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From the Anchor Desk
Tuesday, March 20, 2012

By Brian Bailey

Brian Bailey

Spring season means "Ruff's Madness"


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Spring season means "Ruff's Madness"
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By Brian Bailey
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“March Madness” has a totally different meaning for East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill. "Ruff’s Madness” comes on the gridiron.

McNeill begins his third year as the head of this Pirate ship, and he desperately wants his program to bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 record from a year ago.

The coach knows this team was far too careless with the football a year ago. He says he and his staff will stress ball protection from the very first time the whistle blows this spring through next season.

“Last year we know, and it has been documented, that we shot ourselves in the foot during some games,” said McNeill at his news conference to kick off spring drills. “That cost us. There were also some good things we did in terms of smart football, such as the decrease in penalties. We will continue to emphasize that and playing smart football.

"We have to continue to preach taking care of the ball on offense and taking it away on defense.”

There are several great battles that will go on as players jockey for position on the depth chart that will be used when summer drills start in August.

The most intriguing battle is at quarterback. Rio Johnson won the back-up role last year, but Brad Wornick has the most experience coming back. Sophomore Shane Carden and freshman Cody Keith are also in the mix.

I asked Coach McNeill to handicap the starting quarterback race.

“Redshirt freshman Cody Keith is the youngest,” said McNeill. “He’ll be a guy who will play for us for a long time. He has done really well during the offseason. Rio Johnson and Brad Wornick have gotten reps during games. Shane Carden was in a battle with Rio during last year’s fall camp. Shane can certainly come in and run this offense.

"Those three guys are a little older than Cody and have been around the system a bit longer.”

McNeill says he likes the way this group works. He said he wasn’t really alarmed that the Pirates didn’t sign a quarterback.

“A guy coming in here has to understand the competition,” explained McNeill. “Some (quarterbacks) maybe don’t want the challenge and competition.”

McNeill says he would like to name a starting quarterback by the end of the spring.

“You’d like to go into the summer with a starter established,” McNeill said. "But I think that’s up to them. We have a system. We’ll watch, grade and rate from the beginning of practice through the end of spring drills. We’ll look at everything from seven-on-seven passing to understanding the offense. We will conduct drills, competitions and team-on-team evaluations with that group throughout the spring. You’d like to have a starter, but we can go through summer and fall camp before making a decision if we have to.”

While experience at quarterback is at a minimum, this is a veteran squad that opened spring drills on Monday. The Pirates return seven starters on both sides of the football.

Another area of emphasis this spring will be revamping the special teams. Kirk Doll begins his first season on McNeill’s staff and has had success with special teams during his long career. Doll returns to his alma mater, having played for Sonny Randle in the early 70’s. Doll brings 33 years of coaching experience back to Greenville.

“Kirk has a vast background from Notre Dame to LSU to the NFL,” said McNeill. “His installation will be a big part of that group’s spring. One of the things we want to do is add speed to all our units. We want to improve our defensive special teams coverage units on the punt team and kickoff team. We need to be able to establish good field position for our defense. Also our return units need to improve. After watching all the film from last season, we have got to get better in that area this spring.”

On defense, McNeill says he wants this team to just keep on improving. East Carolina moved to a 3-4 defense after finishing dead last in the nation in 2010 in total defense. Last year the Pirates cut 100 yards per game from the team’s total from the year before. McNeill wants the emphasis on defense to continue in his program.

“Defensively, we want to improve on where we left off,” said McNeill. “We want to sustain and continue to get better. This is a group I’m excited about. They made a big jump last season and significantly improved.”

This is a very important time for the Pirates in football. East Carolina does have experience coming back, but there is inexperience at several key positions.

Every workout this spring will prove to be important when September rolls around and the Pirates take the field against Appalachian State.


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03/20/2012 02:42 AM


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