As ECU football coach Ruffin McNeill enters his fourth year with the Pirates he returns 16 starters from a team that finished 8-5 last year. (ECU Photo/Rob Goldberg)
As ECU football coach Ruffin McNeill enters his fourth year with the Pirates he returns 16 starters from a team that finished 8-5 last year. (ECU Photo/Rob Goldberg)

Archived Story

McNeill heads into critical fourth year

Published 8:47pm Monday, March 25, 2013

GREENVILLE — Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was any great football team but after four years of construction blueprints begin to leap off the page and become reality.
On Monday, East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill kicked off his fourth spring practice period with the Pirates and felt confident about what he has forged so far.
“I’m excited about it,” McNeill said. “I think from the first year where we had to start from scratch it’s been good. Like I mention always, we’ve built brick by brick to create a foundation. You want it perfect, but it’s always a never-ending process of molding.”
Like art, the beauty of the Pirates’ 8-5 2012 season – the first winning season during McNeill’s tenure – is in the eye of the beholder. To some, ECU’s 7-1 Conference USA record and return to the postseason is a great indicator of things to come. Others would point to the team’s lack of a signature win and claim the 7-1 mark is merely a byproduct of a down year in the conference.
By Year Four, a college football team truly begins to take on the identity of its maker as all those handpicked freshmen turn into seniors, and with 16 starters coming back, this season should offer a strong indicator of what the future holds for ECU football.
“I’m anxious to see how far we’ve developed,” McNeill said. “The new kids coming in help but the main part of our team is on campus right now.”
Who’s not on campus could also be an issue as ECU let go of three-year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell and indefinitely suspended 1,000-yard rusher Vintavious Cooper after he was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
As a JUCO transfer last season, Cooper was a breakout star as he worked his way into the starting lineup and led the Pirates with 1,049 rushing yards.
McNeill feels Cooper, who has no association with the team as of now, can work his way back on the roster.
“I think he will be integrated back but it’s up to him,” McNeill said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do thus far. I see him continuing to do that.”
When asked if Cooper was on any kind of timeline to return McNeill said, “He’s on my timeline … I judge each case, case by case and Coop’s been giving things to do and he’s done everything I’ve asked of him. I see him integrating back into the team, hopefully by summer.”
Mitchell, however, will not be back as he was replaced by former ECU defensive backs coach Rick Smith, who spent five seasons with the Pirates and helped the team win back-to-back C-USA titles.
Mitchell’s firing could be viewed as a bit hasty, however, time is a luxury not afforded in college football.
In 2010, Mitchell, who is now the cornerbacks coach at West Virginia, took over a depleted and inexperienced defense and finished near or at the bottom of every major statistical category. In 2011, Mitchell changed ECU from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 defense and saw a rise in production. Last season, the Pirates ran a more advanced 3-4 defense than the previous year but the consistency was not there as it finished 53rd nationally against the run and 107th against the pass.
Would another season have helped? Who knows, but McNeill, whose own seat at times runs a bit warm, felt the need to make a change.
“It wasn’t that last year was a total disaster. We had some games that were tough. There were some positive things that happened defensively, but what I look for is being consistent,” McNeill said.

Michael Dobson will play his final year with the Pirates on the other side of the ball as the sparingly used running back will play free safety his senior year. McNeill said the 6-0, 186-pounder has the right tools for the position.
“He has good speed and he’s athletic,” McNeill said. “I’m trying to make sure we get the best players on the field at the right time.”

Junior middle linebacker Jeremy Grove (shoulder) and sophomore DT Terrell Stanley (knee) will see limited action during the Pirates 15-day practice period. Ruled  “out” for the spring session are WR Chris Cacciola (shoulder), DE Justin Dixon (knee), S Damon Magazu (back), DE Matt Milner (hip) and RB Jamal Tillman.

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