Lincoln Riley wants to clear up a misconception -- the spread offense does incorporate a running game.
That seemed to come as a surprise to the running backs Riley inherited when he took over as the offensive coordinator at East Carolina, and that misconception seemed to take a little time to shake.
“The perception is that we throw it every snap and that the running back is just there to block, but I think when they really start to see how many times they’re going to touch the ball and start to see how well we ran the ball at Texas Tech the last two years I was there and the amount of touches the running backs got in the bowl game when I called the game, I think that once they see that, the opportunities are going to be there,” Riley said. “Our running backs are always going to have more touches than any player we have and its not going to be close. I think maybe in the beginning the spread played a part, but now I think its just adjusting to the scheme, to the coaches and to new expectations and that’s the thing they haven’t done as fast as I would have hoped. But I do think we have them on the right track.”
Riley, a first-year offensive coordinator and the youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS, pulled no punches when talking about his disappointment with the running game this past spring. It started early in the spring when Brandon Jackson and Giavanni Ruffin were arrested for public intoxication, resisting a public officer and obstructing. Jackson was dismissed from the squad and Ruffin missed most of spring ball because of suspension. Then senior Norman Whitley, who led the team in rushing in 2008, struggled with various injuries. That left just three healthy backs -- senior Jonathan Williams, and freshmen Michal Dobson and Alex Owah -- available all of spring.
And while the backs showed a few flashes of being the backs for which East Carolina has been known, Riley said the majority of the spring was spent trying to coach effort more than the scheme.
“This position has been a little disappointing to me,” Riley said of the running backs. “They’ve shown some big-play ability and they’ve shown some things where all three are capable of being running backs at this level, but that position really has yet to step it up. That would probably be the most disappointing position on offense right now.
“Part of it is because we have such high expectations for them. We really think that could be a big group for us, a special group for us, and I don’t think their expectations are anywhere near what our expectations are for them. Their definition of working hard in practice is not even close to our definition as coaches. They need to rise up and get on the same page, so we’ve got some work to do with those guys because we definitely expect a lot out of them.”
The Pirates had just 58 yards on 29 carries during the spring game and they finished spring without a definitive starter. Riley said he’s hoping to get Whitley back healthy in the fall and he’s looking forward to seeing Damonte Terry, who is the only incoming running back recruit. He didn’t know when Ruffin would return from suspension.
Last season, East Carolina rushed for 152.07 yards per game behind departed senior Dominique Lindsay. Williams has shown flashes of being a top back the past couple years, but he's had a problem staying out of off-field trouble.
While Texas Tech got just 85 yards rushing per game last season, Riley is hoping for more production out of his new team.
“I think the expectation levels are way different on offense then what they’ve been in the past,” Riley said. “In order to meet those expectations, you’ve got to increase your workout level. They just don’t grasp what working hard is to us. They haven’t grasped that yet. We’ve seen bits and pieces of it, some good runs, and I’m not going to sit there and say that their spring has been terrible and they haven’t improved because that’s not true, but to be what we need out of that position and to be as good as we expect to be, their expectations and our expectations are a little different.
“We’re going to get them right, it’s just beating it into their heads that, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do to be that good.’ They are a little behind a bit, but we are starting to see some improvements. But nobody’s just jumped up and taken the job. It’s still out there for somebody to take over.”