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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Feature Writer

Taking Stock of Spring Football
and Looking Ahead to Fall

Q&A with Lincoln Riley Elicits Candid Insights

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

Lincoln Riley
(ECU Media Relations Photo)


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(ECU Media Relations Photos)

Bonesville features writer Ron Cherubini conducted Q&A exchanges with East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (left) and Pirate defensive boss Brian Mitchell (right). The net result: candid glimpses into the thinking inside the program heading into the 2011 season. Links to the interviews:

Lincoln Riley Q&A
Brian Mitchell Q&A

Heading into spring practice, East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley had high expectations. For the most part, there was more experience coming back than leaving for his offense. Those guys who were not starters or getting game reps in 2010 were continuing to absorb the offensive schemes.

Spring, in general, lived up to his expectations, though there were some frustrations that were simply out of anyone’s control, chiefly the result of minor injuries that decimated the center position.

On the positive front, the experience on the unit showed. The spring schedule was more precise, the routine plays were more routine, and the battles being waged for starting jobs were more intense and closer than a year ago.

On the downside, losing the service of all three centers in an offense that relies heavily on precision (read: timing of play initiation) can distract from understanding what exactly you're seeing.

Case-in-point: the Spring Game. If you back out the errant snaps (errant defined as a snap that is less then adequate for this offense), the offensive performance was very good. On the other hand, if you count those plays, the offensive output was disappointing by any measure that this offense lives by.

Still, Riley’s confidence in the unit is high as the players progress through Camp Connors and summer workouts. Confident enough that, when asked if he had to field an offense today, he was quick to answer.

It would look something like this:

— QB – Dominique Davis
— RB – Torrance Hunt
— OWR – Lance Lewis
— OWR – Andrew Bodenheimer OR
Joe Womack OR
Dayon Arrington
— IWR – Justin Jones OR
Justin Hardy
— IWR – Michael Bowman OR
Danny Webster
— LT – Jordan Davis
— LG – Doug Polochak
— C – Hugh Parker
— RG – Will Simmons
— RT – Grant Harner

Of course, that is if he had to play TODAY. Expectations are high for RB Reggie Bullock to turn the running back competition on its head. And with with certain players back to full health (e.g., Faulds), there is a lot of room for change in that lineup, but it was fun to hear who he would go with. And, he said he would feel good about that group.

Coach Riley talked extensively about the offense and the spring. Since it is best to take in his thoughts directly, the following is the Q&A with Coach Riley:

Bonesville (BV): What is your general assessment offensively of spring ball… did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish?

Lincoln Riley (LR): Yeah (I’m optimistic) I think so. It was generally more productive than last spring just because the guys knew where they were going and so the drills were much more efficient, the practices were a little more efficient. We got quite a few more reps in than we did last spring and I can see the improvement there.

I saw some young guys step up in key positions where they have to step up in, which is part of building a good program. You know when you lose good players, you expect to have guys who are ready to step in there and may even be better. I saw a lot of that this spring.

I see the personality of this team a little bit as a team that is going to out-work people. This team works really hard, and offensively, I think we have a pretty confident group, we just have to continue being more efficient at what we do. I think as we narrow down some of these position battles, I think that will come. We have a lot of great battles that will go into summer and to fall camp. Who is going to be on the field for us in a number of positions really is a mystery right now because we have good players. A lot of these battles are going to come down to the wire. That’s why we are excited for them to get back in there and have a great summer with Coach (Jeff) Connors and then see how these guys come in for camp and who is ready to take (positions).

BV: Lincoln, did you have any disappointments with this camp?

LR: Yeah… the center position was a disappointment just because of the guys we that we lost, that we really wanted to work this spring. We really wanted to work Mack Helms this spring and we got about a week… wish we could have had him a little longer, definitely. Dalton Faulds was out with an injury and I wish we could have had him. And then Hugh Parker who had the best spring of any of the centers and if we played today would be the starter… Hugh was having a nice spring went he went down. Just having some many guys go down at one position… in a shotgun offense that center position is probably… is the most important position and so seeing them go down was disappointing. Other than that, there are some things I think we can do better… things we need to improve at… I see a more focused and more experienced group and a group that is really hungry. I hate we had those injuries there at center, but that is part of (spring) and those guys will all be ready to go (in the fall).

BV: Do you feel the center injuries in the spring had an impact on your ability to see what others are doing and where they are at on the offense giving the timing required to run the offense?

LR: Yeah, a little bit. We would like to have seen more of Doug Polochak at left guard which he played the last several games very well last year. But we didn’t get as much of a look as we would have liked because he had to go over and snap some. Drew Gentry had to bounce around because of it but the silver lining is that a guy like Taylor Hudson got an extra 25 percent more reps than we had originally planned on. So we are talking about some young guys that we had to pump a lot of reps into which will pay dividends down the road. Benefits Drew Gentry down the road, him being a guy going in who would have gotten 30 percentof the reps at best was going in on many days getting 70 percnetof the reps. Guys like that, short on experience, it was also beneficial. So for every disappointment there is a silver lining and that was it for us.

BV: Any post-Dwayne Harris impact on the team in the spring? Guys looking for a leader, stepping up in the wake of his departure?

LR: We should be good at the inside position no doubt about it. We have some really good battles going on there. At Y, Justin Jones and Justin Hardy are both going to play. At least at this point, they both have showed us that they can play and play well. How much either one plays is going to be a good battle. Do you play them 50-50 or does one play more than the other — it’s that kind of battle. I think that they both had very good springs. At H, a hell of a battle is going on over there with (Michael) Bowman and Danny Webster. Bowman has made a lot of good plays for us and has good experience but he has got to work hard ... to hold off Danny. Danny enrolled at mid-term and is a guy who it feels like has been here for three years already. He made the transition really quick and made a lot of plays in the spring so that is one that, I think, will come down to the wire and both will play a lot on special teams. That is one of the battles to really watch.

BV: On the quarterback front, you said after last season that you and Dominique Davis understood the things that he needed to work on to get better. Did you see the things you were hoping to see with him?

LR: Yeah, I did. His footwork is much improved… drastically really. Really, not just for Dominique but all of (the QBs). Improvement of how the ball is coming out. It is closer to the rate that we want them to all have. Less mistakes — crucial mistakes — as a group we saw that.

It is a tough situation because at the beginning we are repping four quarterbacks and then we narrowed it down to three and it is hard to rep that many guys because they have a hard time getting into a rhythm and then the offense has a hard time getting into a rhythm around them. Overall, I think that they did pretty well. The footwork is going to be key and I can already see that improvement.

BV: Would it surprise you at all if the depth chart looked different than a year ago at QB come the fall?

LR: No, not at all. I think that Dominique didn’t do anything in the spring to suggest he shouldn’t be the guy this year but after him, who knows? Flip a coin. You know, you got Rio (Johnson) and Shane (Carden) who had the best spring and really passed Brad (Wornick) this spring, but Brad has experience and a gamer-like quality so I would be surprised if he didn’t come into camp and make another run at it. Both of the young guys are really talented and they don’t want to sit anymore… they want to be on the field. Again, it is another good battle… we want those battles to be going on… we want to push them all out of their comfort zone.

BV: Talk about the backs a little. Spring brought news that Torrance Hunt would move to running back. It seemed at the time like it was about numbers, but he was impressive… does he stay there?

LR: That was a big move. It was a numbers thing in the beginning but also knowing Torrance’s skillset, it made a little bit of sense and we took a chance and we felt like that chance paid off. Torrance Hunt brings a kind of speed there that not many players have on any teams anywhere… we are a talking about big time speed and he really showed us some toughness with an ability to be a physical blocker in the passing game. He is so small and our lineman are big and getting bigger and so guys have a hard time seeing him and when they do, he is gone. He has made a big difference, giving us an explosion back there. He is a competitive kid and he made a big impact for us last year on special teams. He is intriguing there because he is very, very explosive and he is tough. A lot of guys are fast but not very tough Torrance has a toughness about him. I think he can really give us an explosive person there that we did not… you know, we really have not had a take-it-all-the-way guy… even last year as good as those two guys played for us, we didn’t have a home run hitter type and I think Torrance can be that guy for us and that is huge.

(Michael) Dobson came in and wasn’t great… wasn’t himself at the beginning of spring but at the end of spring played well in the spring game. He is very solid, you know just a work-hard-at-it, go-to-war type guy who is going to be there every day... he doesn’t miss assignments… he’s getting better and better at carrying the ball every day… he’s going to be an efficient runner and efficient football player… he catches the ball well and does things well. He had a really good spring, particularly at the end there where we saw him do some really good things. And then Alex Owah, right now, would be the third one. He had a decent spring carrying the ball but he has to get better at playing without the ball. For the running backs, because we do throw the ball, you have to be able to protect and and be sound on the catch. You can’t just be good at carrying the ball, you have to be able to do all those things and Alex needs to work on those things to have a chance to play in the fall.

BV: Do you think that the improvement of the running game that you saw in the spring is a function of Hunt’s explosiveness, the line’s physical play, or a combination of the two?

LR: Yeah, it’s a combination, but more importantly, I think it is the line. We are going to be a more physical group. Just like we talked about the footwork with the quarterbacks and that probably I couldn’t focus on that quite as much as I would like to have, it is the same thing with the O line… there are a lot of small things that come with this scheme that we need to work on and get better at …things we can correct. I think this group as a whole, has a pretty nasty disposition… they are a mean group who all get it after people. We are going to get some movement up front in the running game. I feel good about those guys. I think any good running back that you see is the by-product of a great O line, so 99 percent of it is the O line. I think we do have some backs that can take advantage of those guys up front. Yeah, the improvement is in the offensive line.

BV: With the emphasis you put on recruiting running backs for this season, do you expect to see a more intense, new battle this fall for these three backs?

LR: We are going to let everyone we got have a crack at it. We recruit people that we think can help us. With (Reggie) Bullock, he’s a junior college kid and you don’t sign a junior college kid unless he can help you right away. So, the fact that we did sign him speaks to what we think about him, so we think he can jump right into the competition. Whether a high school kid can do that or not is always a crap shoot, you just never know. There have been years where the guy I thought was the worst in the class plays his freshman year. You might as well flip a coin with the high school, but the junior college guys, you have to expect them to play or at least compete so we expect Bullock to come in here and compete.

BV: You and the other coaches have preached to these players about the need to make the routine plays routine and it was an area Coach McNeill said needed to be improved. Did you see that with the offense in the spring?

LR: Yeah, it is a combination of two things. First, it's knowing what you are doing and feeling comfortable, which comes over time, and the second thing is that they have to understand that the routine plays are good enough for us. We do not have to make a great play every play every play. Great plays are a by-product of the routine plays. We are starting to think about the routine plays this way and, yes, you saw a lot more of the routine plays this spring… definitely saw more of them… there is no comparison. This year the big thing is going to be… you know last spring, we just weren’t very good at things but by the time we got to the first game, we made a ton of improvement. If we can see anything close to that type of improvement this time around, we will be sitting in a good position. We need to focus on making on that improvement.

BV: The assumption is that each year into this program, the entire group will improve with understanding of the offense, repetitions and working together, so the expectations are that the offense should improve. What are you expecting defenses in the league to do now that they all have had an up close look at your offense?

LR: Well… you never really know… you got to think in terms that you are going to see a little bit of everything. Different people have different ideas of what the best way to play against you is and all that. You try to figure what it will take. In the end, I think you might outcoach a guy on a few plays or pull out a few tricks that fool them and they might do the same to you for a few plays, but in the end, it still comes down to out-executing the other team. I think in the games where we played well offensively, yeah, we might have had a trick play that worked here or there, but really, it was because we out-executed them. In the games we didn’t play well …they out-executed us. So I think we need to get to where we execute at a higher level... at a higher percentage of the time. Every little thing we do right now gets us closer to that. If we are a team that executes at a high level 80 percent of the time, it shouldn’t matter who you are playing. We want to have the mentality that if we go play well it doesn’t matter. Are we going to game plan people? Absolutely. Are we going to study people? Yes. From a coaching perspective, it is how we coach kids... how do they handle certain situations? How mentally tough are they? How much trust and faith and belief do they have in the system? And how well do they execute? I think that is what separates the good offenses from the bad offenses and the good teams from the bad teams.

BV: After the Spring Game, you seemed a little disappointed, at least from the scoring output. How much of that do you attribute to the amount of time given to the young quarterbacks or the issues at center and how much is attributed to a rev up on defense?

LR: That is always the question in spring. You never know when you are playing against yourself every day. Spring Games are funny… I don’t totally know why… I have been involved with, I think, now nine spring games — maybe eight — and I can think of maybe one good spring game ever. From an offensive standpoint, it seems like there is never really a huge offensive explosion… or at least I haven’t been part of one.

We went and scored on the first drive with Dominique and that was good. And that was with our Ones and that was pretty smooth. The other two guys didn’t really play well and we lost 100 something yards in snaps and that was tough with the center position. You know, we had one snap last year that we didn’t field and that was in 13 games. And we had 9 or 10 in the (spring) game. A few of them were the quarterback’s fault and a combination of everything. So, yeah, I was a little disappointed. I have seen those quarterbacks play much better in scrimmage situations in the spring, so that was disappointing.

We did run the ball good, but it doesn’t show up in the stats because of all the (bad) snaps, but we did some good things and then shot ourselves in the foot. Driving down to the 8-yard line and snap goes through the quarterback’s hands or over his head — whatever it is — and now its 2nd-and-goal from the 45-yard line. It is stuff like that that can’t happen if we want to score points. It’s one of those deals, where part of it is just spring games and another part is that we didn’t like the execution there and that really wasn’t indicative of the quality of the spring that we have had. Am I worried about it? I’m not worried about it at all.

BV: You have talked in the past about the three things that get you worked up the most, those being turnovers, penalties, and negative yardage plays. Did you see indicators that they are improving on these?

LR: Yeah, really all three. I think, if you look at the first scrimmage, we had several penalties and turnovers. And it was something we have really emphasized. And as the spring went on, way less penalties, way less turnovers, and not nearly as many negative plays. Not counting the (bad) snaps, not nearly as many. And then in the Spring Game, we had maybe 1 or 2 penalties the whole game. I don’t know if that was us or maybe the refs just wanted to get out of there before a tornado showed up and you can’t blame them for that… but either way, way less penalties and didn’t turn the ball over much, maybe one. As a group, they see we want to play with guys who don’t turn the ball over. If you turn it over, we’re not going to play with you. If you commit penalties, we are going to play somebody else. If you create negative plays, we are going to play with somebody else. I think now, with everybody having a better understanding of what we are doing, there are so many guys who can compete and do it well, they are making a conscious effort. It is a mindset and an expectation level and how we have improved that over the course of the spring is a good indicator that we are on our way.

BV: Looking at the first part of the schedule, there is no way around the fact that it is a tough schedule. It seemed that the offense could play with anyone last season. Do you see the maturity on the offense as something you can depend on to see these first four games as just four football games on a long schedule?

LR: I don’t really think this group really cares who we are playing. That is how you want it. If you sit there and worry all day about who you are playing and you quit worrying about yourself and what you’ve got to do, you are going to have trouble executing and that is what is most important. I think when our kids want to play in big games and prove themselves against good competition. I think we did that last year. Offensively, our kids feel that we can go out and play with anyone offensively and that we are only going to get better as long as we keep working. Right now there is a confidence that we can do whatever we want to do against anyone as long as we keep working and we stay who we are. I think if you ask any guy in this offense about that, they will tell you the same thing. There is a confidence level there… let’s worry about us and play as good as we can and if we play as good as we can, things will turnout in our favor. We try to stay focused on that and not worry about who we play but how we play.

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06/16/2011 02:28 AM


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