(ECU SID Photo)
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
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
"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
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
"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."
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