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View from the East
Monday, August 1, 2011

By Al Myatt

Pirates must get defensive

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

MEMPHIS — East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill told the gathering at the Conference USA football media kickoff at the Memphis Hilton on Sunday that he and his staff had done a self evaluation after the 2010 team finished 6-7 with a 51-20 loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl in Washington, DC.

Fewer penalties and improving the turnover/takeaway ratio are general objectives. Hiring Jeff Connors addressed the area of improving strength and conditioning.

If Dominique Davis is any indication, the Pirates will definitely be stronger this year. The ECU quarterback looks a lot sturdier after an offseason of workouts under Connors' guidance.

"Coach Connors told us every day was game day and it was," Davis said of summer workouts.

The Pirates' biggest adjustments are on the defensive side of the ball, which comes as no surprise after that unit was at or near the bottom nationally in several statistical categories last year. A transition to a 3-4 scheme and better, healthier personnel should get things moving in the right direction.

ECU should benefit from the return of Davis, who was not around for spring ball in 2010 but did pretty well in picking up the offense in preseason camp. Davis threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns last season. He also had nine rushing scores.

"You don't replace a guy like 17," said McNeill of Dwayne Harris, the talented receiver/returner for ECU who recently signed with the Dallas Cowboys.

McNeill endorsed the value of continuity in his coaching staff. Extensive plans have been generated that range as far forward as the recruiting period following spring practice in 2012.

McNeill said the Pirate players will report back for a conditioning test under Connors at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 5. That's a tradition that has been dormant since the Steve Logan coaching era at ECU.

Davis said one of his goals is to get back to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl. C-USA's berth in the Dec. 31 game traditionally goes to the league champion.

Steve Ehrhart, Executive Director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, said the matchup with a Southeastern Conference team will have a 2:30 p.m. kickoff this year and will be shown on ABC.

C-USA on Fox

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said there was a greater television presence at the media kickoff.

"That's because there are about 10 Fox guys running around and they are going to promote us through their various platforms," Banowsky said. "We've needed that."

Banowsky negotiated a five-year, $43 million deal with Fox after apparently getting stalled by ESPN, which contended in a $21 million suit filed against the league in the spring that C-USA did not give its former network due options in the negotiating process. The coaches seem to like the package going forward.

"We're excited about it," said first-year Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship. "We're on 11 times, nine times on national TV. We'll have a lot of visibility around the country and when it comes to recruiting, that's a big deal. We like to talk to kids who tell us they've seen us on TV. It's minimally invasive to our schedule. We've got one Thursday night game. To not completely whack out the schedule really helps us."

The previous C-USA contract with ESPN featured numerous weeknight kickoffs.

Rich Rod on the job — and on the tube

Former West Virginia and Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez conversed with McNeill as the Pirates coach waited to tape a television interview.

"I knew I was in trouble (at Michigan) when the AD called me in on a Tuesday," Rodriguez said. "I was in the middle of game planning. He shut the door and told me, 'You said 'ain't' three times in your news conference today. That's when I knew I was in trouble. We were filling the stadium (100,000 plus) and selling all the new luxury boxes but they told me the television ratings were down.

"Of course, the ratings are down. There's a hundred games on TV now."

Rodriguez is involved in the television side of college football for the time being.

"I'm doing a little TV stuff with CBS sports," Rodriguez said. "It's been fun so far. It's a little different avenue for the coach to be on the other side of the camera but they've been great to work with. Most of the games I do this fall are Conference USA games. ... It involves a little travel but that's O.K. I'm excited to stay in it. It gives me a chance to look at things from a different perspective."

Rodriguez was offensive coordinator for Tommy Bowden during Tulane's 12-0 season in 1998. He is not ruling out a return to coaching by any means.

"We'll see what happens this year," he said. "I still have the hunger to coach. In fact, I think I'm hungrier now than I've ever been. We'll see what opportunities come up in December and we'll take it from there."

This month will be much different for Rodriguez from the many Augusts he spent as a coach in preseason camp.

"Instead of grinding during two-a-days and having every minute consumed of your day, I'll be busy doing some studio stuff, but it will give me a chance to learn and watch other people," he said.

Still monitoring academic progress

Jeton Beavers, John Lattimore and JoJo Blanks have the ability to impact ECU's defensive unit positively if they can clear some academic hurdles.

"We're still waiting on those three guys," McNeill said. "They have some time left to finish their classes. We feel good about Jeton and John. We just have to wait and see the final grades. JoJo could struggle a little bit. I hope not, but he's working hard. We still have time to finish up and get their transcripts from those different schools. We're hoping to see those guys on campus.

" ... We went to a 3-4 but we also had to upgrade our talent level. The Xs and Os are important but actually having the personnel to do what you need to get done physically is as important, too."

Price reacts to poll

The preseason poll by Conference USA coaches has been eliminated but Texas-El Paso coach Mike Price reacted to a preseason poll by The Sporting News, which placed the Miners sixth and last in the West Division.

"We're going to go from underdogs to wonderdogs," Price said.

The Pirates are picked fifth in the East Division. Southern Miss is picked first, followed by Central Florida, UAB, Marshall, ECU and Memphis. Houston is projected to win the West with Southern Methodist second. Tulsa, Rice, Tulane and UTEP round out The Sporting News' appraisal.

"I like what I think I know about my team that other people don't know," Price said.

ECU makes the 3,800-mile round trip to El Paso for a game on Nov. 12.

"I hope you can find it easier than when we tried to find Greenville," said Price, whose team lost 53-21 at ECU in 2008. "We found it and after we did, I was sorry we found it, but it's one of the best stadiums we play in."

Price conceded that travel is a factor. His team travels to South Florida for a game on Sept. 24 and hosts Houston five nights later on Sept. 29.

"I've been told that 80 percent of teams that travel two time zones lose," Price said. "We'll probably do less contact work during that time. There's a difference between being soft and being smart and we want to be smart."

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08/01/2011 06:40 AM


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