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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

By Bethany Bradsher

Bucs cultivate hyperactive persona

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Spring symbolizes new beginnings, and nowhere does the season’s theme ring truer than on the East Carolina football practice field. One third of the way through spring ball, the Pirates have the look of little boys finally starting to get used to their new shoes.

“Everything feels different,” wide receiver Dwayne Harris said after Monday’s practice. “The whole practice feels different — everything’s moving a lot quicker, everybody’s getting a lot of reps. But we’re getting the hang of it, and we’re feeling pretty good about it.”

The most striking spring alteration made by head coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff is the switch to an up-tempo offense that demands fast, frenetic drills during practice. Countless times during one afternoon, McNeill can be heard yelling, “tempo, tempo!” or “tempo, high!”

The players are learning that, for these new-look Pirates, high is really the only speed they should use. And just five days in, they are already seeing some benefits to the speed-is-good approach.

Defensive end Josh Smith said that the constant movement is improving the players’ stamina, in essence providing their conditioning and their football training in one package.

“We do a lot more running because of our offense,” Smith said. “But it’s been nice to be in that good of shape. You don’t see guys slumping over with their hands on their knees. Practice is fun. You see guys out here flying around having a good time, making a lot of noise. And that’s what you want to see.”

As for Harris and his fellow receivers, the difference is obvious: The new offense and new practice style translate into more balls in their hands. Harris estimates that he has been getting 10 times more reps this spring than he got during the practices run by Skip Holtz and staff.

“Sometimes then I would go without catching one pass,” Harris said of last year. “Here you’re catching like a thousand balls a day. We’re just out there just soaking it all in like a sponge, learning as much as we can.”

Of course, the Texas Tech offense is a wide receiver’s dream, and Harris knows that the table is set for a prolific senior season. When he heard that McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley were bringing their pass-happy scheme to Greenville, he immediately thought of Michael Crabtree, who caught 134 passes for 22 touchdowns as a freshman with the Red Raiders.

McNeill remembers, years before Crabtree arrived, when he was new to Texas Tech and the coaches were instituting their new offense. A decade has passed and he’s wearing purple now, but it’s the same thing all over again this spring.

As he compares the two experiences, McNeill is encouraged when he realizes that the Pirates are actually learning faster than that first Red Raider squad.

“They’re catching up,” McNeill said. “It’s new for them. But they’ll adjust. They’re trying to do what I ask them to do. They still have big eyes and big ears, but this is the enjoyable part, the spring.”

Saturday’s workout was one of the best the Pirates have turned in this spring, McNeill said, so he wasn’t too surprised when Monday brought an average practice that highlighted how much ECU still has to learn.

“I thought the fundamental aspect, especially, could have taken another step up today, especially the execution level on all three sides of the ball," McNeill said. "But that’s what spring is for. We’re trying to develop our personality as a football team, and we still have some days to go.”

McNeill’s other major test this week came off the field, as he was forced to assert his leadership after the legal troubles of running backs Brandon Jackson and Giavanni Ruffin. Both face criminal charges, and because Jackson had previous offenses while at ECU he was booted permanently from the team. Ruffin is serving an indefinite suspension.

“I set the standard when I took over the job,” McNeill said. “‘Unfortunately those things happen, but nobody’s above the program. East Carolina University is one of the top universities in the country, and nobody’s above the program.”

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04/05/2010 02:09 AM

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