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View from the East
Friday, March 30, 2012

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Pirates developing on multiple levels

Coach Ruffin McNeill
(File photo by W.A. Myatt)


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Respectable 'D' now seeking greatness
Pirates shell UCF in series finale
Central Florida overpowers Pirates 10-6
UCF scrapes by in battle of southpaws
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Charting the Pirates' 2012 Journey

By Al Myatt
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Spring practice is a time of multi-tasking for the East Carolina football coaching staff.

It is a time for individual evaluations such as that involved with the competition to determine a successor to Dominique Davis at quarterback. It is a time for individual fundamental and skill development at all positions. It is a time for teaching and revising offensive and defensive schemes in the broader sense of those units.

All of the efforts ranging from the individual, positional, unit and team standpoint are about preparing for the 2012 season, which starts at home against Appalachian State on Sept. 1.

East Carolina held workout No. 6 of spring football practice on Wednesday and will go out again this afternoon, weather permitting, with a controlled scrimmage scheduled for Saturday.

This week's scrimmage and other developmental aspects on the agenda are closed to the public. Pirate fans may take in the Purple-Gold scrimmage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on April 14.

Former Pirates coach Skip Holtz used to say that each season's team developed a separate identity and current ECU skipper Ruffin McNeill likes what he's seeing from the group that will represent his alma mater in 2012.

"I like this football team," McNeill said. "I like this outfit. They have a competitive spirit that I like. They have done everything from the end of the season, offseason with Coach (Jeff) Connors (assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning). ... We have (nine) days left to get some work in but I like that competitive spirit about this group.

"There's battles and competition going on on all three sides of the football. The quarterback, I know will get most of the attention but there's also offensive line battles, defensive back battles, running back positioning battles there. For me, those battles are major because I want to create competition at all positions. That's the key to having a football team that competes year in and year out and reaches its potential."

Quarterback situation

Davis was the prime mover in ECU's offense during a 5-7 season in 2011. He threw for 3,225 yards and 25 touchdowns. He netted 172 yards rushing with five scores.

Rio Johnson served as Davis's backup, the only one of the four quarterbacks in competition this spring to get playing time last season. Johnson appeared in four games, completing 20 of 29 passes for 157 yards with no TDs and one pick. Johnson, a rising junior from Atlanta, lost a total of 31 yards on seven rushing attempts.

Brad Wornick was Davis's backup when the Pirates went 6-7 in 2010. Wornick completed 13 of 19 passes for 138 yards with one score and no interceptions in five games. The rising senior from Charlotte ran once that season for seven yards.

Shane Carden, a sophomore from Houston, and Cody Keith, a redshirt freshman from Charlotte, have yet to take a college snap but are in the quarterback picture.

"I think some days Rio is out there in front," McNeill said. "Some days you see Shane do some things on routes and understanding where the ball goes. Cody Keith the same way — make the throws he's got to make and the decisions he's got to make. Brad's that gamer who when it's his turn and it's that competitive situation or group competition, you see him.

"I think all four of them are competing well. Rio has game experience. So does Brad. ... They're all four competing. I like all four of those guys."

Running back outlook

Injuries led to ECU using four different running backs as starters last season, including converted inside receiver Zico Pasut. Torrance Hunt, Reggie Bullock and Michael Dobson, each of whom started at various times, combined to produce 1,138 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Bullock only played in six games due to ailments after winning the starting assignment for the season opener in Charlotte against South Carolina.

"Reggie is doing a fine job," McNeill said. "Of course, he missed so many games last year with injury. It's good to see him out there. You see him make the cuts and the runs that he's capable of making.

"The biggest thing with that position is that guy has to be a three-tier guy. He's got to be able to block, catch and run the football. Reggie's doing two of those things pretty well and continues to work on that third one of protection."

Dobson had 11 catches for 96 yards last season.

Receivers banged up in 2011

ECU's receiving corps utilized a lot of personnel last season as injuries sidelined almost everyone from prolific Lance Lewis to promising Justin Hardy for portions of the campaign.

"Reese Wiggins (rising junior outside receiver) came on strong last year," McNeill said. "He worked very hard with Coach Connors in the offseason. Reese has been steadily improving. David Nichol (new outside receivers coach) will be one of the best things that's happened to (Wiggins), to be honest. David understands the position, not that Dennis (Simmons, now at Washington State) or Pat (Washington, now at Kentucky) didn't, but David understands it and has a special knack to develop kids there.

"Dayon Arrington (rising senior) has been steady. We're missing Danny Webster (rising soph, out following right knee surgery) at the inside position there. Derrick Harris (rising senior and brother of former ECU great Dwayne Harris) picked it up last practice and he's one who has earned a scholarship. He did some things for us last year (23 catches for 168 yards, 1 TD) that we're counting on. Donte Sumpter (rising soph) is out now with a nick on his knee but he'll be back hopefully by the time we finish spring.

"Justin Hardy and Justin Jones (rising junior tight end) are just like we thought, guys who can make a difference. We need those guys to be healthy. Andrew Bodenheimer (rising senior) is one you know every day, every play what you're going to get. He does a great job of leading as well. Antonio Cannon (rising soph) is another young player that we redshirted but he's going to be a tough player and a tough receiver. He catches the ball well."

McNeill is hopeful that Webster will be available by the season opener.

Depth on offensive line

Will Simmons was the only ECU offensive lineman to start every game at the same position last season, opening all 12 games at right guard. Jordan Davis made starts at left tackle and left guard. Steven Baker made starts at left and right tackle in his senior season. Josh Clark, one of three starters at center, returns after making six starts there last season. Adhem Elsawi made starts at left guard and right tackle in 2011. Grant Harner had eight starts at right tackle. Drew Gentry made one start at right tackle as a redshirt freshman.

"Harner is out right now, recovering from an injury," McNeill said. "He's working his way back and he's close. Maybe in a week or so we can get some work out of him but the core that I like — Will Simmons, Jordan Davis, Adhem Elsawi — is back. Taylor Hudson (rising sophomore) on the offensive line is a guy who has stepped up and been a surprise there at center. C.J. Struyk (rising soph) is another guy who has stepped up. Josh Clark is still battling and doing a great job there so that center position is shored up. Some young guys, Isaac Harris (rising soph), Chaz Lowery (rising soph) have been doing a great job and Jimmy Booth (rising junior) has been a pleasant surprise."

Booth moved from the defensive front to offensive guard and center during the offseason.

"Robert Jones, a guy we moved from defensive line a year ago to offensive line, has had a very good spring," McNeill said. "I like the way that group is working there. Hopefully, we're solidifying that group where we have a great group of starters and some guys, that if someone gets nicked, they'll be able to go in and rotate those guys up front.

"The goal has been in the offseason and with recruiting and Coach Connors' development, thought process and theory and then as we go through spring ball ... to develop depth at all positions."

Special teams personnel

Former East Carolina player Kirk Doll, who has worked on staffs at LSU, Notre Dame and in the NFL for the Denver Broncos, has been hired as special teams coordinator. ECU lost placekicker Michael Barbour and Ben Ryan, who did the bulk of the punting last season. Barbour made 12 of 17 field goals and had tremendous range with three field goals of more than 50 yards. He made 39 of 40 extra points.

Rising soph Warren Harvey, a hometown product from Rose High, is shaping up as the heir apparent to Barbour. Rising junior Trent Tignor and senior Phillip McNaughton, who made an ill-fated start against Southern Miss, are competing for the punting job.

"Warren Harvey has done a great job with the placekicking," McNeill said. "We're just looking for consistency the rest of spring practice. The ball is coming off his foot very well. Matt Milisor (rising junior) is competing there with him.

" ... Trent may be ahead of Phillip (punting) some days and then you'll see Phillip boom one and get a great hang time, great distance on some punts.

"The snapping, Charlie Coggins (rising soph) has done a great job, C.J. Struyk and also Matt Milner are doing some snapping for us to give us some depth at that position."

Work in progress

One of McNeill's challenges is determining how time might best be spent in the spring to get the Pirates as close to their potential in the allotted time as possible.

"I like the mentality of the football team right now," said the ECU coach. "We're not there yet and we've got work to do. ... This group has seen a foundation built in these first two years. They don't want to be a foundation for the third year. They want to be the team that pushes us to the expectations that we have in house. I like that with this group. I like the competitive spirit with this group."

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03/30/2012 01:19 AM


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