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Thursday, December 1, 2005

By Al Myatt

Devoted duo takes modest path to big dreams

Belonging more important than glamour to long snappers Johnson, Raynor

Family-bred loyalties led junior Britt Johnson (left) and freshman Wilson Raynor (right) to doggedly pursue and ultimately earn roles on the East Carolina football team.


[Photos: ECU Media Relations]

 

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Britt Johnson and Wilson Raynor are true Pirates, East Carolina's answers to Notre Dame's "Rudy."

For some players, college choices are based on who is most influential in recruiting, what program presents the best opportunity for early playing time or which school has the most impressive facilities.

Former coach Bill Dooley said he once lost a recruit to a program that had an ice cream machine in its cafeteria line.

None of those factors applied to this pair of deep snappers, who were born and bred on Pirate football as sons of ECU alumni. Johnson's dad, Don, was a manager in the Pat Dye era. Raynor's dad, Rhett, was a graduate assistant coach for the Pirates.

Johnson, a junior from Rocky Mount, has missed just three home games since 1987. He went out twice unsuccessfully for the team at ECU before circumstances allowed him to fulfill his dream.

"I tried out after the season was over my freshman year and I was cut," said Johnson, who is 5-foot-8 and 223 pounds. "I tried out again after that season was over and I was cut again."

But things changed for Johnson with ECU's Tuesday night home game on ESPN against Houston on Sept. 30, 2003.

"Brandon Howard, our long snapper, was hurt that night," Johnson recalled. "We saw him limp off the field and he didn't come back. After the game, I went and waited at the locker room and he told me he'd torn his ACL.

"About two days later, I walked up to the special teams coach Jerry McManus's office. He was not there so I kind of swallowed hard and I said, 'Well, I got to go to the big dog.' So I went to John Thompson and when I walked in I started to introduce myself and he said, 'Britt, I already know who you are. We were about to call you.'

"He told me to come out there the next day and snap for him. I went out there and snapped and I traveled the rest of that year. I've been on the team ever since."

The fact that he hasn't gotten on the field is secondary to Johnson. He's a young man who has realized a childhood goal.

"I had two very good snappers in front of me this year in Wilson Raynor and Mike Yartin," Johnson said. "Mike's a senior, he'll be leaving us. Brandon came back last year after that (injury). You know, I'm happy to be on the team. I'd love to be able to snap next year, my senior year, if I can get that opportunity, but if not, it's just great to be a Pirate."

It's even better being a part of the program that has become more competitive under Skip Holtz's leadership.

"It's on the rise," Johnson said. "The senior leadership that we had this year, the coaching staff that we have in place here now — it's really unbelievable and it's really special. Finishing the year with two wins is really going to help with recruiting.

"This staff here is as good as we've had at East Carolina in a long time. ... Big things are going to start happening here at East Carolina. We just hope that everybody will jump on board and come on and get on the ship with us and get ready to ride."

Johnson's other passion is Rocky Mount football. The fact that he hasn't traveled with ECU this season has allowed him to follow the Gryphons' run to the Eastern 3-A title game this Friday night against Western Alamance. The last Pirate home game he missed was in 2001 against William & Mary when he sustained a concussion the night before in a Rocky Mount game.

"Rocky Mount on Friday night and the Pirates on Saturday — there's nothing better," Johnson said.

Johnson, who wears No. 54, and Raynor, No. 59, are brothers in spirit in their passion for the Pirates.

"Since I've been I guess three years old, since I've been able to know what football is, my dream is not to be able to play in the NFL — nothing like that — it's been to play for East Carolina and just to be able to be a part of this team," Raynor said. "It's a dream come true to me."

Raynor has performed on punts this year for the Pirates and has been successful in maintaining a degree of anonymity at a position where the easiest way to become known is to make a bad snap.

"I'd like to hear my name over the intercom if I make a tackle — not before the play's over," said Raynor, a 6-2, 231-pound freshman who spent a season refining his technique at Hargrave Military after playing on the high school level at Triton High in Erwin.

"It was tough at Hargrave, but I wouldn't trade it," Raynor said. "It developed me mentally and physically."

Deep snappers have to put the ball on the money to the punter as quickly as possible, block rushes up the middle and then get downfield in punt coverage. Raynor snaps a lot on the sideline to stay in sync for those five or six times per game when he goes in to deliver the ball to punter Ryan Dougherty.

"All the specialists joke with me that I snap the most during the game that they've ever seen of any long snapper," Raynor said. "I just want to be completely fluid and comfortable when I go into the game. The best way to do that is repetition."

The Pirates averaged 40.1 yards on 59 punts in 2005 with one block. Operation time on punts was consistently about 2.0 seconds. Raynor said Dougherty's mobility takes some pressure off of him.

"Definitely," he said. "He's the most athletic punter I've ever had. During practice if I let one get away and then just watching it on film, it's just amazing what he can do back there. He really gets it off fast."

In college football, it's sometimes said that coaches and players are only as good as their last game. For ECU, that will be a good thing following a 31-23 win over UAB to close 2005.

"Like Coach Holtz said (after the win over the Blazers), 'The new season began 10 minutes ago,' when he was in the locker room talking," Raynor said. "This right here and winning the last two puts the seniors out winners. It puts us in good position to take off next year."

Raynor will work on bulking up and making his snaps faster in the offseason.

"The best way to do that is just getting stronger and repetitions," Raynor said. "I want to hear my name called a few more times next year for making a tackle. That's my goal for next year."

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

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02/23/2007 12:33:50 AM
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