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View from the East
Monday, August 8, 2011

By Al Myatt

Connors passes the baton

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

College football is virtually a year-round commitment for student-athletes but NCAA regulations limit coaches' contact with players in the offseason. That's where Jeff Connors comes in. As director of strength and conditioning at East Carolina, he supervises player development in the winter and summer.

With the start of preseason practice, Connors' role diminishes but he will still be involved in conditioning during ECU's upcoming season. In his first summer back in Greenville after a decade at North Carolina, the Pirates apparently were able to make needed improvements under his demanding supervision.

"One of the things I think we were very effective in doing is improving our foundational strength as a team," said Connors, who directed strength and conditioning at ECU from 1991 to 2001 before going to Chapel Hill. "That was most evident in our numbers with our primary lifts. That was one of our goals coming in here in January and I think that we accomplished that across the board with most of our athletes. We're pretty happy, particularly with our linemen that they made some progress there. We're not completely satisfied with it yet. We did make some strides and we have the numbers to show that."

Connors doesn't just address physical development in his relationship with the players. He deals with the mental requirements for success.

"I believe that mental toughness is directly related to physical conditioning," Connors said. "Every military organization believes that also because that's essentially what you use to get to the next level. We're going to continue to believe that. In conjunction with that, I really believe in some of the intangibles such as accountability, a great work ethic, having integrity and having tempo and things of that nature. We put a lot of emphasis on those things because we feel like those are universal, lifelong principles that are not only going to help us be more successful with football but help each individual become a better person as well.

"All of those things, with regard to mental status and attitude are very, very important, if not the most important. One of the things that I think is glaringly important is discipline. I've been through some situations where I felt like (discipline) should have been emphasized more. We're going to make sure that's taken care of here in this program."

The last statement from Connors sounds like a reference to Butch Davis. Connors is on record saying that he questioned the former Tar Heels coach's degree of commitment to conditioning during the season.

The Pirates have reinstituted a conditioning test prior to the start of preseason practice. The majority of ECU's players participated in the voluntary summer workouts. They had about a week off before returning to school for preseason camp. The tests apparently went well early Friday morning.

"The defensive line really surpassed my expectation," Connors said. "We had kind of a daily battle with them since we've been here because we have high standards of conditioning. I really wanted them to make significant improvement and make sure that they worked to be at the standard I need them to be at. I was not particularly happy with where we ended up with them toward the end of the summer but when we showed up to do the test the other day, I knew all the confrontation that we had over a period of time really paid off. They showed up big time. Every one of them made the conditioning test.

"Every one of them had a great day (Friday) and I was really happy to hear coach (John) Wiley (associate head coach) say that he was very impressed with how explosive they were off the ball. That was a pleasant surprise and overall I thought the team physically looked good, looked impressive. I've got some pretty high standards there. We've had a pretty good-looking football team at (North) Carolina for me to compare these guys to and I think they compared favorably with regard to gaining lean mass, losing body fat and looking more athletic — things of that nature."

The Pirates are still a work in progress.

"We're not quite where we need to be yet," Connors said. "We have a little bit of depth issues in a couple of different areas but essentially I was very happy with the conditioning test."

Even though Pirate coach Ruffin McNeill and staff can now work with the players, Connors will still have a role as ECU will have sort of an old-school approach to maintaining their conditioning edge.

"We're going to go back to what we did here my last 10 years here," Connors said. "We're really going to put a great deal of emphasis on conditioning. We'll talk about the fourth quarter every day. We'll talk about the fact we have to be prepared to win the fourth quarter and we have to set specific goals. We want to see fatigue in the opposition. We don't want to show fatigue. We want to step it up and make sure we finish strong week in and week out. One of the ways we're going to do that is we're going to continue to condition throughout camp and also throughout the season. It's something that I did under Bill Lewis and Steve Logan (former ECU coaches). I think it's very important that we continue to do it now.

"Things have changed in collegiate football a little bit through the influence of the NFL. I don't think it's been a particularly favorable thing. With some of the things that have happened with tragedies with players across the country, you have to be very careful with what you do and you have to be safe with what you do. At the same time, you have to continue to challenge these athletes if you're going to gain an edge over the competition so that's what we're going to do."

ECU had a record for outperforming the opposition in the fourth quarter during Connors' first stint with the Pirates.

"I feel confident that we are committed to doing things that not everybody else is going to be doing," Connors said. "We want to develop that mentality and that attitude within our team that when they see that it pays off and when they feel that they can dominate at the end of a football game, they're going to buy into it at a higher level as well. I think our standards can continue to be improved year in and year out. They're going to have to see a little bit of the reward that comes from the investment and we're very confident that they will. I think their attitude is such going into this season. We're excited about that. We're also anxious to see how it's going to pan out."

McGuire has voids to fill

As running backs coach and special teams coordinator, Clay McGuire has some significant personnel losses to deal with from the 2010 team. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Giavanni Ruffin are gone. So is No. 17, Dwayne Harris, who was productive as a return man in addition to his vast contributions as a receiver.

"We've got six guys right now," McGuire said of the running backs situation. "The position is wide open. We've got six scholarship guys right now and they're all competing for the job. The only one back that actually has had some reps in a game and the farthest one along right now is Michael Dobson. He'll be a sophomore. We're real young at that position but we've got some talent there and we've got some guys who kind of fit what we do.

"I think we'll be able to kind of get these guys out in space and maybe give them the opportunity to have success for us within this offense."

Reggie Bullock will get a good look at running back after rushing for 1,830 yards last season on the junior college level at Arizona Western.

"Reggie is doing real good," McGuire said. "Reggie got here in the summer and has been through a whole summer with Coach Connors. He's put on some weight, some good weight and did some good stuff in there. The biggest thing for him is how fast he can pick up the system and be ready to play. He did some very, very impressive things in junior college. I think he ran for over 100 yards in 20 junior college games. He's very productive, very durable and a very good running back. We're very impressed with him, bringing him in here. He's really come in here and done everything we asked him to do so I'm anxious to get the pads on him. You can't really tell anything with running backs until they get the pads on."

Williams ran for 847 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010, plus 431 yards in receptions with one score. Ruffin netted 384 yards on the ground and had 157 yards in catches.

"It just depends," McGuire said in regard to the depth of the running back rotation. "Last year, we played two guys. We always intend to have one guy as the featured guy and then having a back-up for him and then a third guy as some kind of specialty player, a role player, some kind of a package player, but you never know. Every year it changes. Last year we played with two. The year before at Texas Tech, we played with two but there's been years we played with one. We'll figure it out as it comes. By the time we get to the South Carolina game (Sept. 3 in Charlotte), we'll be ready to go for it."

Mike Barbour gives the Pirates a proven kicker. He hit 56 of 57 extra points in 2010 and made 16 of 18 field goal attempts. On his only missed PAT, freshman defensive back Damon Magazu took up his slack with a game-ending interception to preserve a 33-27 win over N.C. State in overtime in Greenville.

"Barbour's on a lot of watch lists right now (including the Lou Groza Award)," McGuire said. "He definitely earned it. Ben Ryan, who had never been a punter before in his life, went out there and Ryan Dougherty, who helps us here with the program, really did a great job with Ben."

Dougherty averaged over 40 yards per punt for the Pirates from 2003 to 2006. Ryan averaged 39.4 yards per punt last season.

"I'm anxious to see Ben get a year better," McGuire said. "We've got our deep snapper back, Will Smith, which is huge. That's a very important position."

In the many facets of the game that special teams encompass, returns are an area where the Pirates are lacking a proven performer.

"Without Dwayne Harris back there, you don't sleep as good at night," McGuire said. "We've got about four or five guys we're looking at right now. I had a couple of guys do some really good things in drills (Friday). Maybe it will be the same thing as my first year at Texas Tech. They had about three or four guys out there working that they really felt good about and all of sudden they put this one guy out there named Wes Welker and the rest was history.

"You never know. We might throw that guy out there first or second game of the year and eight touchdowns later, an NCAA record later, we might have that same type of person."

Bullock watched ECU in bowl

Coincidentally, Reggie Bullock watched ECU's 51-20 loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl with his uncle.

"It was crazy because I just turned it on and they were on," Bullock said. "My uncle (John Bullock) said, 'What would you think about going to East Carolina?' I said, 'Yeah, that would be a great place to go to.' I like the colors and everything. Coach McNeill was here and that was a big plus. My running backs coach (at Arizona Western) knew some of the coaches here when they were at Texas Tech."

Bullock is preparing himself mentally to make the adjustment from the junior college level.

"It's going to be a big adjustment," he said. "There are a lot bigger and faster and way more coachable players. It's going to be a big competition and hopefully I get used to it quick, fast and in a hurry."

Bullock is aware that North Carolina has a basketball player named Reggie Bullock, who is from Kinston.

"Yeah, I figured that out when I was on You Tube," ECU's Bullock said.

Holland weighs in

ECU starts the season with South Carolina and Virginia Tech, teams ranked No. 12 and No. 13 respectively in the initial USA Today coaches poll. The Pirates also take on North Carolina and Navy in addition to their Conference USA schedule.

"We've got a great challenge in our schedule," said Terry Holland, ECU athletic director. "That's one of the things we've done. We've played a tough schedule. This one's a little bit tougher than they have been because the conference has picked up. I really think our conference games have become much tougher. Everybody in the league is paying more attention to football and, of course, everybody is recruiting well.

"It is a very challenging schedule. It starts with South Carolina in Charlotte and Virginia Tech at home and it's on from there. The great thing about it is we have terrific fans behind us. They've already purchased more season tickets than they did last year, which was a record. So they'll set another record for this year and they have created the best game atmosphere that I've ever seen in college football. ... There is no place that is more fun to watch a football game than Dowdy-Ficklen. You don't sit way up in the stratosphere somewhere where you can't really tell what's going on, having to watch on the big board.

"We've got the big board, too, so you can watch the replays and stuff."

Holland seemed satisfied with where the program is going into coach Ruffin McNeill's second season at the helm. McNeill noted Saturday that Holland also has undergone a hip replacement.

"I think we've got another good recruiting year to get in the players that this particular coaching staff wants to have to be able to do the things that they do best," Holland said. "We're certainly getting there. The transition last year was not an easy one and the schedule was not easy last year, but until we suffered those injuries a little past the halfway point, we were playing extremely well at 5-2 with losses to Carolina at Carolina and at Virginia Tech."

Rough time for Ruff

Coach McNeill said in his remarks at media day that the pain that resulted in his April hip replacement was unbearable at times. Having dropped about 130 pounds from weight loss surgery, McNeill certainly looks better and he indicates that he feels better.

Ruff said one of his relatives told him that he "lost a fourth grader," in terms of the excess pounds he had shed.

"I want to lose a sixth grader," he told Conference USA media at the league's football kickoff in Memphis.

Not all aspects of the weight loss have been good. McNeill said the hardware in his hip replacement set off the airport metal detector on his way to Memphis and created a delay.

McNeill reiterated Saturday that he is committed to building the ECU program the right way with the values he believes in. He said the transition from a 4-3 to 3-4 defensive alignment was not a quick fix but was a long term commitment. That means the Pirates will likely recruit a higher percentage of linebackers relative to defensive linemen in the future.

McNeill said he didn't intend to "microwave" the program with temporary measures such as bringing in an inordinate number of junior college players.

McNeill may have lost mass but he has not lost his sense of humor.

Despite his weight loss, he said he didn't plan to run on the field ahead of his team prior to games. McNeill wants to avoid the possibility of getting tripped up and trampled as ECU players surge forth. McNeill did say he could outrun Cary Godette, his director of football administration, now that he has lost over a third or his previous body weight.

No word on whether Godette, a former Pirate gridder and member of the ECU hall of fame, will make Ruff prove it.

Defense has something to prove

Kidding aside, the 2011 season won't be much fun for the Pirates unless the defense plays significantly better. The struggles of the unit have been well chronicled. The coaching staff has sought to make adjustments schematically and through recruiting. Marke Powell has moved from defensive end to outside linebacker in the current 3-4. There were several key injuries to defensive personnel in 2010. Powell played in seven games last season before going out for surgery on his right wrist.

"It was frustrating personally," Powell said. "I had to sit on the sideline and watch my team go to work without me and then they struggled as a whole. Knowing there was nothing that I could do, it hurt me."

Powell's rehab and preparation for the 2011 season was enhanced by the arrival of Connors as strength and conditioning coach.

"This past offseason has been like no other," said the 6-foot-3, 222-pound junior. "Them adding coach Connors to the mix was a great move for all of us, coaches and players. He's done everything he could to prepare us for this upcoming season."

Powell said he is healthy and motivated.

"Being where we were last year I feel like puts a chip on our shoulder," he said. "We have to come out here each day just to prepare and perform. We have to prepare to be the best defense we can possibly be. I'm itching to see what we've got Sept. 3."

Tom McClellan, ECU's assistant AD for media relations, said ECU will wear white and be on the home sideline for the season opener at Bank of America Stadium.

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08/18/2011 02:51 AM


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