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View from the East
Thursday, February 2, 2012

By Al Myatt

Pirates fill needs, build hope

By Al Myatt
2012 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

GREENVILLE East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill took his place at the podium in the defensive meeting room on the ground floor of the Ward Sports Medicine Building on Wednesday afternoon to enlighten attending media about the Pirates' 2012 signing class.

McNeill was dapper in a purple blazer. The news conference began slightly before its scheduled starting time. McNeill is significantly slimmer than when his first two ECU classes were announced. Maybe his increased mobility allows him to get around faster and earlier. Mobility was certainly an asset in the recent recruiting haul, which literally spanned the nation.

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Ruffin McNeill at Wednesday's signing day press conference (Photo: W.A. Myatt)

The Pirate coach had the look of a corporate executive who has just completed a company-defining deal. In a sense, that's what he is and that's what recruiting is about. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college athletic program and the development of the athletes ECU attracts will play a huge role in future success.

Everything from season ticket sales to demand for Pirate merchandise to potential bowl trips hinges eventually on the fruits of the harvest announced Wednesday and those who will sign in Februarys to come.

This isn't McNeill's first roundup on the recruiting trail by any means. Much of his professional life, which he numbers as 32 years in the coaching profession, has been spent seeking to influence young men to the advantages of putting on the pads at a particular institution. It's a salesman's job and McNeill is confident in his product, as any salesman must be.

"When we brought recruits to campus, it sold itself," McNeill said. " ... We help to promote it but in the end it sold itself."

He cited administrative support, his coaching staff, the sports medicine department, the strength and conditioning program, the city of Greenville, academics and facilities as factors that tend to sway recruits to ECU.

There is significant evaluation necessary in the recruiting process. McNeill and staff evaluated position needs of the program going forward. The result is a class loaded with offensive linemen, wide receivers, linebackers and defensive backs. McNeill said the transition last season to a 3-4 defense means numbers of linebackers are needed. He said ECU is committed to that alignment.

Once the position needs are identified the staff goes about finding the best personnel available, which involves more evaluation. The Pirates do their homework on character, too, which means talking to everyone from cafeteria workers at potential recruits' schools to peers of prospective players.

McNeill said some potential Pirates were excluded upon character examination. Better to sort out discipline problems before they arrive on campus.

It's like Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant used to say, "A doctor buries his mistakes. I have to feed mine for four years."

McNeill talked about the "mind hours" in recruiting and a lot of those are spent on identifying prospects and avoiding the mistakes to which Bryant referred. The ECU coach also talked about the "body hours," the time spent traveling, sitting in airports and driving rental cars to develop relationships with players. McNeill said he even spent some time in Chicago on an electric train this go-around, possibly in pursuit of Deshawn Byrd, an offensive lineman from unbeaten Grand Rapids (MI) Community College, whose commitment to the Pirates had been reported but whose name did not appear on the official release on Wednesday.

There were 18 players on that list. McNeill reiterated plans to sign 20 and said the class was not yet complete. Grand Rapids has announced that it is dropping football. Perhaps there was no assistance on the Grand Rapids end for Byrd to fax his letter of intent or maybe another program has picked off the blocking behemoth. It's like early evening on election night and not all of the returns are in.

McNeill doesn't shy away from competition in recruiting. UNC-Chapel Hill came in late to pick off Kanler Coker, a quarterback from Flowery Branch, GA, who initially committed to ECU.

A third of the newcomers come from the junior college ranks to address immediate needs. The Pirates already had juco transfers John Lattimore and Leroy Vick, a pair of defensive linemen, in the stockpile from the 2011 class who sat out last season with injuries.

McNeill said there will be opportunities for immediate playing time for many of the incoming players. He qualified that by saying that freshmen offensive linemen are typically redshirted. The Pirate coach knows as well as anyone that there are glaring voids in the secondary where Derek Blacknall, Emanuel Davis and Bradley Jacobs have departed. Adonis Armstrong and Godfrey Thompson, defensive backs from Hinds Community College in Clinton, MS, are already enrolled at ECU.

The Pirates also landed Lucas Thompson, a defensive back from Winter Garden, FL, who selected ECU over the likes of Miami and South Carolina.

Wide receiver/returner Lance Ray has already proven himself at Arkansas and will come in after a season at Northwest Mississippi Junior College.

McNeill said there were a lot of eyes on the fax machine in the football office on signing day as the forms arrived. Reece Speight, a linebacker from Wilson Beddingfield, was the first to transmit his paper work.

"It was 7:02 (a.m.) or 7:03," McNeill said. "He sent it twice. He wanted to make sure we had it."

Speight is one of five players from North Carolina. The remainder range from Florida to California to Washington, DC, and points in between.

Who knows who might emerge from this year's class as primetime players for the Pirates? Chris Johnson was little more than a blip on the radar when he signed with ECU in 2004. Now he's making enough money running the ball for the Tennessee Titans to buy his own airport.

McNeill said he likes this class and I don't think that's a salesman making a pitch to the media or the fan base. Needs were identified and filled. ECU's move from the bottom rung nationally in defense in 2010 to middle of the pack last season indicates that the ECU staff can address needs effectively. The addition of Kirk Doll and Pat Washington strengthens the staff in my evaluation, an example of effective recruiting in a different sense. McNeill was accompanied by Brian Overton, the new director of football operations, as he made his rounds on signing day.

The Pirates coach left the media gathering in search of some ribs, which he speculated might be available from some of the Pirate Nation, who were tailgating prior to the public presentation of the recruiting class at the Murphy Center later Wednesday. There are no losers on signing day and this one had glorious weather to encourage the natural optimism which the occasion engenders.

I always come back to a Steve Logan response about the quality of a particular recruiting class in an era when signing day was not promoted to the same degree.

"How good is this class?" Logan said. "I'll tell you in five years."

The former ECU coach supported his viewpoint with the example of former South Carolina coach Brad Scott, who had attracted a heralded recruiting class to Columbia only to fall well short of expectations with a subsequent winless season that prompted his departure.

Ruff and everyone involved in recruiting have put most of the hay in the barn for the 2012 signing class. The work is done although Ruff would have liked to have been able to work harder. He said when he was recruited out of Lumberton, former ECU coach Pat Dye and staff spent days at a time building relationships with him and his family.

"There was a time when you could actually outwork somebody in recruiting," McNeill said.

Current NCAA regulations limit the contact head coaches can have with potential players, making evaluations and the permissible visits all the more important.

McNeill said one thing hasn't changed since he signed with the Pirates in the mid-1970s and that's the atmosphere surrounding the program.

Walking past the enormity of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with Pirate fans converging on the area served as a reminder of the significance football holds at ECU and that those who booked passage on the Pirate ship Wednesday will become vital in determining its course.

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 02/03/12 02:42 AM.

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