June 23, 2011

ECU gaining comfort in McNeill's second year

For yet another season, the fifth year in a row Virginia Tech will go head to head against the East Carolina Pirates.

Now in his second year, Ruffin McNeill's spread attack should be further refined and big changes are expected for the defense too.

What is East Carolina looking like for 2011? Hokiehaven.com caught up with PirateIllustrated.com's Mark Lindsay to answer that question and find out much more inside.

How has Dominique Davis progressed in the Pirates offense now heading into his second and final year at East Carolina?

"Dominique Davis came in last year without the benefit of participating in spring camp, but hit the ground running in the fall. Lincoln Riley's spread offense fits Dominique well. A transfer from Boston College, Davis is a warrior. After throwing for nearly 4,000 yards in 2010, Davis has worked hard on improving his delivery, timing, footwork and overall strength under the return of strength coach Jeff Connors who came back to East Carolina from North Carolina. We expect Davis to be even more comfortable in the East Carolina offense this season with an abundance of weapons to call upon."

What differences do you expect from Ruffin McNeill's second year with the Pirates? What are the expectations for the team in 2011?

"Last year was largely the Dwayne Harris show on offense, but you can expect more distribution offensively to a multitude of receivers and running backs after the graduation of both Jonathan Williams and Giavanni Ruffin.

"Coach McNeill returns for his second year over 100-pounds lighter after going through hip replacement surgery in the spring. The former East Carolina safety from the late 1970's is excited about the upcoming season. McNeill had to coach in pain all of last year with a brand new team as a first year head coach with all new personnel.

"The team got started off well at 5-2 with wins over Tulsa, N.C. State and Southern Miss before injuries took a toll defensively. A seven-point game at halftime versus Navy turned into a blowout when the Pirates fumbled several times to open the third quarter. Injuries took their toll on the defensive line and East Carolina limped in at 6-6 before losing to Maryland in the Military Bowl in the Pirates' fifth straight bowl appearance.

"Everyone is more acclimated coming into this year, but a very tough early portion of the schedule could make or break the season. East Carolina opens in Charlotte against South Carolina before hosting Virginia Tech, UAB in the Conference-USA opener and North Carolina (all at home) before hitting the road for three straight games starting at Houston and ending with Navy in Annapolis. It presents quite a challenge early, but that is what they're used to at East Carolina.

"If the defense comes together early, the Pirates could be in for a solid season. If not, it will be up to the offense to make up the difference. How fast the new receivers settle in along with the defensive line and running backs will determine a lot in 2011. This year, East Carolina returns a good amount of depth after losing 28 seniors coming into 2010. The team has had a complete cycle to learn the offensive system. The change to the 3-4 system defensively suits their personnel better than before, but with a few players still recovering from injuries and a new defensive scheme, it is still a work in progress. The team seemed to catch on well during spring camp. It will be interesting to see how well it works out come September."

Who are expected to be the breakout players for East Carolina this season on both sides of the ball?

"I really like Torrence Hunt at running back. He has sub 4.4 speed and could be the starter. If not, then Michael Dobson is very solid at running back also and he will get an opportunity to show his stuff this fall along with a couple of others competing for playing time. Danny Webster at receiver is a very good one out of New Bern. He jumped right in during spring camp and looked like a starter. Lance Lewis returns and is one of the more dangerous receivers in the nation. Justin Jones at 6-foot-8 is also a load at receiver and could have a break out year in 2011.

"On defense, Justin Dixon returns after an early injury last year ended his first season. A true linebacker, Dixon played a lot of defensive end last year but should thrive in the new 3-4 set along with Marke Powell and Jeremy Grove. Big Antonio Allision and Terry Williams at 6-foot-0, 330-pounds could anchor the middle of the defensive line along with the return of Michael Brooks who missed part of last season with a knee injury. I expect all of those guys to make some noise in 2011. Emanuel Davis returns at one corner and is looking for big year along with Derek Blacknall at the other cornerback position."

The defense for East Carolina struggled significantly last season giving up 76 and 62 points in two different outings, first, is it improved and second, what differences are being implemented this year to fix those issues?

"The defense does seem improved coming into this fall if spring camp is any indicator. East Carolina moves from the 4-3 to a 3-4 defense in 2011. This will give the Pirates more flexibility both in personnel and depth. It appears to be a simpler defense for the team. They can react more and think a little less.

"Much of East Carolina's problems last year arose when they lost several players to injuries after the NC State game and what was a 5-2 season quickly ended up being a 6-6 campaign. The Pirates will look like a 4-3 though in a lot of instances though, depending on who they move up to the line of scrimmage. This defense better utilizes the Pirates' speed and quickness. They should be better able to keep fresh people on the field."

How are the Pirates going about replacing Dwayne Harris? Who is the go to receiver now in their spread attack?

"As Coach McNeill says, you really don't replace a Dwayne Harris, who was a real warrior for four years for the Pirates. Harris is now with the Dallas Cowboys. You can expect East Carolina to take more of an offense by committee approach with a plethera of both returning and new receivers and running backs to call upon. That should take more pressure off of quarterback Dominique Davis this season. From stars like Lance Lewis to big Justin Jones to new guys like Danny Webster and a multitude of returnees, there is no lack of receivers at East Carolina.
Lance Lewis is probably the main man."

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this team coming out of spring ball? What still needs to be proven in fall camp?

"Obviously if there is an unproven weakness, it is on defense with a new scheme and a lot of new personnel. The defensive line will have to gell fast and the linebackers will have to help create some confusion and settle in quickly to the big game type environment. Offensively, you've got some new running backs and a new center with Dalton Faulds not returning due to injury, so that could be an adventure. Getting the most from the offensive line could be a key. East Carolina is still reloading to a degree so it will be fun to see how they decide to use their personnel."

What is the feeling from East Carolina about the Virginia Tech matchup, the two teams have played for a number of years now, is it still as big of a matchup as it's been and does East Carolina want to extend the matchup or not so much anymore?

"Virginia Tech week is as big as it gets for East Carolina outside of North Carolina and NC State. I'm pretty sure East Carolina wants to continue playing Virginia Tech for as long as Tech has a desire to do so. The series goes way back with many meaningful matchups in what has been a storied history. It is a game that those of us at East Carolina very much enjoy.

"Before Tech moved to the Big East, we considered the two programs fairly even in football. East Carolina likes to use the Virginia Tech blueprint as an example of what they can still one day do in Greenville. The only thing holding up the show right now is BCS affiliation. East Carolina has the second biggest non-AQ attendance in America behind BYU, right at 50,000 per game in the newly expanded Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Pirates have plans to move to 58,000 in about five years and hopes to find a place in the BCS either via it's current conference or perhaps in the Big East when they begin to expand again.

"To make the move happen, the Pirates will need to continue to fill the seats and win their fair share of ball games. East Carolina is headed for another record season ticket turnout this season after immediately filling 7,000 new seats just last year. They have also added a new football scoreboard, new softball, soccer and olympic sports facilities that are very nice along with a new baseball stadium that was built in the past five years. We think you guys will enjoy the new changes when you travel to Greenville for the game on September 10th."

Which schools does East Carolina feel are their main competitors when it comes to recruiting?

"East Carolina recruits in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina hard along with Georgia and Florida. They dabble in the Northeast and in Georgia. They hit Texas a bit with so many coaches here from the old Texas Tech staff under Mike Leach too. So naturally you try your best to win a few kids from the ACC schools, steal a few from South Carolina and try to catch the best sleepers available. East Carolina hits the JUCO route and waiver wire a little bit too to help close the gap. Obviously you also want to win your share of kids who are being recruited by other Conference USA opponents. Being the only non-AQ FBS team in the area isn't an easy plight, it never has been, but East Carolina does exceedingly well if they can get kids on campus to see the place.

"East Carolina is the only football first FBS school in the state with a rich history. They have put a lot of good players into the NFL and CFL along the way. Coaches like Pat Dye, Steve Logan and Skip Holtz have coached in Greenville so football is a big deal in at East Carolina and basketball is improving fast too under Jeff Lebo. All in all, it's an exciting time to be a Pirate and we think the best is yet to come."

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