Ruffin McNeill often speaks with his hands, sometimes punching the air to demonstrate his point from a boxer’s perspective.
Describing East Carolina’s defensive intentions this season, the Pirates’ coach snapped a few short jabs.
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“You’re in a fight, let’s swing first,” he said.
That’s the plan for the Pirates’ defense as described by the first-year, first-time college head coach, who arrived here after 10 seasons at Texas Tech. He expects the unit to run and swarm, engulfing opponents in a sandstorm of blitzes and momentum-stuffing-tackles.
“Let’s attack,” said McNeill, who served as a defensive coordinator for three years at Texas Tech. “Let’s try to predict tempo from a defensive point of view. Let’s play a lot of kids on defense. Everyone gets a chance to make plays.”
As the Pirates open the season against Tulsa on Sunday, returning on the heels of back-to-back Conference USA championships, the focus centers on a team installing a new spread offense – known at Texas Tech as the “Air Raid” – and replacing a fifth-year starter at quarterback.
With the departure of head coach Skip Holtz, who took over the program at South Florida, the Pirates must adjust to a new head coach.
East Carolina must replace Matt Dodge, a first-team All-Conference punter, who led the league last season and was drafted by the NFL’s New York Giants.
Important tasks, for sure, yet the Pirates are attempting something with an even tougher degree of difficulty on defense.
They must replace nine defensive starters, including an entire defensive front, a monumental task rarely forced upon teams.
“I’ve never seen this before,” Pirates’ defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “Never. It’s amazing.”
Gone are senior defensive linemen Scotty Robinson, Jay Ross and C.J Wilson, who was drafted in the seventh round by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Also departed are linebackers Nick Johnson, Chris Mattocks, and Jeremy Chambliss, along with safeties Levin Neal and Van Eskridge.
Plus, junior defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the unit’s top returning player, declared for the NFL draft and was selected in the second round by the New York Giants.
Those players took their heavyweight, bruising style of defense with them, leaving the Pirates without the nucleus of a squad that finished with the conference’s top scoring defense, allowing opponents just 21.9 points per game.
Under McNeill, the Pirates will keep the same multiple 4-3 scheme up front, though they will look like an entirely different team once the ball is snapped.
With undersized players, they now prefer speed over power.
“This is a lot of blitzing, a lot of responsibility football,” East Carolina senior defensive tackle Josh Smith said. “Knowing when to have your gap. We move around a lot. It’s very fast football.”
Last year, with 300-pound-plus players such as a Ross and Joseph on the line, the defense battered opponents, wearing them down and forcing them to punt – a bend-but-don’t-break mentality.
“We want to take the ball,” Smith added. “We want to give our offense every chance we can to score.”
To accomplish that East Carolina coaches have stressed “running to the football.” It’s the catch-phrase of training camp.
Mitchell has asked his players to sprint to the football on every possession and understand the basics of their technique and assignments. But effort is the most important component, especially since coaches may signal the green light to go on any given down.
“The task is running,” ECU senior linebacker Dustin Lineback said. “We’re sending linebackers, sending ends, safeties, we’re blitzing, we’re running all over the field.”
Replacing nine defensive starters, many of whom had held their position for multiple seasons, the Pirates are left with inexperienced players.
Practice time features many simulated game situations in order to provide players with some frame of reference. Second and third team players will see time this season.
Senior linebacker Melvin Patterson said he attacked summer workouts and is one of the first to arrive to practice. He said players such as junior defensive end Maurice Mercer, junior linebacker Steve Spence and senior linebacker Wes Pittman soaked in numerous lessons from the players in front of them.
“You want to make a notion that you’re a great defense,” Patterson said. “That you love playing defense.”