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Friday, March 13, 2015

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Finding kicker on Doll's special list

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

East Carolina special teams coordinator and football alumnus Kirk Doll has been making plans in addition to preparing for spring practice, which starts a week from today.

"I've been in New Orleans," said Doll, who also coaches running backs for the Pirates. "My (younger) daughter (Kelsey) is getting married there at the end of May. We've been doing wedding plans. ... We had all kinds of things going on. We had engagement parties, shopping for dresses and tuxes. We did get a chance to eat some craw fish."

Doll is never more than a play away from possibly having to put one of his many special team units on the field.

"It's always first down on special teams," as coach Ruffin McNeill has said. "They have one down to get it right."

Doll has evaluated the various elements of special team performance in 2014 with the intent of being better next season.

The Pirates made 14 of 24 field goal attempts last season and 58 of 59 conversion kicks. The longest made field goal for senior Warren Harvey, who became the program's leading career scorer last season, was 40 yards.

"There was a lot of positive things done in placekicking," Doll said. " ... There's a lot more than just the kicker. For people who don't actually go out there and try to do placekicking, it's kind of like a golf swing. You've got the ball on the tee and for some reason that tee moves about an inch, it changes the result of your swing.

"Not making excuses, but there were times we had a new short snapper (Colton Oliver), who I thought got better. We had a new holder. Trent Tignor was the holder for, gosh, four years. So Worth Gregory (punter) stepped in and there's a learning process there as well. I think all of the consistency got better as you get into the latter part of the year."

"This year. coming up, now we've got somebody that's experienced in snapping and holding it. Now, we've got a new placekicker. We've got some different plans of attack there. We're looking forward to seeing a couple of the young men perform this spring."

Oliver was a true freshman in 2014.

"I'm looking forward to seeing C.J. Struyk back," Doll said. "C.J. did some snapping for us two years ago and then he had some shoulder issues. which kind of limited him to not being as effective. C.J. is back and ... so we're looking forward to seeing him compete with Colton for the short snapping and the long snapping (punt) position."

Punter Worth Gregory transferred from Alabama after a year as a redshirt with the Crimson Tide. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt during an 8-5 season for ECU that included a 5-3 record in the American Athletic Conference.

"Worth had some excellent games," Doll said. "This was his first year punting since his senior year in high school, so that's two years. There are some little things that we're going to be working on throughout the spring and summer to kind of refine his skills so it's a more consistent drop and our operation time is shorter. It wasn't in a critical area but it can get better. When Worth gets some of these things corrected, I feel really good about the success he'll have for our team."

ECU had a punt blocked at Tulsa for a Golden Hurricane score that gave the hosts a 14-7 lead with 8:51 left in the first quarter. The Pirates came back for a 49-32 win.

"When you look at the film, it's just a matter of executing," Doll said. "It wasn't a scheme deal or anything like that. It's just a matter of performance. I've got to do a better job of making sure they understand what their job description is. It was basically the protection."

Kickoffs are an area where consistency can improve. The number of players with experience on that unit create the potential for greater efficiency.

"That was one of the things you never knew what the heck was going to happen," Doll said of kickoff coverage. "What I mean by that Warren (Harvey) was somewhere around 30 percent where there was not a return. I want to say he was in the mid-30s (percent) on nonreturnable balls. We had some excellent coverage but we were inconsistent. There was always one here and one there that was frustrating. One of the things that I look forward to in the spring is we've got so many young guys coming back. Some of them, it was their first time playing in a college game. I want to say the number was twenty-ish on special teams for our first-year players.

"You see the effort. I don't think there was ever a lack of effort. The execution part of the assignment was somewhat different. At times it was excellent and sometimes not. That's what gets me excited about 2015 is all the guys coming back."

Punt coverage is in similar shape a need for improvement and sufficient experience for better performance.

"Our net put was 36.6 (yards)," Doll said. "Obviously, we want to make that better. The gross was 43.6. That's a seven-yard return average. ... Our philosophy is win the field position change for that particular game. ... We faced some great punt returners last year. ... There were probably four returners that were very scary so to speak. Those particular games we had some good things happen for us in our coverage. Some times we didn't have to punt.

"As we go back into this, you're always looking to refine things and do better. Again, with our young guys coming back, looking at the stats and who made the most tackles and all that they're all young guys. That's only going to make it better."

The kickoff return dimension decreased with an injury to Trevon Brown before the Pirates embarked on AAC play.

"That's one of the things that we didn't do very well this year," Doll said. "The kickoff return and the punt return, I was really disappointed in. Losing Trevon Brown kind of hurt us. When he was in there, things kind of picked up a little bit. Having him back excites me. Quay Johnson coming back excites me. We're working on some new ideas and how to teach things, how to better execute. There's talent there in the return game. When you've got Trevon coming back and Quay Johnson and Isaiah Jones. We've got some newcomers. Obviously, Davon Grayson is coming back and Jacen Murphy, I think he's about healed. He was really a good returner in high school. We have others and they're all going to get opportunities. With the freshmen coming in, they'll be some new faces that will get looks, too.

"I am really sincerely excited about the return game for next year. We're going to kind of spice things up a little bit so to speak."

Some of the same players will be involved with the punt return unit.

"Those same guys I mentioned and Jimmy Williams along with that," Doll said in regard to the punt return aspect. "We're going to be working very hard on giving them looks that make it realistic for them to make good decisions because there are some balls that you can't return. We're definitely going to give them a good hard look this spring."

The top candidates to replace Harvey are Texas A&M transfer Davis Plowman and Connor Torruella.

"Connor, my first year here, he was the back-up to Warren," Doll said. "Then he had knee surgery. So he was not around in 2013. He came back this past year. He's very competitive and will be competing with Davis as one of the guys. We have another young man, Alex Mattes, who will have an opportunity.

"We're also going to have a tryout, the first day of spring. We've got a half dozen or so guys who we're going to take a look at. We're going to have two young men in the fall who were in our summer football camp last year who had very successful high school careers. They're going to be with us in the fall. We have two exciting high school prospects coming in."

Although Harvey generally did the placekicking as well as kickoffs, there is a possibility that those duties will be split up going forward.

"In the NFL, it used to be you'd have the same guy doing it," Doll said. "Now, a lot of them are using another spot just to have a guy kick off out of the end zone all the time. A lot of time on kickoff return, they give you just the average. What's important is starting field position. If you kick it out every time and it's always on the 25, you need to look at the teams that are returning it and are they getting it past the 25? Field position, we always talk about getting the ball past the 30 as being a big plus for your offensive unit because that changes your chances of scoring. The closer you get to the goal line, the percentages keep changing.

"That's one of the things that always gets me, looking at somebody's average. If I wanted to win the kickoff coverage average, I could squib kick it every time. They'd have like eight yards in return or 10 maybe. The bottom line is where did you start with the football. ... Some of the kickers that we will have available to us, some of their productivity might be higher in field goals and others might be in kickoffs."

Doll will be working with new offensive coordinator Dave Nichol in terms of his responsibilities as running backs coach. That unit lost record-setting quarterback Shane Carden as well as premier receivers Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy.

"I think it's going to go right on churning," Doll said. "Our offensive line is well-experienced and that's important simply because you've got some quarterbacks with a lot of talent but there's not a lot of game experience. It's important for the offensive line to take charge of their deal and kind of get us through some times where we're developing experience. I think there's going to be a lot of productivity on offense."

The running game also has the potential to take some pressure off the Pirates' young passers.

"It's going to be very important for us to be able to do both," Doll said. "I don't think any time you put all of your eggs in one basket it's good. I think if you can have an opportunity to be successful running and throwing, you're going to have a better football team. We've got what I think are two experienced and just great team players in Chris Hairston and Cory Hunter. Then you've got the youngsters with Anthony Scott and Marquez Grayson. We've got a couple of other guys coming in. We'll wait and see how all that turns out and works out."

Running back Chris Mangus transferred from Virginia Tech and spent 2014 on the ECU scout team.

"Chris was over against the defense quite a bit," Doll said. "We had a little bit of a look at him on Thursday night football. He did some good things running the football. Watching him in the special teams drills, I'm pretty excited about his production."

Doll will be enshrined in the Wichita (KA) sports hall of fame next month. His mother, Dorothy, still lives in his home town. Doll said he will be picking the Wichita State Shockers to make a run in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

"She's a big fan," Doll said. "She's 91 now. She's always an avid fan of Wichita State and also of Kansas because of her life being mostly there. She had her T-shirt on during the (conference) tournament last week."

Wichita State made the Final Four in 1965 and 2013.

"She's always excited," Doll said. "That guy's (coach Gregg Marshall) done as great job there. I know that."

Doll began his coaching career at Wichita State as a student assistant in 1975. He has worked at Iowa State, Tulsa, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, for 2003 BCS champion LSU and the Denver Broncos during his career.

His Mom has been right there in Wichita during his coaching odyssey. Will she be able to go to the wedding in New Orleans?

"We're working on that," said Doll, who returned to ECU in 2012. "She said if I get a private jet that she'd be ready. I've got to get her psyched up to get through that airport once or twice."

Special teams play was generally adequate to good last season but that's not good enough for Doll, a defensive lineman at ECU in 1971 and 1972.

"I wasn't happy about the final results overall," Doll said. "There's so much more we can do to help our team. The nucleus that we have coming back will perform and help our team more next year. I think it will be important that we do."

The running backs create a sense of optimism that the Pirates can continue scoring at the pace to which ECU fans have grown accustomed, 35.8 points per game last season. The ball carriers and experience on the offensive line offer the potential for a balanced attack.

"With the running backs, I'm excited," Doll said. "Obviously, with more competition, the better you get out of everybody. I think that's going to happen in the running back position. As everybody has seen the last few years, we've been playing a lot of running backs. There might be one who gets a few more carries. I'm excited about some of the stuff that those young guys did and some that the other guys did. We'll keep working and we're going to make that a very productive unit for East Carolina."

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 03/13/15 04:13 AM.

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