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Pirates looking to get back on track

East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill (center) fields questions during the Pirates media day at East Carolina University on Saturday. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — In his first two years with East Carolina Ruffin McNeill has failed to produce a winning season but the veteran coach said that the fan pressure to break the .500 mark couldn’t possibly exceed the amount placed on him by the man he sees in the mirror every day.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody else could put on me and it’s always been that way with me,” McNeill said Saturday inside Harvey Hall during the team’s media day. “We expect a lot within the program and from our coaches and players.
“Individually, our coaches have high expectations of what we can do. Outside pressure, we’re not worried about it. I got into this business because I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I have a lot of confidence in what we will be able to do.”
In his first year, McNeill had to figure out a way to win games while trying to rebuild a defensive line that lost future NFLers Linval Joseph and C.J. Wilson and was the backbone of the Pirates’ back-to-back Conference USA championship teams.
In Year Two, McNeill and his staff got the defense back on track thanks to the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme that better suited the talent on ECU’s roster. However, the Pirates struggled offensively as they committed an astounding 35 turnovers, which tied for most in the FBS. The result was a 5-7 (4-4) record as the team missed out on extending its consecutive bowl game streak to six when it lost  to Marshall in overtime in the last game of the regular season.
Skipping the postseason is not something the long-time coach is used to and his mission this season is to make sure the Pirates are still playing ball when the temperature drops.
“I think the whole key is to play extra games in this business, we have to play extra games,” McNeill said. “In 27 years (of coaching), 24 of them I have been in the postseason whether it be playoffs at Appalachian State or bowl games. So not going to bowl game, personally, I’m not used to it and I am not used to not practicing in cold weather.”
As for the Pirates run of bowl games coming to an end, McNeill felt his team has the potential to start a new streak this season.
“The streak, I can’t do anything about the streak. We fell short in the last game in overtime against Marshall, the game could have gone in either direction. We didn’t win, but we look forward to getting back on track this season and our goal is to play extra games and if we take care of business we will be able to do that.”
East Carolina will have to get back on track this year without the aid of highly-anticipated 6-1, 190-pound CB/S freshman Lucas Thompson, an Under Armour All-American, along with prized 6-4, 288-pound offensive lineman Jonathan McLaughlin this season as McNeill announced on Saturday that both players will not report to ECU until January.
“Lucas will be a great player and he will be here in January. He’s going to attend Cheshire (Academy), prep school,” McNeill said. “He will be here in January and we are looking forward to having him … We’re waiting on him to get here. He’s ready to go and he’s eager to be a Pirate. He worked hard, just fell a little short.”
While the Thompson situation made waves, the quarterback situation dominated the Pirates’ media day.
Three years ago when McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley took over at ECU they had to deal with a quarterback competition as Dominique Davis joined the Pirates after spring ball and eventually won the starting position over then-sophomore walk-on Brad Wornick.
Riley faces a similar situation this season but what makes this year’s quarterback competition a little different is that in 2010 Davis was widely viewed as the guy who would eventually win it.
This year, the talent gap between senior Brad Wornick, junior Rio Johnson, sophomore Shane Carden and freshman Cody Keith is not as transparent. However, Riley said both QB battles have some similarities.
“Everybody got that sense with Dominique. I know coming in from junior college he was a highly touted guy and I think that everybody thought that it was a given (that he would be the starter) but it wasn’t. Dominique had to earn that. It’s not like when he walked into the door that everybody said ‘that’s our quarterback.
“It was well into camp before it became apparent to us and the players that this was the guy that was going to lead us and I think that will happen again. I know it will,” Riley said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to narrow down these reps at some point, we want to make sure that we don’t just make four average players. But, at the same time, like Coach said, making the right decision is paramount for us. We want to make sure we don’t eliminate a guy too quick that might end up really being the best guy. … If it becomes apparent to us quickly than we will adjust the reps and move on. If takes some time we have some cutoff dates in mind and if we hit those and don’t have a guy then we’ll make the best decision we can.”