Original article appeared on Coach & Player Magazine on August 10, 2015: http://www.coachandplayer.com/ecu/
By Chris Franklin | coachandplayer.com
Moving forward without two of the biggest stars in the school’s history won’t be easy, but the ECU Pirates and their coaching staff seem to be up to it.
NEWPORT, R.I., (C+P) — Change is inevitable, especially in college football. The East Carolina Pirates finished the 2014 season as one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. The Pirates had two big wins against Autonomous Five opponents Virginia Tech and North Carolina. At one point in the season, the Pirates were ranked in the Top-25 and were under consideration to play in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. With the season quickly approaching, the program is in transition. One of the best quarterbacks in the team’s history, Shane Carden is now with the Chicago Bears. NCAA all-time receptions leader Justin Hardy is with the Atlanta Falcons. Other key contributors have graduated and moved on. How can Head Coach Ruffin McNeill and his team contend once again for a conference championship?
“Last year was our first year in the conference. We had to come in from a Google Map type point of view because we did not know anybody” stated McNeill to Coach & Player Magazine. “This year, top to bottom coaching wise, it is one of the best coaching groups I’ve had to coach against in 36 years of coaching, 31 of them on the college level. Player wise, top to bottom, it is talented.”
This methodical approach is what has helped McNeill and staff garner 37 wins during his tenure at East Carolina. In all likelihood, McNeill can move into fifth all-time in coaching wins. Also, ECU has reached a bowl game four out of the five years he has been at the helm. Once again, the Pirates have another tough nonconference schedule, which includes games against Florida, Virginia Tech and BYU. The team will be playing Florida for the second time in 2015. The Pirates fell to the Gators Jan. 3 by a score of, 28-20. McNeil and team are not looking too far ahead to the rematch.
“That is too far away for us. It is not about Towson. It is not about Florida. That is how we approach it. We call it ODAAT-OPAAT: One day at a time, one play at a time. We will take each day as it goes. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. We are going to make each day a masterpiece.”
One person who left the program that contributed to their success was offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. During this past offseason, Riley accepted a position to be the offensive coordinator for the University of Oklahoma.
“There will always be some growing pains anytime an offense changes. I hire the staff according to two things. One is trust, and the other is a dedication to the team concept, just like we ask the players. We also want a dedication to our mission. Lincoln is not just one of my coaches. He is family. I’ve known him and Caitlin since they were 18 years old. I wish him well. He will do great out there. It also speaks on behalf of our program. I look at it as a complement to our program.”
As for which player could be a surprise this season, McNeill will be watching everyone on his roster carefully, seeing if there will be any unexpected standouts.
“We will have some guys. You will never know who it is going to be. Some of the biggest growth comes from spring to summer so there will be some guys that we do not know about yet that will step up. I am looking forward to seeing them. I am ready to step on the field and see them.”
The Pirates have the personnel to maintain their current success and challenge for the AAC Eastern Division. It will be interesting to see how fast the offense will be able to get going under new offensive coordinator Dave Nichol. Nichol is not a stranger to the team, as he has been the teams outside receivers coach before his new position. Schematically, there should not be too much different that what the Pirates were running in the past. However, every offensive coordinator like to add his wrinkles in regards to play-calling and play design.
For now, the Pirates are focusing on getting better during training camp: One day at a time, one play at a time.