So, I have heard/read all the people reminding the Pirate fans that Skip Holtz had a .500 mark after two seasons and with a few wins, Coach Ruff will be in about the same place…so not to worry. I sang that tune to myself for a while too, but sometimes a saltine cracker can taste like a Ritz (WARNING foul language in link; go to :31 second mark) when you have been starving for success long enough, which was Skip’s situation following the Prince of Powerpoint. Other times, the saltine cracker is just a saltine cracker and you are left hungry. Alas, it seems the only people starving right now, are the fans.
There are some major differences between Skip and Ruff’s starts, regardless if whether or not this year’s Pirates miraculously pull out a 7-6 mark.
For anyone making that comparison, it is important to take an honest account of the state of the program when each coach took over. Even if you want to focus on the state of the defense that Ruff inherited (9 starters graduated, an NFL top draft pick junior leaving early, and a returning starter not able to compete due to injury), it pales in comparison to what Skip inherited from he-who-shall-remain-nameless.
When Skip took over at ECU, the program was in shambles, having posted just three wins in two seasons. Save the existence of Chris Johnson on the roster (a Chris Johnson, btw, that was on his way to being written off by the former coach after a nice freshman campaign), the roster was a rag-tag bunch of guys. Skip took those guys and turned them into a competitive bunch in one season – 5-6. And, he did it by slowly implementing his philosophies, addressing the defense first and aggressively getting the guys who could run his ball control offense and play some defense.
Juxtapose that with what Coach Ruff inherited. Folks…Skip turned over the reigns to a 2-time defending C-USA Championship squad. I don’t care how decimated the defense was, they were two-time champions. That meant that every young man on the roster was a winner…a champion. A HUGE difference in starting points.
So, what has happened?
Well…IMO, the biggest issue has been the philosophical shift that happened in the program. By going to the Air Raid offense, the pressure put on a defense made up of young players groomed for Greg Hudson’s defense simply could not adjust. The offense, with a veteran offense line – one of the most experienced in all of college football – was able to give Dominique Davis (not a spread quarterback) ample time to work with a host of very good receivers. But the D…the defense could not make the radical shift overnight.
On top of it, there were very early signs that the veterans were not incorporated well into the shift and discipline or “lack of buy-in” issues were obvious. The defense never really got going last year and by mid-season was done. The more concerning thing to me is that there appears to be an emerging program attitude that we are great but do not need to actually prove it on the field. Player on-field discipline issues have been well-documented and fundamental aspects – something that this staff has said from day one, remember, the “routine play” mantra – are visibly lacking. What it is a function of, well, it takes a skilled eye that I do not have to see that, but you don’t have to be a coach to see that these players are not playing with any inspiration, urgency, or even a chip on their shoulder. And…they haven’t displayed it since the N.C. State win a year ago – the only “wow” win under the new regime’s belt.
Further, while other teams appear to the know the book on our offense like the back of their hands, we often appear surprised or ill-equipped to deal with what the other team brings. And, at least from a layman’s view, it doesn’t appear that we make very shrewd in-game adjustments…and half-time appears to be 20 minutes of silence. For example, Emmanuel Davis is highly likely to play on Sundays next year…he is that good. But you could make a highlight film this year of him looking out of sorts…confused…and looking to the safeties time again as if to say, “what the hell was that?” You don’t go from a multi-year all CUSA performer to lost on defense without some kind of major breakdown going on. On offense, for example, it appears that backs have closed their eyes and are not even looking where they are running. A lane is to the left and then run into the right guard’s rear end. What is that? It has gotten so bad that the commentators of the games are pointing out things like, “every time on third down the right defensive end is doing x” or on first down, “the Pirates are trying to go inside.” We have guys in the booth…are they not seeing that too? Are the mics cutting out from top to sideline? It seems so frustratingly obvious at times.
Yes…we have had a crazy amount of injuries on offense this year, particularly in the offensive line and that hurts. HOWEVER, it is also predictable given the offensive philosophy employed in the program. A year ago, with a veteran line, three of whom were to graduate an another (center) who was struggling to stay in school, we played that unit 99% of the time even after the season was a wash. The philosophy, I was told on several occasions, was that the offense was such a precision/timing offense that the first unit needed, essentially, to be the only unit. Well, if that is the way it is done, then you better have a rapid-cohesiveness protocol in place to get the new line ready each year. Now…the offensive line that started the season – in fairness – was pretty damn good and due to an oddity of attrition last year (starting center up and leaves then #2 fails out and #3 gets injured) it is hard to blame this staff for that – but, when a team is 6-7 at the end of a season and none of the guys you expect to play the next year have gotten any snaps, you can predict with some degree of accuracy what the next year’s performance is going to be. At this point, this season, let them all play…the future is all there is left to play for now.
Special teams – despite having both kickers, the deep snapper, the holder and one of the return men back from a year ago – looks like the Keystone Kops out there. It is crazy bad. No lane discipline, no train wrecks with the downfield coverage, return men not identifying the lanes, shanks, pulls, no blocking, penalties…you name it, we have gotten good at it – in a bad way if you get my drift. Somewhere, among the 85 guys on the roster, are 11 guys who can play disciplined special teams. This is not a personnel issue…this is coaching. Period. Of all the facets of the game, Special Teams is the one that you can yank non-performers and throw in another. It is about discipline and attitude, both ingredients we just do not seem to have in abundance right now.
And, IMO, this team’s issues – irregardless of injuries – are primarily attitude and as Julius told Gerry, attitude reflect leadership. I am all in for the big love approach, but sometimes the tough love – in a football coaching sense, not off the field – is needed. And, sometimes, as Blackbeard (at least in the Pirates sequel) said, If I don’t kill a man every now and then, they forget who I am. Ruff may need to make some changes this year, just to re-focus the staff and engender urgency once again in the program. Who that would be, no clue here, but there has to be outward signs that this team and staff actually cares about winning, not just about each other as people – which this staff does well in spades.
Sorry for the long rambling post today, but I am officially concerned that our staff is not connecting with these kids when it comes to football. I hope that I am wrong and will pull for Ruff as he filters all of his recruits in and hope for the best.