Third-year East Carolina University Head Football Coach Ruffin McNeill addressed members of the media prior to this week's game against Appalachian State. The following are selected comments:
“Game week is finally here. There is a lot of optimism, expectations and challenges. We look forward to it as a staff and I look forward to the first game as a coach and have for each of my 32 years in the profession.
“We have been playing against each other all throughout the spring and fall camp and we are ready to dive into another opponent.
“Even though we needed to delay the start of practice three times last night because of lightning, I thought the team handled practice well on Sunday, as we begin game week preparations.
“The offseason is where we began preparing for this week. Coach (Jeff) Connors and his staff did an outstanding job of getting our guys ready both physically and mentally.
“We had some renovations done to the Murphy Center’s weight room this summer and it forced us to the facility out back where it was a little steamy for them (the players). You can tell the hard work paid off though. Our players are in great shape.
“I like the way our players approached the offseason. This is a group that has not complained or made excuses and for me and other coaches that have been in the profession for an extended period of time, it makes our job more pleasant.
“We came into fall camp with a plan of development. It was a plan that I have mention often throughout the summer in our press conferences and after practices. We also wanted to develop competition and work on the installation of schemes. We have a new special teams coach this year in Kirk Doll and he brought with him a different scheme than we had been running. Lincoln Riley (offensive coordinator) and Brian Mitchell (defensive coordinator) also continued to add new elements our offense and defense.
“There were also some intangible elements that we wanted to instill within the team in trust, belief and accountability (TBA). The team has embraced these elements as has the staff and I have really enjoyed that aspect as well.
“Having the opportunity to watch the individual players improve their skill set was also area that was focused on. I use a phrase with the team about being above or below the line with technique or mental in our approach. And you see those guys that were below the line last year beginning to emerge past that line during the summer and camp.
“The majority of fall camp we spent going “best on best” and it allows us as a coaching staff to evaluate each play or repetition. We went “best on best” for about 600 to 700 plays a week and that is a lot of reps. Most football programs don’t do that, they just wait to evaluate at scrimmages. And because of that philosophy we came out with a few nicks and bruises, but I also feel a lot better about where we are as a football team.
“We designed the scrimmages to find out two things. First we wanted to figure out how we would compete as a team with officials on the field in a game-type setting. We did a great job as a team adjusting to some of the new rules that have been instituted this year. I purposely asked the officials to be strict on us so we could learn to play smart football. The second area that I wanted the team to get used to in the scrimmages was sideline operations. That included everything from player substitutions to working with coaches on the phone and in headsets in the booth. In the scrimmages we accomplished what needed to be done.”
On Naming The Starting Quarterback
“We officially named Rio Johnson was our starting quarterback today. Shane Carden, who I think of as a starter, will be our second quarterback. It was the closest quarterback race I have ever been around. Brad Wornick has also done a great job. It was not like our quarterback competition from 2010 when Dominique Davis was the clear frontrunner. I feel very good about this unit. Rio has done an excellent job of leading and managing the team in practice over the last few days. The same can be said about the way Shane has played. It was a tough call, but we needed to make it so we could get one of them ready for this weekend. Shane will also be ready to play if he needed and I consider him a starter as well.”
On The Running Backs
“At the running back position, we have six guys that we will play as a committee. Michael Dodson has had the best fall camp of the group and will be the starter, but Reggie Bullock has pushed him hard. Vintavious Cooper, Torrance Hunt, Hunter Furr and Zico Pasut are our other running backs in the committee. One of the things that I have asked the coaching staff to do is find roles for all of them. I like the way that group has developed. They each have a specific skill set, roles and situations in which we can play them.”
On The Receivers
“Reese Wiggins had a terrific fall camp for the wide receivers. Jabril Solomon is a true freshman that will be playing and he will not be redshirted. Derrick Harris has had an outstanding fall camp. Justin Jones and Justin Hardy have had good camps at one of the inside receiver positions. Andrew Bodenheimer and Lance Ray will work on the outside. Lance is still getting his sea legs back after playing in junior college last season. Andrew and Reese both can work at multiple receiver positions.
On The Offensive Line
“The offensive line is where it all starts though. The primary focus of camp by the media has been on the quarterback position, but the offensive line play is going to be just as important. The tackles will be Adhem Elsawi, Isaac Harris, Robert Jones and Grant Harner. Our guards will be Will Simmons and Jordan Davis with Drew Gentry going back and forth between the two positions. The centers will be Taylor Hudson and C.J. Struyk.”
On The Defense
“On defense we feel good about our depth. The strength of the team will be along the line. Matt Milner and Lee Pegues will start at defensive end. Johnathon White is a new name to keep track of at the defensive end position. Chrishon Rose is also in the mix for playing time at defensive end. Justin Dixon and John Lattimore have both had great summers and camps at defensive end. At the nose tackle position, Michael Brooks and Terrell Stanley have both had outstanding camps. Lee Pegues will also see some playing time inside and will rotate with Michael and Terrell.”
On The Linebackers
“Our inside linebacker position will feature Kyle Tudor, Daniel Drake, Jeremy Grove, Brandon Williams and Ty Holmes. At outside linebacker the familiar names will be Maurice Falls and Derrell Johnson. Gabriel Woullard has come in here and done a great job. He is outside linebacker that can really run and we like what he brings to the table for the defense and in a special teams role. Chris Baker and Jake Geary both have nagging injuries, but I still expect both to be able to get some reps this week. We also moved Robert Huckabee to one of the outside linebacker positions.”
On The Secondary
“Damon Magazu will be the leader in the secondary. Chip Thompson and Lamar Ivey will man the other safety position. We moved Desi Brown and Justin Venable to free safety to play behind Magazu. Jacobi Jenkins and Adonis Armstrong are the starters at cornerback. Josh Hawkins, Rocco Scarfone and Kristopher Sykes will be the backups.”
On The Specialist
“The specialist will be Warren Harvey taking care of the kicking duties and Trent Tignor punting. Charlie Coggins and C.J Struyk are the long snappers.
“Now that we are through camp the areas that need to looked at is sustaining the focus, work ethic and mentality. It is up to us as a staff to address these areas.
On Appalachian State
“Beside paying and donating to the school through their educational fund with my daughter attending Appalachian State and getting her degree this fall, I worked as a member of the football program for seven years. John Wiley (Associate Head Coach) also worked their for 19 years and Donnie Kirkpatrick (Inside Receivers Coach) also has a background at Appalachian State as well. I was part of Coach Moore’s first coaching staff and he has established a program that has won three national championships and is one of the all-time winningest coaches at any level in all categories. He has done a great job and has his team ranked fifth nationally in the FCS poll heading into the season. On offense they return a few key starters in quarterback Jamal Jackson – a dual threat quarterback that can both run and pass – and running backs Rod Chisholm and Steven Miller. Both running backs have good quickness and the ability to cut well. They also have an Oregon transfer at wide receiver in Tacoi Sumler. Other names on offense to be aware of include Tony Washington and Andrew Peacock. On defense they run a 3-4 package. Inside at middle linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough is an All-American player that can run and is very physical. He had 105 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and four sacks last year. They have another All-American in cornerback Demetrius McCray. He is another with good speed that can run very well. The rest of their defensive line is very young, but also tall and lengthy. We need to establish ourselves early. This is not a team that will be intimidated by travel or venue. They will be here to play their best game and so will we!”
On Injured Players
“Chris Baker, Jake Geary and Matt Milner are all probable. Montese Overton will get checked out today and we will see if he is ready to go. Kristopher Sykes is questionable, but I think he will be back this week. Leonard Paulk is out. Danny Webster was in a car accident early Saturday morning and I think that he is okay.”
On The Quarterback Decision
“It was a tight race. The reps that each guy took were pretty even throughout camp. All four of the players were within percentage points of each other. The last few days saw Rio Johnson step forward based on the way he managed the team, but not by much. It just came to the point where we had to get one guy ready to play this weekend. Ideally during a game week you will get the starter two-thirds of the reps and backup one-third. As I mentioned earlier, Shane Carden is a starter in my mind. It was a very tough decision to make and even tougher to have to inform those guys yesterday. The team reacted positively to our decision and feels comfortable with either one of those guys or Brad Wornick being our quarterback. We plan on sticking with one of the guys as our starter, but if one of them struggles I could see one of the others getting an opportunity. I feel comfortable with any of our quarterbacks. It was a feeling I just didn’t have last year.”
On Team Captains
“We let the team vote on the captains weekly and that comes from my time here and what I was taught by Coach Dye. That decision will be made after Thursday’s practice. We will have a special team captain and then two captains from both the offense and the defense.”
On Playing Defense Against a Mobile Quarterback
“We hope that we have some packages to defend a mobile quarterback like Jamal Jackson. We faced quite a few athletic mobile quarterbacks last year. Jackson is good player though. He does a good job of operating their offense.”
On Biggest Concern Of Playing Appalachian State
“They have guys that can run and stretch the field vertically. One of their former receivers, Brian Quick, was a second round pick by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL this past year. Adding a player like Tacoi Sumler with his speed to what they already had is bit of a concern. The same thing goes on defense for them. Their linebackers, defensive backs and defensive linemen can all run.”
On Comparing This Year’s Team To Last Year’s Team
“I like the mentality of this year’s group. They will work hard and do what we ask them to do. So I would say that I feel good about the development and depth of this year’s team.”
On Walking Through the Tunnel and Entering the Field
“I have said it many times. Pirate Nation is second to none! When you have a chance to feel and relish that first sound when you enter the field and the crowd just erupts. It is amazing. You can’t even hear yourself talk on the sideline and that is why we try to prepare our team by simulating that game day field with noise and music in practice. There is an energy and excitement that Pirate Nation brings. Our fans have so much passion for their team and university that is unlike any other place that I have coached. It makes me so proud to be part of this football program.”