McNeill holds first official practice|ECU alum excited to be back on field

Published 9:06 am Saturday, August 7, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — A sunny, steamy day provided the backdrop for Ruffin McNeill’s first official practice as head coach of the East Carolina football team Friday, and if things go right for the Pirate alum the rest of the 2010 season will have a sunny outlook as well.
McNeill, who played defensive back for ECU in the ’70s, certainly has his work cut out for him as he inherits a team that lost 18 starters (six offense, nine defense, three special teams) from the squad that won the Conference USA championship last season.
On Friday, McNeill worked out his 105-man team for three hours, and upon conclusion of practice said the atmosphere was upbeat.
“It was exciting, it was a very anticipated day for all of us as a staff and the football team,” McNeill said. “It was a warm day, just like we knew it would be here. We expected it, that’s why the kids worked hard all summer conditioning-wise. … The most exciting part of it for me today though was just being able to be around the guys.”
The Pirates rookie coach felt his team retained a lot of what it learned during spring practices.
“The things I wanted to make sure we had today was tempo and execution, and a carry over of execution from the spring,” McNeill said.
“I thought the tempo was not bad for the first day. … I was very intent on seeing how much carry over we had from the spring to right now execution-wise, and I thought it was not bad.”
With so many starters lost from a year ago, there will be plenty of position battles to keep an eye on this summer, with the biggest going on behind center. The Pirates will audition five quarterbacks during camp in freshman walk-on Brad Wornick, the leader of the depth chart as of the Purple and Gold game, freshman Rio Johnson, junior transfer Dominique Davis, freshman Shane Carden and walk-on Zackary Illing.
McNeill has not set a timetable for when he would announce the starting QB and said that the reps were equal in practice Friday.
Aside from establishing starters, McNeill is looking develop leadership and a new brand of Pirate football early on in camp.
“(We are looking for) the development of leaders. It’s been well documented that we lost 29 guys including (junior DT) Linval (Joseph) who went to the League,” McNeill said. “The development of leaders is the biggest thing among the group … The other thing is that we always want to work on our personality and our brand.”
The search for team spokesmen is expected to carry on all summer, but so far a few players have jumped up and grabbed the reigns.
“It’s still a developing process, but you see a guy here or there,” McNeill said. “I thought all the quarterbacks did a good job stepping up and running the drills, ‘Seventeen’ (Dwayne Harris) always does a good job of taking things by the horns and cherishes that role of being a leader. ‘Deuce’ (Jonathan Williams) does a good job, he doesn’t say much but he leads by example.
“Defensively, Josh Smith, Steve Spence, Derek Blacknall and Emanuel (Davis) are all guys that are very talkative.”
On Friday the sun beat down on veteran leaders and freshman walk-ons alike, and McNeill said that keeping his players fresh was a priority.
“I’m blessed to have Mike Hanley (sports medicine staff) and Mike Golden (strength and conditioning coach), we do a good job of communicating all practice long about when they think we need to take a break and up the water intake,” McNeill said. “They do a great job of that and we discuss that all summer about when to get a break in here or there because the tempo is high-tempo for them, it might be a little different from what they have done in the past.”
The Pirates can begin full-contact practice after their fifth session. As of now, the biggest thing for the team is getting into a rhythm.
“We will be getting into (pads) by next week or so,” McNeill said. “I think right now it’s critical when we are not in pads to get our timing down as much as possible and do some fundamental work.”
Dougherty joins staff
McNeill announced Friday that Ryan Dougherty, who punted for the Pirates from 2003-06, has joined the staff as an administrative assistant. Dougherty holds ECU’s highest single-game punting average with his 55.7 yards per boot against Virginia Oct. 7, 2006. He also owns the fourth (44.5 ypp/2003) and seventh (43.6 ypp/2006) single-season highest punting averages in Pirate program history. Dougherty’s career average of 42.7 yards per punt is the fourth-best mark on the ECU career ledger. (ECU)