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Monday, March 19, 2012

By Al Myatt

Pirates energize for spring football

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The energy level in the football offices on the second floor of the Ward Sports Medicine Building has been building in anticipation of the start of spring football practice today.

NCAA regulations restrict the offseason time where coaches can actually coach so the sessions in the spring become vital in program development.

The players have been working with strength and conditioning director Jeff Connors since the 2011 season ended and he has reported significant progress in terms of improving physical attributes and abilities.

The Pirates will practice today, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday this week. The spring game is April 14.

"It's an exciting time for our coaches, for myself and all of our staff," East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill said. "I think all coaches around the country get excited because it's a time where you can see how kids have grown through the offseason. You see kids who have played and how much they have improved. We also see some young kids who we're waiting on to see how they blossom and how they've improved as well.

"It's a chance for development of our schemes on all three sides of the ball. It's also a time where you can experiment with some kids at different positions and those kinds of things. We're looking forward to it. We know we have some improving to do from last year and some things that we can improve on that we did very well last year. We're anxious to get started on that."

Depth an objective for demanding schedule

The Pirates face three straight road games against formidable opposition after opening the season at home on Sept. 1 against a traditionally-strong Appalachian State program.

"It is a challenging schedule," McNeill said. "Appalachian State will be one of the top Football Championship Subdivision teams. They've won three national championships. Then going to South Carolina and going to Southern Miss, our (Conference USA) champion. They'll be a physical group. Then going to Chapel Hill to play UNC. One of the things after the season that you evaluate that we need to do is develop depth.

"On the offensive line, we never started the same lineup two games in a row. There was no chance for consistency in that group. We got receivers banged up and running backs, like Reggie Bullock. We have to make sure that we have guys who can step in and maintain.

"Defensively, we were able to stay healthy and if somebody did get nicked we had a guy who could step in and still be productive and keep a level of play that we needed.

"Going into spring, we want to make sure we develop that and continue to work hard."

Connors delivered a briefing last week to the football staff about the offseason programs which are designed to make players bigger, faster and stronger as well as condition them for the rigors of the season.

"Our kids have worked hard," McNeill said. "The challenge is there so we've got to make sure we develop depth to be ready for nicks or anything that might happen in those games."

More scholarship players

The Pirates have added two junior college players since signing date in February, Vintavious Cooper (5-9, 200), a quarterback who projects as a running back at ECU, and offensive lineman Jens Danielson (6-5, 280), who will leave Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College after his freshman season and will have four years to play three seasons at ECU, are the latest signees.

Cooper ran for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns last season at Southwest Mississippi Community College. He played on the high school level at Clinch County in Georgia. He runs 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and has excellent agility, according to reports.

Danielson received recruiting interest from Oklahoma State and Texas Christian, among others.

Pirates inside receiver Derrick Harris, younger brother of former ECU star Dwayne Harris, who played his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2011, has been placed on scholarship. Derrick Harris played in 10 games in 2011 with 23 catches for 168 yards with one touchdown.

"He ended up starting for us and really making some plays for us last year," McNeill said of the younger Harris.

Productive sessions with Connors

McNeill said Connors concluded offseason testing of players last week.

"That's what Coach Connors does," McNeill said. "Speed development, strength development. Our kids have improved immensely, strength-wise. Some guys who needed to put on weight the proper way have done that. Taylor Hudson (sophomore offensive lineman), for example, comes to mind very quickly. Maurice Falls (outside linebacker) comes to mind very quickly.

"At the personnel meeting on Tuesday, Coach Connors went through each player. We have made not just strides but tremendous strides. That's based on Coach Connors' 25 years in the business. He feels like we're right on schedule. We made improvement. We need continued improvement during the spring and the summer offseason but we feel good about where we are.

"They've worked extremely hard for Coach Connors. I'm ready to see them put it on the field now."

Quarterback situation

ECU obviously has a big void to fill at quarterback where record-setting Dominique Davis directed the offense for the last two seasons.

"I like all four guys," McNeill said. "I know a lot of people are wondering about the quarterback we had in (Kandler Coker), who decommitted, but it didn't concern us because we have four guys who are ready to go. Rio Johnson, Shane Carden, Brad Wornick, Cody Keith. All four of those guys understand the offense. They did a great job in the offseason with Coach Connors. You see the leadership part of the quarterback position from those four guys, gathering and doing things on off days, on Saturday mornings, throwing around with the receivers. You see those characteristics from those four guys.

"I'm looking forward to that competition. I think it will be a great competition. I feel great about that group."

Spring priorities

After McNeill's first season, ECU's defense was overhauled in terms of personnel and scheme. The unit was significantly improved during his second season but remains a work in progress.

"We want to build on what we began last year," said the Pirates coach. "We want to keep our base philosophy tight, assignment sound and continue our position mastery in the 3-4 defense. There is still some learning to go. ... also, adding some things as far as some different packages because the guys understand and get it."

Offensively, developing depth is an objective because of the ravaging effects of injuries last season. The Pirates will continue to refine the offensive scheme and will adapt the package to the particular skills of the quarterback that emerges in spring competition. ECU will also address some fundamental issues.

"Taking care of the football," McNeill said. "Making sure we continue to try and take the ball away on defense is important. Play penalty free and play smart football, which we improved immensely from year one to year two. ... We did a great job as a football team of getting rid of the administrative penalties and if anyone did anything out of character, he understood it was not acceptable.

"I would say the emphasis will be on those two sides of the football and taking care of the intangibles, securing the football, taking care of the football, taking it away on defense."

There is also work to do on special teams.

"Making sure we find return guys who can make a difference, that can give us field position," McNeill said. "We need to establish a specialist group from snapping to punting to kickoffs to placekicking duties. We need to make sure we get that established and shored up.

"We've got a lot of things we need to get done in 15 days. It's a challenge but it's a challenge we look forward to as a coaching staff and as a football team."

Two juco players on hand

Two junior college transfers are on hand and will be involved in spring practice. Defensive backs Adonis Armstrong and Godfrey Thompson from Hinds Community College in Mississippi have been making a good adjustment to the program since enrolling at ECU in January.

"They've done a great job," McNeill said. "They've blended with our team. They've worked extremely hard. There's always an adjustment period for any recruit coming in but Coach Connors said they have done a great job."

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 03/19/12 03:24 AM.

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