't matter who we're playing against because we've been able to score some points. Then we have a run where we don't play as well.

"Consistency is the biggest thing you notice in a first-year group and I think I notice that with us but we're not a first-year group anymore. We've been through 12 games. ... We want to play a very consistent game on the 29th."

ECU has had 25 turnovers, 14 interceptions and 15 lost fumbles, in compiling a 6-6 record. The Pirates were 5-3 in Conference USA.

"We turned it over more late in the year than I would have liked," Riley said. " ... When we were playing well, we were plenty good enough. We don't want to play better right now than when we were playing well. We want to play well more. Every game we had opportunities to go score and we did a nice job."

ECU was 53 of 58 (91 percent) in getting points in the red zone (inside the 20-yard line).

" ... We got a lot out of our good drives but we've got to be more consistent," Riley said. "There are times when we're not playing well that it's so simple and it's right there. I won't say it's easy but it's stuff that we've done and we're plenty capable of doing it. We're fighting for that consistency just like everybody is but I think it's more exciting for us because we know when we're playing well that we're good enough.

"That's been a relief for the guys because you don't have that confidence until you do it. You've got to do something to have confidence. Most people aren't born all of a sudden with confidence. That comes from preparation and seeing some results. Our guys have seen the results that if we play well and if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll score points.

"They've got the confidence it will happen. Now, it's a fight for consistency so we'll do it more often. We're fighting like crazy to get better at that."

Going forward: "Starting up front, Taylor Hudson is a young guy who's still battling to put on some weight," Riley said. "He's got a little higher metabolism than you'd like for a lineman but he's been very impressive. Mack Helms is one of those guys who wants to be good so bad that eventually he's going to be pretty good. Grant Harner didn't play as much for us at the end but I can see some improvements in him. As he grows and continues to mature — he got a lot of experience this year, I'm excited about him for next year.

"Will Simmons has probably been our best young lineman. We call him the pit bull and that's for good reason. The nicknames are earned around here. We don't just give 'em out so he's earned that one. He will bring a very physical presence to our O-Line that I'm real excited about. Another guy is Jordan Davis. He's probably the best athlete that we have, even with this year's group. I'm excited to turn him loose on some guys.

"Brandon Jones (offensive line coach) has done an excellent job with those guys."

Harris has 93 catches for 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior season. Junior Lance Lewis has 78 catches for 979 yards and 13 scores.

"Receivers, young guys, it starts with Justin Hardy," Riley said. " ... I don't want to talk a lot about guys who haven't done it on Saturday but he's got a chance to be very, very, very good. He's got a chance to be as good as any receiver who's ever played here. Reese Wiggins has really come around in the bowl practices. We've moved him to outside receiver and he's taken that move very well. Torian Richardson is doing some good things. Torrance Hunt, as he continues to grow up, is doing some good things. We're excited about that group.

"Zico Pasut has come around at tight end and had some nice reps. He didn't get many behind Justin (Jones) just because we don't do it that often so we don't practice it that often so he did not get as many during the season but he's done a nice job.

"Damonte Terry at the running back position has probably been one of the biggest improvements. At quarterback, Rio (Johnson) and Shane (Carden) have gotten a lot more reps. They've kind of taken turns going back and forth. You can see that Rio has a little more experience. Rio is really continuing to grow up and I'm excited about his progress. I think he'll be factor in what we're doing here pretty quickly."

Johnson, Carden and 2010 back-up Brad Wornick are expected to compete for the backup job behind Davis for the 2011 season.

"That will be a battle and that will set somebody up for after Dominique's gone," Riley said.

The Pirates will lose their top ball carriers. Williams, who has run 153 times for 848 yards and 10 touchdowns as well as Giavanni Ruffin (74 carries, 357 yards, 2 TDs) are both seniors. Freshman Michael Dobson has run 10 times for 58 yards.

"That's an important position," Riley said. "You go through the games this year. When we've gotten good production out of the running backs, we normally play pretty well. That's a key position because we ask so much out of 'em. Dobson, obviously, will have the most experience coming in. Damonte has got a ways to go as far as the mental side of it. Alex Owah is kind of in the same boat. ... We'll have one or two signees coming in that will be in the middle of the competition.

"It will be a good competition. We won't have a lot of age or a lot of experience there but we'll have some ability. We'll find the guy who makes us the best and go with it."

Mitchell, defense

The ECU defensive coordinator has dealt with some significant personnel losses in addition to those that saw several members of the 2009 defensive front take their talents to the NFL. Injuries and late season struggles dropped ECU into last place in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense.

Regarding Maryland: "They're explosive," Mitchell said. "Their head coach (Ralph Friedgen) does a great job of preparing their players. They have tremendous talent. It's probably the most talented team in my eyes that we've faced all year. They're big and they're physical at every position. They're cookie cutter guys. They're all 6-2, 6-3 wide receivers. The O-Line is all 6-5, 6-6 and they do a great job of playing with fundamentals and technique"

Mitchell said the Terps were like a combination of two of ECU's ACC neighbors in terms of their offensive capabilities.

"They're like North Carolina State as far as their spread passing game," Mitchell said. "They can put three wide receivers out there and create some mismatches with your linebackers. They also can get into a power running game like North Carolina, put in personnel and pound the rock. They have running backs and fullbacks that do a great job running downhill.

"Their O-Line is multifaceted. They can pass protect and they can run block."

Evaluating 2010: "At one point we were progressing the way we thought we would with a young unit," Mitchell said. "For the Southern Miss game, the N.C. State game and the Marshall game, we had a stretch that we saw that consistency. We saw the fundamentals. We saw the hard work pay off.

"Once we got past the Marshall game, a number of things happened before the UCF game. ... Because of personnel, we had to change what we were doing to some degree. We had to take a back seat to some of that growth early in the season. You're playing with new guys. You're having to take kids out of their redshirt. You're playing like you were at the beginning of the season and I thought that's where we were the last three or four games."

Going forward: "We're definitely trying to identify kids who can help us grow," Mitchell said of the pre-bowl workouts.

The junior college ranks apparently will be a source the Pirates will draw on to improve defensively.

"We are going to bring in some players that are going to make a difference next year," Mitchell said.

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12/26/2010 04:32 AM


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