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April 7, 2014

ECU spring football: So far, so good

Ada —    Coach Tim McCarty’s off-season drills may not have been quite as demanding as Paul Bear Bryant’s camp near Junction, Texas back in the fifties, but it may have reminded some of the players of what they saw in that movie.

   That grueling camp to toughen up Bryant's then-Texas Aggies was so tough The Bear eventually apologized for it, saying he may have gone a little overboard.

McCarty didn’t use the sweltering hot temperatures of Central Texas in the mid-'50s to make his point, but he did take advantage of one of the coldest winters in Ada’s history to send a message.

   To be precise, McCarty’s team needed more mental toughness after last season’s “beat the weaker teams and fold against the big boys” campaign.

   And so it came to pass.

   The objective this winter at ECU: Get the Tigers tough enough to play and survive in the win column on a consistent basis against a lot of  talented, but no more talented, rivals in the Great American Conference.

   It’s spring and nothing has been proven, but McCarty and his staff are liking the way the team has responded.

   “We’ve had a great spring and offseason,” McCarty said.

   You ask yourself, what coach doesn’t say that at this time of the offseason?

   Still, he’s sending a message: Get tough. Don’t talk tough if you can’t back it up. Just be tough and do it on every snap of the ball.

   In case there’s some confusion about what’s tough, it’s not going to be emulating the WWE, standing over a fallen opponent and pounding the chest like a chimpanzee. That’s not tough. What does the player want, a banana?

   Getting thrown out of games isn’t tough. Getting personal foul penalties after you’ve been beaten on a play isn’t tough.

    In fairness, these tactics weren’t a problem last season for the most part, but just in case any new guys are planning on producing a field floor show, your days are probably numbered with this outfit.

   What brought about this unwanted feeling of “softness” on last season was a myriad of mistakes, fumbles, interceptions and missed assignments that either took the Tigers out of key games or assured they’d have no chance at victory.

   It was a season that might have been — probably should have been — better. But it was what it was. The Tigers were young and sometimes foolish.

   Enough of that. McCarty wants uninterrupted consistency, team play, accountability and working for your teammates’ success.  

   He doesn’t even want to think about last season. No explanations. No excuses. He and his team want more. They want a championship.

   “I’m selfish,” he said. “I want to win them all, and so do our players.”

   No excuses aside, it was  a season when McCarty brought in an entirely new crew of defensive coaches. Getting everybody on the same page all the time wasn’t always possible.

   From the get-go, McCarty felt he had as much talent as anyone in the league.

   A total of 89 players showed up for the offseason program. Eighty-three are left after winter attrition.

   Not all of the prospects survived the winter of ’14.

   They’re not dead, mind you. They just sat out the last couple of months in front of a fireplace, warming their frozen hands and drinking hot cocoa with marshmallows and talking about their high school careers.

   Make no mistake, last year’s team could be physical. It had the players, and it had hitters.

   But that’s not mental toughness. The Tigers have to learn to compete with the better teams, not just accept victories over the less talented  teams.

   The 2014 team must defeat more successful programs to take the next step.

   But how do they get strong in the head?

   One example: While the rest of us were snuggling in bed on ice-cold days with wind chill factors of minus zero back in February, McCarty and his staff had the ECU Tigers conditioning outside. You know, practicing mental toughness.

   Workouts began at 5:30 a.m. Siberia time.

   Turns out, it snows around here. It sleets, and there’s ice on the ground at times. The wind is usually blowing.

   Not a lot of fireside chats and roasted marshmallow feeds with pretty girls, either, especially after losses.

   How tough was it? Consider that backup quarterback Rocky Moore from California, a good athlete who had never seen snow, also never  saw the field in the offseason. He slipped on the ice and broke his leg walking across campus.

   Honest. He actually did that.

    Still, like all coaches at this time of the year, McCarty’s excited about his offseason and spring practice sessions.

   “We’ve seen players at each position improving in areas where they needed to improve,” McCarty  said.

   He wants to see this team invest from within. He wants each player holding his teammate accountable for a high level of performance.

   It may cause problems once in a while, but McCarty said, “You can’t be afraid to stand up when something needs to be said."

   He wants his players to “live it out," to demonstrate winning qualities and be vocally driven when necessary.

   As for himself and his coaches, McCarty wants them to concentrate on players and not so much on plays. All the coaches know all the plays. Not much likelihood anybody’s going to fool anybody into victory.

   If coaches know the players;' strengths and weaknesses, he figures the players will be able to execute the plays that take advantage of their varying talents.

   He wants coaches and the players to “detail it up and play to their strengths.”

   "Time will tell about their improvement, but I felt like we were moving as a team with a lot more speed, especially in getting to the football," he said.

   They’ve been in the system for a year, and they are more decisive.

   They had 89 kids at the start of winter drills. They have 83 now.

    Not everyone handled the weather and onfield adversity well. But most did just fine, their coach says.

   His coaches have spent a lot of time defining what each player does well and trying to find ways to utilize those strengths. They also want to eliminate the things that slow down players.

   He’s even talked to the team about "True Grit" and the late John Wayne. He’s showed the movie to them and asked the question, "What is True Grit?"

 "It’s certainly not a movie," he told them. The part Wayne played in that movie, winning his only Oscar, was of a man who had developed True Grit.

   "Emulate that," McCarty seemed to be saying.

   He wants tough-guy attitudes within the law — not holding a knife between their teeth while riding a horse to an early grave.

   “I don’t even want to think about last season,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to finish with a .500 record, but nobody around here is going to be satisfied with a 5-5 record as long as I’m the head coach.”

   McCarty’s decision to bring in Rocky Moore and several other quarterbacks is a clear indication he’s not satisfied with the progress of his starter, Spencer Bond, whose held the position the last two years.

   At the same time, he says, the job is Bond’s to win or lose, but he’s also sending Bond a clear message: He’ll only win it by cutting down on turnovers and improving his accuracy.

    And how is Spencer taking this?

   “Oh, he’s well aware of it,” McCarty said. “He’s also a great competitor and a great kid.”

   As for Moore, McCarty said he’s recovered from the broken leg. The boot is off and he’s already working out, but he did have to miss spring training.

   The coaches have also brought in another promising running back to complement Jo Jo (Bam-Bam) Snell, the Tigers' undersized roadrunner.

   That person is another Mississippi product, Jamal Hall. McCarty says he’s about Snell’s height with “tree-trunk” legs, which give him great power.

   Holes will have to be filled in the secondary, but McCarty likes what he’s seeing.

   “This is the first time I’ve been able to say we’ve got depth at every position,” he said.  

   On the other side of the ball, he’s brought in another defensive lineman named Karmah Yates from River College. He’s 6-3, 260. He’ll probably man one of the defensive end positions.

   McCarty's top recruit in the offseason, perhaps since he took over the program, was the signing of 6-8.5, 342-pound Kevin Bowen of Chula Vista, Calif.

   You can almost see McCarty licking his chops, fantasizing about Bowen making flapjack knock-downs on the football field.

   “He can block people,” said McCarty, trying to stifle a wicked grin.

   So far, McCarty’s team is undefeated, untied and unscored upon.

   What’s not to love?

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