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
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
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
Maryland's leading receiver,
Torrey Smith, also returns kickoffs and has averaged 18.9 yards
"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
"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."
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."
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
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
"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
"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
"We are going to bring in some
players that are going to make a difference next year," Mitchell