ADA — Since arriving at ECU in December to take over the football program, Kurt Nichols has been “up front” about pretty much everything. His offense will be no exception.
In addition to his duties as the Tigers’ head man, Nichols is also ECU’s offensive line coach, and that unit — along with a razor-thin running back corps — is probably his biggest concern heading into today’s second of three spring scrimmages.
Nichols brought a new spread offense with him from Cisco Junior College, and, with just about everybody out in the pattern on most passing plays, ECU’s attack will live or die with the ability of the offensive line to keep the enemy out of the backfield and give Tiger quarterbacks a chance to find a receiver.
Also, with no healthy bodies at tailback after Saturday’s punishing first scrimmage, Nichols is hoping his line can keep his walking wounded in the backfield from absorbing too much punishment over the final days of spring practice (which ends Saturday, April 22 with the spring game).
“We still have a lot of work to do on the offensive line, and I think that’s part of the reason the running backs are so beat up,” Nichols said earlier this week. “We’re anorexic at running back right now.”
With new fullback Thurman Blake (a bruising 260-pound juco transfer who was one of the stars of Saturday’s scrimmage) his only healthy option in the backfield, Nichols said he will probably stress the passing game this afternoon.
“This scrimmage won’t be as long as Saturday (when the Tigers went at it for more than three hours and ran almost 200 offensive plays),” he predicted. “We’ve installed more in the passing game, and we’ve fine-tuned the running game, and we’ll be looking at those things.
“Our run blocking has to get more aggressive, and some of my blocking schemes and aiming points aren’t second nature to (the linemen) yet,” he added. “We have to get to the point where those types of things are automatic. We’re busting too many assignments.”
This spring might have been a tougher period of adjustment for the ECU offensive linemen than for any other single unit on either side of the ball. Center Matt Storm (who graduated and is now an ECU graduate assistant on the defensive line) and tackle Zac Grinnell (who quit the team) are gone, and, other than Billy Foster (who started most of last season after transferring to ECU last spring), the Tigers didn’t have a starting lineman Saturday at a position he played either last spring or last fall.
Wesley Richardson, a juco transfer who was one of the stars of last spring’s camp at tackle but was ineligible last fall, has moved to center; Scott Copeland, who started at guard last season, has switched to weak side tackle; Foster and David Thompson (who started at guard as a sophomore and was a part-time starter last season) are rotating at the other tackle; and juco transfers Steven Collins and and John Dodson have been the “most consistent” performers at the guard spots.
“We’ve had to do a lot of work on technique this spring,” Nichols said. “Technique isn’t something you improve overnight. You get it through work habits.
“We’ll be struggling with some things all spring,” he predicted. “These guys aren’t used to playing with a lot of leverage, which means getting your pads under the other guy’s pads. Size isn’t a problem for us, but being big isn’t an excuse for playing high. I do think I can get them to where they need to be, so I’m optimistic.”
In Copeland, Foster and Thompson, Nichols has players who have had success at the Division II level, while Richardson, Collins and Dodson have shown promise this spring while competing against an ECU defensive line rotation that, while also full of new faces, has been surprisingly effective.
“Wesley has been very consistent at center,” Nichols said. “I don’t like short offensive tackles (Richardson is 5-11, 280). They allow a pass rusher to jump up and block passes, so he’ll stay at center.”
Richardson’s back-up will probably be David Gonzalez (No. 2 on the depth chart behind Storm last season), but Gonzalez suffered a knee injury last week that will probably keep him out for the rest of the spring and will give juco transfer Cody McDaniel— who Nichols called a “pleasant surprise”— a chance to get some reps in the final two scrimmages.
“Cody has a lot of punch, and he plays hard,” Nichols said of McDaniel, a 6-2, 240-pounder from Little Axe.
Copeland started all 10 games at guard last season on an ECU offensive line that became one of the most physical and effective in the LSC over the second half of last season, and Nichols said the 6-3, 300-pounder from Altus is easily the most polished of his group up front.
“Scott Copeland is head and shoulders above our other tackles at this point,” Nichols noted. “He plays with a lot of concentration and the technique I want.”
Nichols said he has been disappointed that some of his back-up linemen haven’t pushed harder for playing time and added that competition at all of the positions could be a key to the O-line’s developement.
“One of the things I was hoping for was that my second group would be more of a push on my first group,” he said. “There are still some individuals on the second group who aren’t being consistent and playing with the intensity I want.”
Nichols added, however, that he has been impressed with the progress of German import Jean-Pierre Gevert, a 6-5, 275-pounder who was ineligible last fall but who is making a strong bid for playing time at strong side tackle this fall despite no experience at the college level.
“Jean-Pierre has a lot of ability, and if he keeps improving, he’ll be pushing for a starting job,” Nichols said. “He busts a lot of assignments, but he’s only played football two years.”
ECU’s offensive line could remain a work in progress well into the 2006 season, and Nichols said he should have some options this fall that aren’t available to his right now— including Ada High’s Justin Nail.
“I think Justin will be able to make an impact at guard if he comes in in shape (when fall practice opens in early August) and picks up everything,” Nichols said of Nail, who attended Saturday’s scrimmage and has been on the sidelines watching a number of practices this spring. “Freshmen linemen have to make such an adjustment to the speed of the game, but Justin is enthusiastic, he’s strong, and he’s aggressive,” Nichols added. Right now I could project him coming in as a back-up at guard this fall.”
Nichols admitted that he has miles to go with his offensive line before national Division II power Pittsburg State comes to town for the 2006 season opener on Aug. 26, but he said he is expects to have his group up front ready for a push at a Lone Star Conference North Division title.
We’ll keep working on our technique, and some of these young men have to lose some weight and improve their strength and flexibility,” he noted. “We’ll continue to improve. I think by midway through the season, we could have one of the best lines in the conference.”
ECU NOTES: Today’s scrimmage, which is open to the public, will begin at 3 p.m., and the shorter session is probably good news for the ECU backfield, where starting tailback Evans “Flash” Gordon— who aggravated an old ankle injury early in Saturday’s scrimmage and came back with the ankle heavily taped to score a touchdown on a 20-yard run later in the day— is the healthiest tailback available. Keith Jones, a high school quarterback who was a receiver last season, tried tailback Saturday for the first time and was surprisingly effective but suffered a dislocated left shoulder and will miss the remainder of spring practice; Robert Moore (who suffered a concussion that forced him to miss the final two scrimmages last spring) injured a hamstring last week, didn’t play in the scrimmage and is also out for the rest of the spring; Pat Lee, who had several tough runs Saturday, is nursing a sore shoulder; and Jamaal Smith is still sidelined with a groin injury that has kept him out of action all spring.
“We’ll just do what we can (at tailback) and keep nursing their injuries,” Nichols said.
With the tailback situation having reached (and passed) the critical stage, Nichols said the versatile Thurman— whose 35-yard run was the longest of Saturday’s scrimmage — will take some reps at tailback today and could also be used at fullback, slot receiver and tight end.