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CHRONICLING ECU & C-USA SPORTS
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View from the 'ville
Thursday, April 22, 2010

By Al Myatt

Nelson seeks to make ECU units special

By Al Myatt
©2010 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

New East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill places a high value on the performance of special teams. That can be credited in part to the influence of Pat Dye, the Pirates coach when McNeill was wearing the purple and gold.

That's one reason there are essentially three coordinators on McNeill's staff.

Lincoln Riley handles the "Air Raid" attack as offensive coordinator, Brian Mitchell directs the aggressive defense that McNeill intends to employ and Mark Nelson is the man who supervises the gamut of special teams operations.

Nelson has been a special teams coach at Kentucky, Baylor and Louisville.

"He's always put together strong special teams units," McNeill said.

Nelson spent spring practice evaluating personnel. Other than quarterbacks, he will have his choice of players for the various kicking, punting and coverage teams.

"When you're looking at the big picture, we've still got a long ways to go," Nelson said. "The whole spring was about finding pieces. I've always looked at special teams as a big puzzle and putting those pieces together. Spring is finding pieces."

Among prominent special teams pieces from 2009, punter Matt Dodge is gone and so is placekicker Ben Hartman. Dodge led Conference USA in punting with a 45.8-yard average. Hartman was first in the league in points scored by kickers with a 7.2-point per game average.

"We've started putting little bits and pieces of the puzzle together," Nelson said. "There were a lot of kids out, that didn't participate in spring due to injuries, that are going to be major parts of the special teams but we haven't seen them yet."

But Nelson feels the spring was productive in terms of the players he did see.

"We took some good steps in the right direction," he said. "I was happy with the kicking. We lost both kickers from last year. Both were great kickers. They were seniors. I thought we did a good job in spring. We got better. Our snapping situation is good.

"The whole process is we've got to continue to get better. ... When fall comes, it will be time to put it together for real."

Battle Over Space

Special teams covers a wide range of situations from punts to kickoffs to field goal attempts to punt coverage and kickoff coverage.

"I try to categorize special teams with one word," Nelson said. "It's all about space. It's either reducing it on your coverage teams or creating it on your return teams. It's managing a number of people every play."

A lot of players will be involved in the various special team groupings. Every unit will have its starters and back-ups. Those groups also face scout teams in practice.

"The scout guys who service us are very important," Nelson said. "We have to get a good look from what we have drawn up from the opposition. If we can get a good look by our scout guys — if they can create that good look and the speed of that good look as close as they can and the tenacity of whatever team we're playing then we have a good chance to do good against that team because we'll get up to speed quickly.

"When that first kickoff happens or that first kickoff return, we've practiced fast so when we're playing that opponent and they're running fast, then we get up to speed immediately."

Nelson's analysis of personnel helps him identify players' capabilities.

"To me, special teams is also about matchups," he said. "I'm going to match up people. I try not to ask my players to do something that they can not do. To me, that's good coaching — only ask your kids to do stuff they can do so they can be successful.

"Special teams is a lot of matchups. We study their personnel. That's why early in the year is kind of hard because you're kind of guessing the other team's personnel from the year before. Some times the first two or three games it's like, 'Oh shoot, that's not a good matchup.' You thought it was somebody and it's somebody else who makes it a little harder.

"As the season progresses and wears on, usually you have a good feel of what the other team does. We do have systems but you're always tweaking them."

Harris Special

Dwayne Harris gives Nelson and the Pirates a special talent in terms of his kickoff return ability. Harris averaged 27.0 yards per kickoff return during his junior season in 2009. Harris had 37 kickoff returns for an even 1,000 yards, taking three all the way to the house for touchdowns.

"I coach good return men a lot better than I coach bad return men," Nelson said. "Same with punters and kickers. If you've got special players then they can create special things and really create momentum and create positive thinking because you have a special guy back there. They know that if I make my block something good's going to happen.

"All of a sudden you've got 10 guys believing that they can make that block. Then all of a sudden you've got those 10 guys working a little bit extra. With a special return man, good things happen."

Home Sweet Home

Nelson and wife Lori have three children. Since joining the ECU staff in mid-February, Nelson has developed an affinity for Greenville.

"I'm a Canadian," he said. "That's about as far north as you can go but I'm a southern Canadian. I like the South because of the people, the hospitality and the nature of the people. They're down to earth people.

"The town of Greenville and East Carolina University, they grew up together. It's kind of a neat marriage. They're so intertwined. It's a neat relationship. People are Pirates here. This is Pirate country. This isn't those three schools a little farther west of us. This is Pirate country and the people are proud of their Pirates.

"They've got a little chip on their shoulder and rightfully so because this is a great institution. It's a great academic school, too. The town, the people, the relationship with the university and really the eastern part of the state — I'm really looking forward to living here."

Coaches can be transient, relocating with a relatively high degree of frequency due to circumstances relating to their work.

"I've always had kind of a house with wheels because I've moved around a bunch," Nelson said. "I'd like to kind of hang around here for a long time. Hopefully, that will work out."

E-mail Al Myatt

Al Myatt Archives

04/22/2010 04:05 AM
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