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View from the 'ville
Thursday, June 17, 2010

By Al Myatt

Kirkpatrick provides staff continuity

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Football coaches understand the value of continuity when a coaching change is made. It helps in the transition between staffs to have someone around who knows how things have been done previously and where relationships stand with recruits.

John Thompson retained Jerry McManus from Steve Logan's former staff at East Carolina. Skip Holtz made a clean break with Thompson's staff but brought Steve Shankweiler with him from South Carolina. Shankweiler had coached previously at ECU. Holtz has kept former Duke player and coach Carl Franks on his staff as director of player personnel at South Florida.

Donnie Kirkpatrick was a natural to remain at ECU when Ruffin McNeill became head coach in January. Kirkpatrick continues to serve as recruiting coordinator for the Pirates. He coached wide receivers for Holtz. With the sophistication of the new "Air Raid" offense, there are two receivers coaches. Kirkpatrick works with the inside receivers.

McNeill and Kirkpatrick caught up quickly when McNeill was hired. There was little time to lose with the February signing date approaching.

"Everything was going so fast," Kirkpatrick said. "He kind of came in and we did this deal with the job. Then we hit the road running to go see the guys we were trying to sign. We tried to get him out to see all of 'em. I probably went with him on most of 'em so we did have quite a bit of time to spend together and talk.

"Somewhere in that conversation we did say something about how long we had known each other. It seemed like we'd always known each other but we finally located it down to when he was the basketball coach at Lumberton High School. I signed a player (from Lumberton). (McNeill) was an assistant football coach for Bob Hanna, who's down in Irmo (SC) now."

At that time, Kirkpatrick was an assistant at Appalachian State. Current Texas coach Mack Brown was head coach of the Mountaineers.

"We were signing a kid named Jeff Farley and Jeff played basketball," Kirkpatrick said. "You sign 'em during basketball season. I had gone down there and spent some time to sign him. Ruff was the basketball coach and that's where I first met him.

"Once you meet Ruff, you always know Ruff. You know what I'm saying? You don't ever get him confused with anybody else."

Recruiting approach remains consistent

ECU may have undergone changes in its offensive and defensive schemes but McNeill has not radically changed the manner in which recruiting is conducted.

"The overall philosophy has really not changed a great deal," Kirkpatrick said. "You've got different people so personalities are different. Likes and dislikes are a little bit different."

The schemes the Pirates will be utilizing also mean recruiting a different type of athlete at some positions.

"Style of play is a little bit different as well," Kirkpatrick said. "The overall philosophy of how we're going to recruit here, the character of the kids, the academics of the deal and the regions that we're going to recruit have not changed.

"I guess that's something that me and Coach McNeill have spent a great deal of time talking about and he kind of believed in what we were doing and what I thought we should be doing. We're going to continue to really, really hone in on the in-state area. He believed in that as well and he's from here.

"He's from, particularly, the eastern part of the state. He's coached here and he's coached at Appalachian so he really believed in that philosophy, too, that we had there with Skip. And then the bordering states of South Carolina and Virginia and those type things as well.

"We were kind of in the phase of thinking that we needed to start expanding — after being here through six recruiting classes — to maybe hit the Maryland, New Jersey areas a little bit harder for some type of kids. And you know what? He was on board with all of that, too, so those things have really not changed as far as areas or how early to offer or how to offer.

"We do a lot through our camps. We really try to get kids here. Those things have really meshed and they've been practically the same thing. Like I say, we are in a different style offense so the quarterback that the old staff may have liked may not be the same guy that they look for here.

"The offensive linemen — there's a little bit of a difference because we're throwing the ball so much more. The pass protection and the style of player that they like — those things have changed a little bit but the other things have not."

Harris a gem

The Pirates have a special talent in rising senior Dwayne Harris. The Stone Mountain, GA, product has rushed for 422 yards with six touchdowns in his ECU career. He's caught 167 passes for 1,878 yards and 10 scores. Harris is also dangerous as a returner, taking three kickoffs back for touchdowns last season.

"It's been good, obviously, to work with a guy like Dwayne," Kirkpatrick said. "He's such a fun guy to be around and he's such a good young man that you do enjoy coaching him and he's very coachable, which is also very much of a positive because everybody is not necessarily that way.

"He's very talented which is a lot of fun because you never know what he's getting ready to do but you do know it's going to be something exciting and you do know he's going to make some big plays for you."

Kirkpatrick thinks Harris may have only scratched the surface of his potential. The "Air Raid" offense may provide Harris with even more opportunities than ECU's old attack, which sought to put the ball in his hands as a quarterback, running back and receiver.

"There's a whole, another level to him and he believes that, too," Kirkpatrick said. "It's nice to have a guy with that attitude that still thinks he can get better. This offense is just going to be great for him I would think in that we're going to find even more ways to get him the ball than we were doing and we were doing it quite a bit in the other system, too.

"But he's going to have a chance to really develop as a receiver and catch a ton of passes, a ton more than he's already caught, too. He will definitely be the center piece. He was one of the first kids that the new staff, Lincoln (Riley, offensive coordinator) and the guys, when he came in, had a chance to evaluate."

Like Holtz's staff, the new crew will adapt the playbook to accentuate its strengths.

"You don't always put in all of your offense in one particular year," Kirkpatrick said. "You look at it and say, 'What have we got (in the offense) that's going to fit the talent we've got?' (Harris) stood out right away, obviously.

"They were like, 'All right, we know where we start in the offense. We start with him.' The position he's playing for us (inside receiver), will give him the opportunity to move around quite a bit so the defenses can't key on him. It's going to fit him well."

Comparing Harris with Allison

Kirkpatrick also coached Aundrae Allison at ECU. Allison was the first player in school history to pick up over 1,000 reception yards with 83 catches for 1,024 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games in 2005. He had 62 catches for 708 yards and four scores in 2006. Allison has played for the Minnesota Vikings and was claimed off waivers by the New York Jets last August before injuring a knee in the final preseason game.

Kirkpatrick was asked to compare the two prolific Pirate receivers.

"They're both great players who obviously make a lot of big plays," Kirkpatrick said. "They're very different in the type of player they are. Aundrae was a speed guy. He could really blow the top off a defense as he could beat people over the top and run away from people. He was just a very, very explosive player that way.

"Dwayne, I really think, catches the ball better than Aundrae does. Dwayne has phenomenal hands. Aundrae was more of an outside-type receiver. Dwayne is obviously more of an inside, slot kind of a guy. Dwayne is strong — very, very strong — especially in his lower body.

"Aundrae made people miss him. He did not ever really run people over. He was not much of a power kind of guy. Dwayne does make people miss him but has the power to run you over. They're both return-type guys. Dwayne has probably excelled a little bit more because he's gotten the opportunity.

"We didn't use Aundrae as much in the return role because Chris Johnson was here at that time and Chris was so good at it as well. Dwayne's a little more sturdy that way. Now Aundrae done some of that at the next level but both of them, obviously give you big play ability."

Knowledge of personnel

The rest of the new ECU staff had to learn and evaluate personnel in spring practice. Kirkpatrick already had a solid working knowledge of his group. Fitting them into the new offense was an adjustment.

"There's going to be a lot more receivers in the game at one time," Kirkpatrick said. "We did some of the same things before, too. Dwayne Harris is where it's all going to start right there but. Darryl Freeney, who has had some really good games for us as well, is surely the other playmaker who comes to mind, a guy who has proven himself as well and we're looking for him to step that up even more."

Michael Bowman, a standout in the 2009 spring game, is another potential star in the receiving corps.

"We were really thinking he was going to have a good season last year and broke his arm in the preseason," Kirkpatrick said. "He played a little bit in the bowl game but really pretty much missed the season. He's come back and shown that he's definitely a big playmaker. He came out of the spring game last year and we really thought he was the next guy who was going to step it up. We missed him last year."

A youth movement also is taking place among the receivers.

"There's been some really good young kids that have come on for us like Justin Jones, a kid we redshirted last year, who's a really big tight end."

Jones is listed as 6-foot-8 and 252 pounds.

"He's been a little bit different type player than they've had out at Texas Tech," said Kirkpatrick. "We're kind of adjusting the system a little bit to fit him because he's so good and he's such a valuable receiver. With his size, he's just hard to cover. You get some tremendous matchups with him in there. He really came out of spring showing some promise, as did Mike Price, a young man who just has some incredible speed. He's a kid from New Bern who just really has some special talent because he is so fast."

Kirkpatrick said there is a healthy stockpile of receivers.

"We've got good depth," he said. "It was a good time to change into this offense. That was the thing that Lincoln and the guys were most surprised in. What they knew of East Carolina was that we had been a little more of a run-oriented type team though we had some games where we scored some higher numbers, especially when Chris (Johnson) was here.

"It had been more of a grind-it-out, keep the score down, eat the clock up type of offensive philosophy. They were surprised we had so many talented receivers. They were expecting to come in and there wouldn't be a lot of receivers.

"They were amazed that we not only have enough guys to be starters. We've got enough guys that are pushing 'em as back-ups. Andrew Bodenheimer. Joe Womack has really bounced back from what I thought was a little bit of an off year last year to show great promise. There's almost too many to name. We're very, very talented at receiver right now."

Veteran Kevin Gidrey, Carter Gagnon and Zico Pasut are available when the Pirates want to revert to a two tight end package.

"That's going to give us the ability to get into some more conventional sets, some tighter, run-oriented sets, but we'll be able to throw the ball out of them as well," Kirkpatrick said. "It's going to make us much harder to defend because we're going to be a little more versatile than they were at Tech."

Recovering from loss of large senior class

ECU had 28 seniors in the program last season when the Pirates made their second straight trip to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl as champions of Conference USA.

"It's made the room look a little bit funny because there were so many of those seniors were the original class that we signed — Scotty Robinson, C.J. Wilson, Van Eskridge. They've just been playing forever it seemed like. ... They were so much the personality of the team. The last two years they've obviously been the leaders of the team," Kirkpatrick said.

The players who will fill the void created by the 2009 seniors may lack name recognition but Kirkpatrick said they have ability.

"We have recruited very well," he said. "We have signed a lot of good players. There's a lot of kids that just need their opportunity to play. I think people will be like, 'Where did he come from?' He may have been here but he's been behind Jay Ross or Linval Joseph — guys that have been playing for awhile.

"The biggest loss has just been in the experience and the leadership. We've got some guys who are stepping up and doing that. ... Patrick Pinkney (2009 senior quarterback) has kind of been the spokesperson for the offense and there's a change in that.

"We'll be fine. They'll be guys who step up. You kind of have to wait your turn sometimes to be that guy that is the spokesperson. ... Older guys kind of know how to go through the season and not go through the ups and downs — win a big game and come back and don't be ready to play the next week. That's a sign of inexperienced teams.

"Your experienced teams kind of learn to be a little bit more level every week. They're ready every week and kind of understand the challenge. They understand conference play. It's going to be tough. Teams are going to be very familiar with you and they're going to be very geared up for you. They know how to play in tough environments.

"That will be the challenge. Will the young guys be ready to do that and win some tight ball games... because you're going to have to win some tight ones to be a conference champion."

Thoughts on 2010 C-USA race

Kirkpatrick has a greater degree of familiarity with the C-USA competition than anybody on staff at the moment but he sidestepped taking an objective look at handicapping the teams for the upcoming season.

"It's just hard for me to picture us anywhere but at the top," he said. "That's just the way you think as a coach and that's just the way I believe. We've been there the last two years. The previous two years before that we were one game away from being there and felt like we should have been there.

"My expectation is not ever going to change. I feel like we're still going to be there. I know we won't be the pick because people wouldn't put their money on the inexperienced team and the staff change and those type of things. That's fine with us. I think our kids will enjoy having the targets off their backs.

"The East (Division, C-USA) will be very competitive. Southern Mississippi returns a lot of players and they have a lot of talent. We have a lot of respect for them and we have to go to Hattiesburg. It's an extremely tough place to play. Since I've been here (since 2005), we've won once there and it was an overtime game, a nailbiter.

"Central Florida is obviously recruiting very well. I know they've got a lot of talent. We've had good success against them. Since I've been here I think we've won every time but the first time but they've all been games that could have gone either way as well — and we go there this year. We know that's one of the better environments to play in because they draw a good crowd. That will be a tough place to go to.

"Marshall has become a good rivalry. We've had close games with them ever since we've been here. Marshall is a school that's used to winning. They expect to win. They demand to win there, too, so they are very competitive, which makes it tough as well.

UAB seems to be much improved. I know they feel confident that they are better. It's a very tough place to play for a different reason because you play in a huge stadium and nobody's there. It makes it a different type of challenge. We did win there the last time, finally. There was a little hex on us there that we finally broke. We haven't really played very well down there, too.

"The East will just be tough. You're very familiar with each other and that just levels it out."

Kirkpatrick isn't taking the West for granted either.

"Houston's going to be back and they're going to be really good," Kirkpatrick said. "We've got to open up with Tulsa and then Memphis. You talk about the challenging part of the schedule. You've got two conference games to start with and they're both at home. The pressure will be that you really need to get off to a 2-0 start."

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08/06/2010 01:57 AM


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