If you look at all the college football teams in the AP Top 25 poll this week, the one you probably know the least about is No. 23 East Carolina (3-1).
Well, it’s time to change that – because Ruffin McNeill has built himself quite a program in the last five years.
The Pirates lost at South Carolina, 33-23, on Sept. 6 – the Gamecocks are now ranked 13th in the country, by the way – before beating then-No. 17 Virginia Tech, 28-21, in Blacksburg and walloping North Carolina, 70-41.
Who says teams from the American can’t play with the big boys?
“I’m just fortunate and blessed,” McNeill said on The MoJo Show. “I have a great staff. We’ve had some continuity. We got a group of players that understand . . . the commitment to team first, last and always. That’s the first thing we built it on five years ago. (There) was going to be . . . a commitment to the team concept (from the ground up). That means no egos allowed, no entitlement, embracing your role and doing everything you can do to help the team.
“The other (defining thing about) our team is making sure we had a commitment to . . . the vision, our mission,” McNeill said. “We have long-term goals, but we do it differently. It’s not coaching buzz words, but we take one game a week. Even more further, we take one day of the week of that game. And even further, we take one play out of that day of the week of the game. Commitment to the team – commitment to (focusing) on the vision – has been really wonderful to see. I’m proud of the kids and proud of the coaches and proud to be around them.”
They can probably say the same about McNeill. Why? Because East Carolina is ranked for the first time since 2008.
“You’re glad for our fan base,” McNeill said. “I’m glad for our university. But the way we’ve been programmed, we want to make sure (we’re where we want to be) at the end of the season. We divide the season into quarters. For example, we just finished the first quarter. These next four weeks will be the second quarter. And then last stretch is there. Right now, (we’re in a) great place. (We) got tested. We got tested very early. This open week comes at a great time.”
East Carolina hosts SMU (0-3) on Oct. 4. You can expect another great game from senior Shane Carden, who has thrown for 1,469 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
And if you think Carden is a four-year starter, you had better think again. In fact, Carden spent a few seasons on the scout team and even split time at fullback and tight end. McNeil called him the team’s “locker room lawyer.”
“Shane exhibits and exudes what I mentioned earlier about defining our team,” McNeill said. “He is the ultimate team warrior. When he got his turn, he never relinquished it. He became the quarterback of our offense and now he’s the quarterback of our team. He works every day like he’ll lose his job.”
East Carolina doesn’t play a ranked team the rest of the way – as of now, at least – but several stiff challenges remain, including a road game against league rival Cincinnati on Nov. 13.
“I’m very humbled and happy that our kids are getting recognized,” McNeill said. “But we want to make sure at the end of our season we’re playing our best ball.”