McNeill, ECU kick off spring football practice|Players adusting to new system

Published 6:47 am Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sports Writer

GREENVILLE – Ruffin McNeill is entering the 25th spring workout of his career and he couldn’t be happier that his silver anniversary is draped in purple and gold.
McNeill, who played for East Carolina University from 1976-80, is back at his old stomping grounds in his first-ever season as a head coach and said that he is thrilled.
“This is my 25th official year starting spring practice and I’m as excited any one of those 24 years leading up to this one,” McNeill said during a press conference Monday morning leading up to his afternoon practice.
“It was a unique morning ride in being that this will be the first official one that I will have the opportunity to lead a football team.”
The Pirates will have 15 spring practice sessions and McNeill has made it clear that everyone on his team is starting from scratch.
“I have already mentioned there is no entitlement here,” McNeill said. “We will be seeing players compete for positions and compete for playing time on offense, defense and special teams.”
During the 15 sessions the new coaching staff will place a heavy emphasis on learning the basics.
“It will be a big chance to develop our fundamentals,” McNeill said. “I know there has been a lot of talk about our offensive and defensive schemes, but the biggest part of spring for football coaches will be to develop the fundamentals that are needed. That’s what spring is about.”
McNeill will also use the spring time to foster the team’s attitude.
“Today will we have a chance to start our personality as a football team. (We will see) where are competitive spirit is as a football team, where are discipline level is as a football team, develop our mental toughness as a football team as well as our effort on every play,” McNeill said. “That will begin today; we can start developing that today.”
Leading up to Monday’s practice the players have been doing workouts with strength coach Mike Golden and have been studying up on the new systems.
“We have been able to meet academically with them on a daily basis and during those meetings we are able to talk a little bit of football,” McNeill said. “We are not allowed to be on the field with them with a football in their hands, but they have been introduced to the schemes already.”
The spring workouts will give the coach a chance to piece together his depth chart, but McNeill said he has no time limit on when it will be developed.
“There is no timetable on that,” McNeill said. “Some guys may prove themselves early, but to me (the depth chart) will be determined on a consistency basis, a disciplined basis and the final line is who is making plays.”
GREENVILLE – Ruffin McNeill wrapped up his first official practice with the Pirates on Monday and after the nearly three-hour session the Pirates’ rookie head coach was happy with what he saw.
“I thought for the first day we came out very enthusiastic,” McNeill said. “I thought the team moved around quickly from drill to drill. … I was very pleased with their effort. There are some things they need to work on and get better, but for the first day I thought the execution was good.”
One of the major differences between McNeill’s practice session and one of former East Carolina coach Skip Holtz’s was the amount of time the team spent working on passing.
McNeill and his first-year offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, will be installing their version of the vaunted Texas Tech air-raid offense, and the ECU skipper said he felt his team was grasping the new system.
“I thought so, for the first day (they seemed to be getting the system down),” McNeill said. “They have had a chance to see a little bit of it in the off-season but today they got to do it for the first time with all our coaches on the football field.”
Before the Pirates can go to war with their pass-heavy offense, they must figure out who will be doing the passing.
With the graduation of last year’s quarterback, Patrick Pinkney, the battle for the starting QB job will be a hotly contested one between sophomores Josh Jordan and Brad Wornick, along with redshirt freshman Rio Johnson and Covair Frost as well as true freshman Zakary Illing.
Senior wide receiver and ECU all-time leader in receptions, Dwayne Harris, welcomed the dedication to passing.
“It’s definitely a change; some days (I used to ) go to practice and not catch one pass,” Harris joked. “Now every play you have to catch a ball. It’s great.”
Harris said that after three years of hearing Holtz bark out orders, it was a little different to hear McNeill shout during drills.
“You know, when you are used to one guy and the way he runs things and talks and motivates us, now we got a new guy come in and use some different tactics, it’s a little different,” Harris said. “But it’s great. We love Coach Ruff. He’s a good coach.”
The new offense also creates changes in tactics at the offensive line. The increase in passing also means an increase in pass blocking. Last year’s starting tackle, Willie Smith, said he has no problem with that.
“As an offensive tackle that’s what you want,” Smith said. “It’s a great way to show off your athletic ability.”
The Pirates will have 14 more practice sessions leading up to their spring game on April 17. East Carolina will pause to hold its pro day on Thursday and will follow that with its first pads practice on Friday.