CHERUBINI CHIMES IN
Spring Football Preview: Part One
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
By Ron Cherubini
|Editor's note: This
article is the "Introduction"
to Ron Cherubini's "Way-Too-Early" series that
looks at the possibilities for East Carolina's
2011 football season. Other articles in the series are
Spring camp ahoy!
One: Bonesville's Way-Too-Early Football Preview
All rights reserved.
By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved
With the 2010 campaign in the books and National Signing Day
2011 behind us, East Carolina football fans are gearing up for spring camp
starting on Monday. The ECU coaches have been full sail working since the
day after the debacle in D.C. and have the program clearly focused forward,
While opinions vary as to whether or not the Pirates' 2010
season was a success or a failure relative to the conditions under which
first-year head coach Ruffin McNeill came to take the helm, most Pirate fans
are eager to look ahead rather than dwelling on the Military Bowl and the
less-than-stellar finish to what started as a big-time campaign.
With that in mind, it's time for the annual way-too-early
preview of the 2011 Pirates, taking a hard look at the ECU offense and
defensive personnel heading into spring and on the way to next season. This
preview, it should be noted, is based on the current roster, current
thinking, and current inputs from the current coaching staff. It takes into
account any and all “facts” as presently known, such as positions, player
eligibility, player additions and departures, etc. In other words,
circumstances can change and you can probably find an error or three if you
look hard enough.
Coach McNeill took the time to talk with me and share some
thoughts about next season, the coaching staff and players, to the extent he
could. Starting with the coaching staff, McNeill said he clearly understands
the concern out in Pirate Nation about the defense. That said, he believes
he has the coaching firepower on defense to right the ship and do it
quickly. McNeill also shared his thoughts on his assistants and his mindset
on coaching movement in college football.
“I feel good about our staff,” said McNeill. “I have been
doing this long enough to know that when you have good coaches on your
staff, sooner or later, people are going to come after them. I hope that
(McNeill's wife) Erlene and I have and the folks here in Greenville have
made coaching here a hard situation to duplicate and our staff will want to
stay. I know that I want to stay here as long as everyone will have me.”
Ruff said he is confident in defensive coordinator Brian
Mitchell’s ability to build the type of defense needed at ECU.
“Brian will get things going over there (on defense),”
McNeill said. “What I will most feel good about on defense next season is
getting those guys back from injuries and building some depth in the front
seven through recruiting.”
McNeill said that improvement in the front seven would come
through finally having the defensive linemen healthy, getting expected play
from experienced linebackers, and the provision to Coach Mitchell of
high-quality, game-ready junior college players to step in and add starting
power or depth in the front seven. The latter he delivered in spades with
the addition of four standout JUCO players (2 DEs, a DT, and an MLB).
McNeill prominently demonstrated his commitment to fix the defense with the
signing of 14 total defensive players in his first real recruiting class at
ECU, noting high school players are the way he plans to build the program.
“I’m not going to microwave things here and when you bring
in a lot of JUCOs that is what you are doing,” he said. “That is not the way
to do it. JUCO players need to be strategic signees. They have to be able to
play right away because you only have them for a couple of years. They have
to help tie one class to another.”
McNeill pointed out that the defense would benefit from
getting guys like Michael Brooks, Justin Dixon, Marke Powell and Matt
Thompson, to name a few, fully healthy to combine with the JUCOs and the
younger players who now have a season’s worth or repetitions under their
It was obvious from the amount he expounded on the defense
that Coach Ruff has been waking every morning with defense on his mind. So,
it took some coaxing to get the conversation onto the offense.
On the offensive side, McNeill feigned that he was on the
verge of tears when asked about heading into 2011 without Dwayne Harris.
“I’d like to find a way to get more eligibility for Dwayne,”
he said. “That young man not only was special on the football field, but he
also was special off the field, in the classroom, around his teammates…
special. Now, we still have a lot of talent at wide receiver, though, and I
feel good about the players we have coming back. They may not be Dwayne but
they are solid, very solid. Lance (Lewis), (Michael) Bowman, (Andrew)
Bodenheimer… they are back and we know what they can do already.
“We got to work the younger guys during post-season practice
and see guys like Justin Hardy and Reese Wiggins really maturing. Torian
Richardson, he has some good, good speed and of course everyone got to see
some of what Mike Price can do. Justin Jones did some good things out there
and don’t forget about Joe (Womack).”
McNeill said that the quarterback position is fantastically
healthy and that he expects not just Dominique Davis to enter camp way ahead
of where he finished last season, but he also expects his other quarterbacks
to be carrying a starter’s mindset heading into the spring depth chart
“We brought into the program a pillar of competition,” said
McNeill. “Every player knows that they have to earn their position each day
and that nothing is given.”
The inference is clear that even Davis must earn his spot.
“Dominique is the type of kid who is constantly working on
getting better and improving on what he did well or didn’t do well,” said
McNeill. “He will be healthy for spring and working on those things he needs
to improve on.
“I was very glad to see Brad (Wornick) get some work in the
bowl game. I know a lot of people think that the deal in the fall with the
quarterback battle was some sort of media thing we were doing, but it
wasn’t. I have no doubt about Brad and what he can do in this offense.
Neither does (offensive coordinator) Lincoln (Riley). Brad earned every bit
of his role on this team and I expect him to battle it out again (in the
spring). I also expect to see Rio (Johnson) battling, too, because he is a
good quarterback. And we have Shane (Carden) there who is ready to compete.”
McNeill noted that offensively the staff is hoping to bring
in an experienced running back who can step into the battle right away,
though he insisted it was no slight to the stable of young, untested backs
“(Running back) is a critical position for us because that
guy has to be able to do a lot of things for us. We feel like we need to
bring in a player who can step in, who has experience.”
And on the offensive line, McNeill believes that despite
losing three veteran starters, the players are in place to see a solid if
not stronger offensive line in 2011.
McNeill said he is very eager to see how the team reacts
during the off-season to the demands placed on the whole team in the newly
opened Camp Connors — in reference to the re-hiring of one of the country’s
top strength and conditioning gurus in Jeff Connors. In general, Coach
McNeill is simply ready to get to spring practice.
I asked Coach McNeill about some of the player rumors
floating around this off-season and he gave some details.
The program supported the application of a pair of petitions
for 6th year medical hardship status for two seniors on the roster in
guard/center Doug Polochak and CB Dekota Marshall.
The fact that Marshall’s application was denied was a
disappointment but not entirely a surprise.
“Dekota’s case is more borderline technically,” he said,
noting that he felt the case met the spirit of the guidelines. The staff
will be watching Marshall’s appeal closely, but preparing to go forward
without the talented corner.
And McNeill had anticipated that Polochak would be granted
“Doug’s case is pretty much text book. He lost two full
seasons with that injury," said McNeill.
“Both of these gentlemen would help us next season, but most
of all, I would like this for them," he added. "They have worked hard and
deserve to have another season with us.”
There has been speculation about several players leaving or
returning to the team. McNeill referenced several of them.
“Darryl Freeney… if Darryl is willing to make some life
changes and team sacrifices then we are willing to discuss him returning to
the team," said McNeill. "It’s going to take some intense conferences with
me and the coaching staff.
“Darryl is a young man that comes from a tremendous,
tremendous family. That young man’s mother and father are great people. He
has no excuses. Football is not a problem for Darryl… he is a tremendous
player, but football is and should be his third or fourth concern right now,
frankly. For me, what a young man does off the field and how he carries
himself in regards to accountability and dependability make all the
difference and Darryl needs to become accountable for his actions.
"Now, on the football, he could be a special, special player
for us, but he has to get a lot of his priorities right to return to this
Several inside sources, including Freeney himself, have
confirmed that the star wide receiver is back on the team — conditionally —
but as of press time for this article, the closest form of official
acknowledgement that he was actually back on the team was Coach Riley
stating that Freeney had done what was asked of him to this point, but that
a lot had to be done to continue on his path back, most of which only time
If Freeney is, indeed, back and walking a straight line
toward full reinstatement, this is a huge development as he would have an
immense impact on ECU's high-flying offense and would be one of the gems in
a receiving corps that could rival any in the country.
When center Will Towery abruptly left the program for
family/personal reasons, the rumors were that he would be back at some
point, perhaps. But it doesn’t look like it.
“With Will, it is a case where the door is wide, wide open
for him to come back to us and I really hope he does,” said McNeill. “He is
dealing with some serious personal things and it does not look like he will
be back, but the door is wide open. Will is a good kid and we would love to
have him back.”
On fellow center Dalton Faulds, he will be back, but has a
lot of work to do to regain trust within the program.
“Dalton (Faulds) really blindsided us with his ineligibility
(at the bowl game),” said McNeill. “He really needs to get things right
before he can get back on the team. It is unacceptable to be ineligible like
that. Every player knows that his academics come first… no excuses for
Dalton. He has work to do.”
The stretch rumor that has been going around is that former
promising defensive lineman Allen Crowder was looking to return. No truth at
all to that one, at least as far as the coaching staff knows.
“Allen Crowder… that is a guy I have not even spoken to in
months,” said McNeill. “I would talk to him if he wanted to come back, but
that one… I don’t know. He came to us and said his heart wasn’t in it
anymore. We would listen if wanted to come back, but you know, this is a
game you really need to want to play.”
Other comings and goings include former quarterback and
current wide receiver Josh Jordan transferring out of the program to play at
McNeese State and inside receiver Michael Byrd transferring to another
in-state school to complete his eligibility. Byrd, who graduated in
December, transferred to begin a graduate program.
More than anything, McNeill underscored the point that the
players in the program are dedicated to improving on the positives and
addressing the negatives from last season.
Perhaps that will mean at least similar production for the
offense and an improved defense, though to what extent is the big question.
With another fierce schedule, perhaps the biggest question is, will an
improved defense yield enough to move back to 8-9 wins and another run at a
Conference USA title?
So, with that, we'll take a look in Part Two on Thursday at
what we might expect for next season in the annual Way-Too-Early Look at the
Ron Cherubini Archives
03/21/2011 03:36 AM