Wednesday, May 2, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
Riley on the State of the Offense
offensive coordinator dishes out post-spring critique
All rights reserved.
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
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the following picture.
(Al Myatt photo)
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.
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 this spring.
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 later.
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?
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 cannot perform.
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.
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 No. 1?
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
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
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
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 — finally.
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,
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.
05/02/12 02:05 AM.