ECU hopes for improvement in both kick returns and coverage of returns. Last season, the Pirates returned kickoffs for an average of 19.8 yards and punts for 8.5 yards. The opposition, on the other hand, averaged 23.8 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return.
Special teams coordinator Kirk Doll said his units have worked on those areas throughout practice and will continue to polish them heading into the showdown vs. ODU.
“Anytime you kick the ball off, you got to have the discipline in your lane,” said Doll. “They have certain lanes in which they have leverage—the shoulders—and they have to make sure they keep from blocks. They have to squeeze and compress to the ball. A lot of time you have to take on a block and make a tackle.”
Doll is confident he’ll see his squad perform better in returns and coverage this season, though.
“I think we’ll be improved in those areas, with the scheme being somewhat the same,” said Doll. “We should be very productive.”
An integral part of the Pirates becoming stronger on the kick return is the performance of Justin Hardy. Last season, Hardy returned 20 punts for 175 yards, averaging 8.8 yards per return. Head coach Ruffin McNeill, who was a special teams coordinator in the past, has no qualms with playing star players on special teams.
“I’ve been a special teams coordinator and defense coordinator all my life and I believe in playing the best players all the time,” said McNeill. “Of course, you got to be smart and monitor them. You try and keep your starters at the max on two [squads], sometimes on one.”
As a junior, Hardy will be taking on a leadership role not just within the special teams corps, but with the entire ECU football team. At the same time, expectations are greater for him. After all, he was named to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which is annually awarded to the best wide receiver in the country.
“Well Justin, obviously, was one of our top returners last year in the punt game and he’s back there now again this year as well,” said Doll. “We’ve got some other people that are pushing him and we expect a little more productivity.”
Senior wide receiver and potential kick returner Lance Ray also sees the Pirates improving on some specific shortcomings from last season.
“As far as the team, I feel like we’re a more consistent group,” said Ray. “A lot of times, I felt like last year we had a lot of slow starts. That kind of put us in bad situations and we fought the rest of the game trying to get out of them. So we learned how to start a whole lot faster. That was one of our downfalls last season.”
On the other side, the coverage team is coming together nicely. Depth at the linebacker position has translated to a stronger and deeper coverage team. Sophomore inside linebacker Zeek Bigger understands the keys to successful coverage and hopes to improve on his freshman season.
“Really, the key is to get down there and make the play,” said Bigger. “Once that ball is kicked off, you know, it’s time. We’re zoned in. Once you get the stadium to start rocking, really just get off your block and share blocks and get to the ball carrier.”
Bigger also looks to make an impact by joining the ranks of a formidable linebacker unit that includes seniors Kyle Tudor and Derrell Johnson, along with leading tackler Jeremy Grove.