If Ruffin McNeill's conference calls are indicative, his East Carolina football practices are spontaneous, entertaining and Usain Bolt-fast.
Granted, hitting a blocking sled is about as much fun as hitting Justin Verlander. But here's guessing McNeill minimizes the drudgery and fatigue.
ECU's second-year coach drips energy and gratitude, not surprising for a well-traveled assistant coach who didn't occupy the corner office until his early 50s.
"We have one of the greatest atmospheres in college football and that's comparing it to the places I've been and the places I've seen and played in," McNeill said as the Pirates prepared for Saturday's visit from 11th-ranked Virginia Tech. "You'll see a big, big, big-time atmosphere."
A 1980 ECU graduate, McNeill spent 30 breathless minutes with Virginia media Monday and left us appreciating his good nature and thanking our voice recorders. How else to transcribe a man whose second career could be auctioneering?
McNeill, 52, is a former defensive assistant at Austin Peay, North Alabama, Appalachian State, ECU, UNLV, Fresno State and Texas Tech. Pirates athletic director Terry Holland hired him last year to replace Skip Holtz, who left for South Florida.
ECU finished 6-7 in McNeill's debut, falling 51-20 to Maryland in the Military Bowl. This season began similarly, with a 56-37 loss to South Carolina on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.
Notice the numbers. The Pirates, Conference USA champions in 2008 and '09, have defensive issues.
Last year they ranked last nationally in yards allowed (478.8 per game) and second-to-last in points allowed (44.0 average). The nadir: a 76-35 home loss to Navy in which the Midshipmen scored their most points in a game since 1919.
The deluge prompted McNeill to change alignments during the offseason from a 4-3 to 3-4.
"It has not become second nature," McNeill said of the 3-4. "They are comfortable with it and they had great retention from the spring. … We didn't have a warm-up game to practice anything. We got thrown right into the fire (against South Carolina).
"A lot of guys that played for us really had not had many competitive reps in meaningful situations. But I like the way we handled ourselves with it. Any busts were correctable mistakes."
Tech coach Frank Beamer concurred: "I think those (56) points are very deceiving. I think their defense is stronger."
Indeed, ECU yielded a reasonable 351 yards to South Carolina, and the Gamecocks scored touchdowns on a fumble return and punt return. Moreover, Pirates' turnovers set up short-field scoring drives of 34, 10 and 31 yards.
"The score was not indicative of how we played," McNeill said. "I was pleased with our progress. … There's no magical potion or Harry Potter wand I could wave to get them there quicker."
Quarterback Dominique Davis, a Boston College transfer, and receiver Lance Lewis give ECU a formidable offense, but with non-conference games against South Carolina, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Navy, earning a sixth consecutive bowl bid is far from certain.
That foursome was a combined 37-17 last season and is 4-0 in 2011.
"We have the toughest non-conference schedule in the country," McNeill said. "Period."
Conference rival Tulsa would not agree — the Golden Hurricane face Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State and Tulane — but McNeill's overriding point is well-taken: The Pirates are ambitious.
The challenge is to make sure they survive the schedule with minimal damage to their bodies and psyches.
"So far our players have listened to us," McNeill said. "With young cats you don't want them to think they've got all the answers."
McNeill doesn't profess to having all the answers, either. But as older cats go, he's worth a listen.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times