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Wednesday, May 2, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Features Writer

Lincoln Riley on the State of the Offense

ECU's offensive coordinator dishes out post-spring critique

By Ron Cherubini
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 answers.

Article continue below the following picture.

Lincoln Riley
(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.

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 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?

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 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.

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 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 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 receiver.

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 consistently now.

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 fall?

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.

E-mail Ron Cherubini

PAGE UPDATED 05/02/12 02:05 AM.

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