GREENVILLE — Each spring camp takes on an identity of its own as it progresses, and while some teams need guidance every step of the way, others seem ready to take the next step. After concluding his fifth spring session as East Carolina football coach, Ruffin McNeill felt this year’s group fell into the latter category.
“They’re all different. It doesn’t matter if you have a majority of your team returning, each team has its own personality and develops its own character,” McNeill said. “It’s fun to see if you have a leadership corps that believes in the things that we have been preaching since Day 1: no ego, no entitlement, teamwork. They understand that extra work is the key to success.
“… It’s amazing how our kids come up. They’re always around, they’re watching film as a group. Saturday mornings, 10 o’clock, college students are out throwing on their own.”
The Pirates nearly made their first Conference USA championship game under McNeill last season as they walked into their season finale against Marshall with a chance to clinch the title. However, they fell 59-28 to the Thundering Herd.
Resilient, East Carolina (10-3, 6-2) got back on its feet in time for the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, where it beat Ohio37-20to capture its first bowl victory since 2007.
Whether the Pirates can stay upright for an entire season is yet to be seen, but McNeill was certain that the work ethic displayed by last season’s team has embedded itself into the DNA of the 2014 squad.
“These past two teams have had a really high competitive spirit,” McNeill said. “… This group enjoys practice. This group is big into work. They don’t mind the work and they attack the work.”
With defensive coordinator Rick Smith back for his second year and up-and-coming offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley sticking around for at least one more season, McNeill cited the continuity of his staff as a key element in the Pirates’ growth. However, the influence of seniors Shane Carden and Justin Hardy is equally important.
In 2013, Carden threw for a school-record 4,139 yards and was named the Conference USA MVP. Hardy grabbed an ECU-best 114 passes to earn his second straight All-C-USA first-team designation. While their skills are undeniable, their leadership is just as valuable.
“They’ve earned their spots on this team and they embody what we want our team to be about: teamwork, no egos and no entitlement. They appreciated any attention they get, but they rather it go to the team,” McNeill said. “They lead in different ways. Shane is more vocal, but he has to be because he’s the quarterback. Justin is vocal, but he does it more with his play.”
The Pirates will begin fall camp Aug. 3 and McNeill said the biggest key for his team right now is that it continues to walk in the right direction until that time.
“They’re working out on their own right now every day,” McNeill said. “That’s the thing with this group. We can’t be there with them, but whether it’s voluntary or involuntary they work and that’s the difference in this group.”