CHERUBINI CHIMES IN
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
on the State of the Offense
ECU's offensive coordinator dishes out post-spring critique
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Bonesville Mobile Alpha version of this page.
Heading into spring camp,
East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was clear on what he
was most concerned about. Yes, there was the four-way quarterback battle
to take the job vacated by the graduation of standout Dominique Davis.
And, of course, the issues of running back depth and abilities were a
concern. But mostly, Riley's angst was stirred concerning the offensive
line — specifically, the center and left tackle positions.
This 2012 camp, the third one
of the Coach Ruffin McNeill era, ran like a well-oiled system and the
players who are battling for No. 1 slots across the board were well-versed
in the offensive philosophy and schematics. Because of this, Riley got a
good eyeful and more of what he has going into the summer and then fall. He
got to see his group go against what may prove to be a very good defense, so
he feels confident that what he learned about his players and positional
strengths and weaknesses was a true reflection of what to expect in the
preseason and in the 2012 campaign.
Overall, Riley sounds
comfortable with what he saw He notes that the Jeff Connors impact has been
seen and felt all through the lineup. The offense has the horses to be
effective if not pretty good this season. What he didn’t see enough of,
across the board, was the emergence of leaders. Without question, there are
some compelling players stepping up, but Riley needs them in each unit and
most specifically at the QB position.
The bottom line, Riley got
On the QBs, Riley said it’s
not that he wouldn’t tell you who he would start if he had to play today,
but really, honestly, that he can’t — because not one of the QBs has
separated himself from the pack. That said, he has uber confidence in the
four he has vying for the job. At receivers, check, check, and more check,
the Pirates have plenty of talent there, though Riley did note that the H
position was weakest in camp (get healthy fast Danny Webster). At running
back, it is like a buffet for Riley this year compared to last whenattrition
at the position started early and culminated with a patchwork rotation of
part-time, not-quite-prime-time backs. With five healthy, productive backs
coming Out of camp, he feels good there. And on the offensive line, you
might be surprised how he feels about his two trouble spots.
But rather than me interpret,
how about hearing it from the man himself. Coach Riley was kind enough to
open up extensive time on his busy schedule to talk to Bonesville
about his offensive.
Bonesville (BV): Starting
with the quarterbacks, taking the injury to Shane Carden out of the
equation, can you point to one of them that maybe had the best camp
start-to-finish this spring?
Lincoln Riley (LR):
Probably — it is really hard to take the injury to Shane out of the
equation. I can tell you that the last three or four practices before he got
hurt, Shane was really very sharp and it was looking like he would be… I
would say, he was looking like he would be closer to the top (of the depth
chart) than the bottom. But he missed the last part of camp, so it is hard
to say if he would have (sustained the performance). Rio (Johnson) had a
very good camp as well. He had probably the best start of the camp and then
I think he pressed a little there some in the middle of camp and then played
pretty well there at the end. From top-to-bottom, because Rio performed for
the whole camp, you know, he was probably the most consistent quarterback.
Cody (Keith) was probably the
biggest surprise in camp — less for me than others because like I have said
before, I am the only who has ever seen Cody throw live. He was here last
season but he was hurt and didn’t have the same explosion that he has now
and had to compensate for that in his throwing. It was surprising how well
he threw the ball and some of the things he did mentally were impressive for
a guy his age. Brad (Wornick) started out slow but ended with a bang,
playing pretty well there at the end. We are still trying to get him to
become the player he has been in games where he showed us flashes. We are
trying to get him to the point where he can do those things in practice. We
can’t go on what he has done in the past, we have to go with what he shows
us he can do right now. There was a point there where maybe we were starting
to count Brad out, but then Shane got hurt and Brad got those extra reps —
right at the time we were about to cut his reps down — and he made the most
of those. Every time you count him out, he fights back and he did it again
BV: So those “Ors” on the
depth chart show a very close gap between the players?
LR: Yeah, I would say
so. It is hard because there is so much more to the quarterback position
than just throwing. We need to see how they lead and what they do this
summer and the off-season so that we can get as much separation as we can
before (setting the depth chart). And, right now, honestly, we don’t have to
name a starter. I think if we name one (in this situation), when we are
asking them all to become better leaders, it sort of puts that one guy as
the leader where we need all of these guys to strive to be the leader right
now. And that is one of the biggest question marks. Who will be the leader?
So we need to leave it open for now. We can play and win with all four of
them. And, it is a close battle right now, and until it is incredibly
obvious which one should be the starter, we want all four of them competing.
They all are hungry right now and I am excited about all four of them
because they are getting better and better.
BV: Taking any of these
four candidates this past spring and putting them where Dominique Davis was
in his first season, is it noticeable how far along these four are in
knowledge and operation of the offensive system?
LR: Oh yeah. We will be
able to run a wide variety of what we do. The one thing that we haven’t done
well here is our down the field stuff and we need to improve our
intermediate passing game. We have to improve that and these guys all have a
good understanding of that. All of these guys are well ahead of where
Dominique was in his first game in all categories except for one,
leadership. We are better in every area except that one… and it is something
the great teams have. All of them of them have that type of potential but it
is a matter of which will step up and do it, and that is not an easy thing
for most people to do. You need to be willing to and have the courage and
poise to get it done. They are progressing there, but we want it sooner than
BV: So are you still of the
mindset that this battle must be won as soon as possible and that there must
be a No. 1 rather than rotating at the QB position?
LR: Absolutely. Yeah, I
think it is important. You need your team to rally around one guy, not four.
There is going to be some bad in with the good and you have to be able to
work through those moments rather than having him out there playing to not
make a mistake, thinking you are going pull him for a mistake. That is not
the mentality this offense is built on and not what we want in our
quarterbacks. Is there ever a time when you may have to make a change? Of
course, but we don’t want him on such an incredibly tight leash, that he
BV: Turning to the running
backs. You know, last year you had a numbers deficit from the start and that
played out painfully for the offense, ending the season so beat up at the
position. This time around, 5 healthy backs in camp and all five came out of
camp healthy. Who had the best camp in regards to being ready to play?
LR: Well, Reggie
(Bullock), (Michael) Dobson, and Hunter Furr were our most consistent guys
out there. I thought all three had more ups than downs and were solid. There
is explosive, big play ability, especially Furr. I thought Dobson had the
best camp he has had since we have been here, especially early. He was
really, really sharp. I think he is playing at a new level. Hunter came in
and we are now coaching him. I thought he did a nice job and was really
strong at the end there and is certainly a weapon we are going to utilize.
Reggie is back and healthy which was good to see. I thought he had a solid
camp and made plays. He has gotten much better when the ball is not in his
hands… pass pro and receiving. We are a simply a different running team when
Reggie is in there so we are glad to have him back.
Torrance Hunt is starting to
catch the ball really, really well, which has us excited because that opens
things up on how we can use him and his speed. He struggled a little bit at
the end, a few fumbles late in camp, which is something we cannot tolerate,
and they all know that. He needs to have a great off-season and build up his
body so he doesn’t get banged up. He is a smaller guy and does some great
things, so he has to create a more durable body. With us having better
numbers, he will be more fresh when he gets his chances.
Chris Hairston, running-wise,
might be the best of the group with the ball in his hands. We didn’t think
he would even practice much in spring, but he got out there and didn’t miss
a beat which is exciting to see in a young player. With the ball in his
hands, he is pretty good. He makes people miss, lowers his pads and gets
tough yards, and had some good runs in the spring. It’s when he doesn’t have
the ball that he needs to improve. His catching, route-running, pass
protection skills are improving and need to. He is a name to watch with a
bright future here. Zico (Pasut) had a really good, consistent spring
filling a lot of roles for us. He brings a physical presence of a big back
and made some plays in the passing game this spring. Zico, Dobson and Furr
are big guys who can be a new type of weapon for us.
BV: Focusing on Bullock a
bit. He comes off of the injury and was working hard to bulk up some. It is
looking like the ECU front seven could be pretty good and with it, getting
to work against that group, were you able to see any impact of Bullock’s
work in the weight room?
LR: This was a pretty
physical spring and there were no downgrades defensively. He is a lot more
durable, I think, than people think. It’s just last season, he had such a
freak injury. But, yes, he looks like he added some bulk and I think this
summer is going to be huge for Reggie. He only had last summer coming from a
junior college to get ready for last season. I am excited about where he is
come fall, but you can already see it some.
BV: Is he practicing like a
LR: Yeah, he is. There
may have been a practice here or there where it appeared he let off (the
gas) but I would say consistently, yes. For him, he needs to keep that up.
And, really, he, Dobson, and Furr are practicing like a No.1. And so our
backfied and you throw Chris in there who could be the best of all of them
when it’s all said and done, and with Torrance’s speed and Zico’s power…
these guys are going to have to fight and scratch fore every carry and that
is what we want here. I think Kirk Doll has been a great addition for this
group… such a great job of (driving the competition) with those backs. It is
a fierce competition there. They will be that much better because of it.
This is going to be a great battle in the fall.
BV: Let’s say all of them
come into fall on top of their games. What is an ideal rotation for your
system? One, two, three backs?
LR: I like three, four
backs, but really it will depend on how many we travel. Last year, we had
times where we had one back. Coach Ruff has done a great job building depth
here across the board and that allows us to play the most productive player
at any given time. Getting the running backs really involved in this offense
makes this a very hard offense to stop. The years we have had a good running
game, we have had prolific offensive seasons.
BV: On to the receivers,
Coach. Can you point to the two to three guys who had the best camp overall?
LR: Justin Hardy — I
mean, that one is pretty obvious. Dayon Arrington had a really, really nice
camp and we are really excited about him. Kind of like Dobson at running
back, Dayon is playing at a new level now and had a great, great camp. He
looks poised to have a big season. Coach (Dave) Nichol really has Dayon
responding well to his coaching. He made a lot of plays in his first season
and has a lot of skills — we are very excited about him. Bodie (Andrew
Bodenheimer) —you know, he’s just Bodie, solid as ever. He has improved and
had a very good spring. Antonio Cannon had a really nice spring. He will be
a player to keep an eye on. He has a lot of ability to make plays — when we
watch him on film, he is a play maker. He is different than Lance Lewis, but
makes some very big plays like Lance did.
BV: Looking at Reese
Wiggins, you had said that his mission is to get consistent so that that
big-play threat is always with him when he is on the field. Did you see that
he is making progress on this front during the spring?
LR: He is making
progress. He started and finished camp strong, but has some moments in the
middle. But he is overall better in his consistency on the catch. We would
like to see him become a great blocker and great route runner. He is very
coachable and has matured a lot. He is very intelligent kid who learns
quickly. As his confidence goes up, he will be more and more of a dominant
BV: Then there is Justin
Jones on the inside there. How was his camp?
LR: He had a really
good start of camp this spring. Really, actually, he was dominating. I
thought at the end of camp, he was not as good. We need him to get in the
kind of shape he needs to be in for the season. He is incredibly gifted —
everyone sees that — and has improved a lot in his route running and
hand-on-the-ground blocking. He is such a bad match up for linebackers. The
big thing for him is that he needs consistency this off-season (now that he
is healthy) and needs to get into great shape for the season because he is a
huge weapon for us. If he can play like he did in the first few weeks of
spring in the fall, we will have the weapon we expect Justin to be for us.
BV: Looking at the H
position, do you expect Danny Webster to be fully healthy in the fall?
LR: Yes, he may miss a
game, maybe, but we expect to have him back back. His rehab is going well
and (it) may be close, maybe on that first game, nothing much more than
that. The thing about Danny is you got to make sure he doesn’t try to do too
much (during rehab). He should be ready for the bulk of season. The H was
our weakest position this spring and we need to get better there, no doubt
about it. You know, Derrick (Harris) started slow and then we got on him in
camp and he played much better. Derrick was a surprise for all of us last
year how he broke out and made some big plays for us. But now, the thing is
for Derrick, he has to understand the difference between being the guy who
kind comes in with no expectations and surprises everyone and where he is
now, where we expect him to be a starter. Expectations are high for him and
he needs to be ready for it. He showed flashes in spring that he is improved
from the player who made those plays for us last year, but he has to do it
Gray Mazzone is a guy we got
in here and then he had a little injury early that set him back, but this
spring he got a lot of reps and did a nice job for us. That is a position we
must improve, but we are beat up there right now.
BV: Now to your favorite
topic, the offensive line. Looking at the depth chart and comparing it where
we talked about it going into spring, and I am zeroing in at center
position. You were so high on Josh Clark and to see Taylor Hudson atop the
DC there, is that underscoring that the position is that sound now?
LR: Josh has some
things he needs to take care of — nothing bad — but he has some things to do
and that is why Taylor is there right now. Josh is a heck of a center and he
will be right out there in the fall. Taylor did have a really good spring.
You know, for whatever reason, injuries, tough luck, you name it, we have
had a difficult time with the center position since we have been here. We
started pumping a lot of reps to Taylor and he has the chance to be a very,
very good center. He is committed to this role and he snaps well and is more
and more comfortable with the position demands. In general, you see that in
the recruiting classes — with C.J. Struyk and this year with J.T. Boyd — we
are bringing guys in who are centers developed from day one, and we are
keeping them there. We feel like we will have four centers who can be pretty
good. Taylor did a really nice job and I am excited about his future. C.J.
is just so strong. He has always been a little short for the position, but
he is such a phenomenal snapper and he is very smart. Josh did a nice job
like he always does. If we have these three guys available for fall, we are
going to be very solid and deep at center. It is nice to have this situation
BV: How good do you feel
about the guys behind the proven starters at guard (Will Simmons and Jordan
Davis) — guys like Drew Gentry and Tre Robertson?
LR: Tre Robertson was
probably the surprise of the spring — definitely on our side of the ball and
maybe on the whole team. He has some work to do in the weight room this
summer, but he picked up everything and made very few mistakes. He is huge
with great speed and a very good feel for the position. I really do not
think that there is a big gap between Tre and those two guys at all. I think
he is without question our No. 3 guard. Gentry and Jimmy Booth, right now, I
would say that one spot we have to get better at on the OL right now is that
fourth guard or back-up left guard, whatever you want to call it. It was
something we wanted to see in spring. Jimmy is so athletic and one of the
strongest guys on the team and he brings that D-lineman mentality to the
offensive line. He needs to learn what we are doing and not make mental
mistakes. He is too athletic not to be helping this team and we think very
highly of him. Stewart Hinson needs to grow into his body and has work to do
in the weight room. He has a bright future and he is a smart player. Gentry,
his problem since he got here has been us, the coaches. We moved him around
so much he couldn’t lock in and develop at a position. We finally have him
settled into guard and he did a nice job in camp. He is so smart but
sometimes he over-thinks things and makes them more complicated than they
are. He also has some work to do in the weight room. We may help this
situation by slotting Kiefer Neil in there when he comes in.
You know when we got here we
had 12 lineman on scholarship and now we are closing in on 20 and that is
something that we need in our philosophy.
BV: We talked about the
toughness of Will Simmons and Jordan Davis on the interior. Did you see any
improvements in the inside running game this spring?
LR: It is better. From
the OL perspective, the running game at the end of the season last year was
pretty darn good. We just didn’t have enough backs to take advantage of it.
And to see it against our defensive front — our front seven is good, is a
very good sign. When you talk about pushing that defensive line, they are
all three deep where all nine of those suckers can play. And we have two of
the best nose guards in this conference in Michael (Brooks) and Terry
(Williams) and we are trying to run inside there and I thought our progress
was pretty good. And we were pretty good in the spring game. When we get to
the group we are going to play with, we will have two groups we will play
with up front — probably a solid eight who play a lot. We have a lot of
snaps and I feel more confident right now then I did at any point last year,
which I think is a good thing.
BV: Last time we talked
about tackle, you expressed concern at the depth and specifically at left
tackle. How are you feeling now after camp?
LR: Shoot, I am leaning
toward feeling like we are pretty good at tackle. We have five that can
really play, which is better than any time since we have been here. (Adhem)
Elsawi has played in a lot of games and he is now actually in the best
position for him. In our offense, he did a great job on the edge and he is
strong and heavy enough to shut them down out there when needed. I wish we
would have switched him and Jordan (Davis) sooner last year because Jordan
was always a guard and Elsawi is a tackle. When Elsawi walked in the door
from Campbell and said he wanted to walk-on, we were like 'We’ll take you.'
But what we have learned is he is a good, good player. He is so big on the
edge that even if he just stands there, it is a long way around him. I
thought our tackles were the strength of our offensive line this camp.
Ike Harris is probably the
most gifted lineman we have. He’s at 295 pounds and is huge with an
incredible wing span and he gets on guys before they can get in on him. We
want to help him learn to play lower. He has as bright a future of anybody
in the program. Then, there is Robert Jones. He is another bright spot of
spring. Robert has a lot of ability. He’s had sort of an up-and-down career
on defense and then came over to the offense last year. He had a great
spring and is so athletic and strong. Grant (Harner) is going to have a
very, very hard time beating him out. I wish we could go back and recruit
Robert all over again. And then Grant — now he is a bit banged up — but he
has so much experience. Man, that is going to be a heck of a battle this
season between Robert and Grant out there at right tackle. And then Chaz
Lowery, if you have a No. 3 like him, you are in great shape. He is
incredibly smart and athletic — he will be a multi-year starter here in my
opinion. We need to see how they all progress in the weight room this
summer. And with Neal (incoming Juco transfer Keifer Neal) coming in — he
can play tackle or guard — we have had not had that type of competition and
depth before. (It's) going to be very good for all of them going into fall.
We spend a lot of time looking
for the right guys to put at the line. I love the depth and the competition
we have out there. I am not concerned about the line one bit. Not this year.
BV: You sound confident
across the board about this offense. What wou.d you like to see come the
LR: We have to continue
to develop our personality as a group. Did a nice job on turnovers this
spring with three scrimmages and just three turnovers. If we only have one
turnover a game this year, we’ll be just fine. Of course, we are still
searching for leadership but we have guys like Bodie and Will Simmons and
others who are starting to do that and I am excited about that. Our depth is
good, but we do need to stay healthy — that is a must. We feel good and
confident with this group. Some of these new guys can make a difference and
they showed me nothing this spring that tells me we don’t have a chance.
Once we narrow the positions down, the play will get sharper and sharper.
We have recruited well and it
is showing now.
BV: As a group, are you at
all worried about any summer surprises in terms of grades, issues, etc.?
LR: I think that Coach
Ruff has done a tremendous job with this group. (The group) has been
phenomenal in regards to academics — we had 40-plus guys make the honor
roll. That is just awesome. He doesn’t want to microwave the program, he is
building things the right way on and off the field.
Now, we all know that we need
to win games. That is what it all comes down to. But it is also important to
have the off-field in order. We feel like the wins are coming. We are
really, really excited this year.
Ron Cherubini Archives
05/02/2012 04:13 AM