The talk of the town

Published 4:45 pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill (left) waves to the camera as he walked on to the Cliff Moore practice facility Friday for the Pirates first official practice. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — As expected, talk of the Pirates new 3-4 defense dominated media day with everyone wondering if it can dominate on the field.
Last season under first year coach Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina allowed an FBS-worst 478.8 yards per game which led to opposing teams scoring an eye-popping 44 points per contest, the second highest total in the country.
McNeill and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell were placed in a bind in 2010, as they tried to maximize the talent of an undersized, inexperienced unit that was plagued with injuries along the front seven. As a result, ECU could not muster a pass rush or stop the run, which led for some long Saturdays.
Despite their deficiencies on defense, the Pirates still finished the year at a better-than-expected 6-7 and made it to the Military Bowl where they lost to Maryland.
East Carolina took its lumps last year and learned a few lessons along the way. One of them, being that lanky and lean defenders make for a much better linebackers than they do defensive ends.
“In the spring we made some moves schematically going from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The reason for that was that it fits the personnel we have here on campus, it fits the type of personnel we are trying to recruit here,” McNeill said. “The defense we have now is a defense that’s flexable. It’s able to mold and form into something we need in any type of situation.”
The defense may be flexable but McNeill was strict about staying with the formation saying, “It’s a life move, it’s done. We’re doing that the whole time here. I have been asked if that was a 2011 move. No. It’s an as long as I’m here move. We’re a 3-4 defensive scheme here and we’re going to throw for a living here.”
The throwing for a living part of the Pirates had a major impact on the team as offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid attack helped ECU tally 36.7 points per game to rank 16th nationally. However, the up-temp offense was also quick to put the woeful Pirates’ defense back on the field with little to no rest. Last year, the Pirates ranked 114th nationally in time of possession, while Conference USA winners UCF ranked 8th.  All of that begs the question: does this offensive philosophy work well with the team’s defense?
“They do work together. One of the things we talked about in the offseason was that we attack on offense and we make sure we attack on defense and on special teams,” McNeill said. “They do go hand-and-hand. Our philosophy of attack mode or hurry mode (applies to all units) and I think we’re getting there.
“In a four-man front you can have that attack mode as well, if you have the war daddies up front. When I say those things I’m not downgrading our kids, but three of the four defensive linemen (from the 2009 Conference USA–winning team) are in the NFL (Linval Joseph, C.J. Wilson and Jay Ross), and two of them (Joseph and Ross) have Super Bowl rings.
“With us, what we feel like we have on campus now is personnel that fits what we do here. We have those ’backer types like a Justin Dixon (6-1, 252) and Marke Powells (6-3, 222) … rangy guys which led to a 3-4; Justin and Marke were out of position playing defensive end.”
As far as going to a more time-oriented offensive attack, McNeill said that was never a consideration last season.
“No, never,” McNeill said. “When I coordinated with this offense I thought this: I want the offense to score as many points as it can, also knowing that (the defense) would be on the field longer than any normal defense.
“We had to develop the depth we needed. We needed about 24 to 26 guys on defense to rotate. Right now I’ve told Brian and his staff we need about 6-8 defensive linemen, 8-10 linebackers and about 8-10 DBs.”
The Pirates depth will get its first test on Sept. 3 when it takes on South Carolina in the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.