GREENVILLE, N.C. — Below is the eighth of 10 spring practice “Q&A” segments provided by East Carolina University’s Sports Information Department. Thursday’s edition features safeties coach Tripp Weaver, senior Warren Saba and sophomore Jireh Wilson.
Q: What have been your observations so far this spring and what are your objectives with less than two weeks remaining?
A: First off, it is great to coach these guys. They are great young men, they work hard and they love the game of football. I think our effort, intensity and physically has been great. With less than two weeks left, we are just trying to get some more install in, so we want to do a really good job at fundamentals and execution, continuing to build depth and getting some guys more reps. Stay clean, finish strong and have a good scrimmage these next two Saturdays.
Q: Most people are familiar with traditional strong and free safeties, so what’s the best way to explain the name and role of your third defender?
A: We call our third defender a SAM linebacker, who is really like a nickel defensive back. So, depending on certain calls, he can be blitzing, play man to man or be a zone defender. Sometimes he is in base run fits and sometimes he is not. Kind of like an RPO hold player for us, he is really a hybrid who has to be able to do it all. He’s kind of similar to the boundary safety that we have, probably more so than the field safety. Those guys have to be ready to mix it up in the box.
Q: You return all three starters and others with a lot of experience – what kind of foundation does that give you heading into 2021?
A: Well, the good thing about those three guys is that they are not satisfied. They are hungry and want to get better, so I’m excited to have all of those guys back. When you have experience, you are not having to reteach things and you can get to the 200 or 300 level of your defense. Again, am excited to have all those guys back and excited about some of the new additions. I think the days of us having to play somebody 80, 90 or 100 snaps a game are gone, so I can truly expect guys to play their 50 to 60 reps a game as hard as they possible can to represent our university the way they should.
Q: In addition to a C-USA title and four bowl appearances, what are some of your best memories of your first tenure at ECU under Coach Holtz and Coach McNeill?
A: First off, both of those coached are great men. I learned a lot during my time under Coach Holtz about intensity. Greg Hudson was great and Rick Smith was great. I just really enjoyed working for those guys. Coach McNeill taught me how to treat players as he truly loved his guys and the guys played hard for him. He also taught me about player management things, how to get the best out of people, and then the comradery between players. I still keep in contact with all the guys who played when I was here last. The comradery of being a Pirate is one and only – there is nothing like it.
Q: What initially attracted you to work as a student assistant with the Pirate program and how did you get your foot in the proverbial door with Coach Holtz?
A: Actually, Coach Houston, who was my high school coach, is the one who got me in contact with (North Carolina Hall of Famer, former Pirate player and staffer) Harold Robinson to start my coaching career. He was director of high school relations at the time, so I just bugged him until he gave me a chance. Then Greg Hudson took me on, along with Rick Smith, so I am really appreciative of them. I was going to be a high school football coach when Coach McNeill got here and he told me no – I was going to be his graduate assistant instead (and I accepted the job with him). A lot of guys looked out for me when they didn’t have to, including Coach Houston (see below).
Q: What was your connection with Coach Houston before he hired you at The Citadel (for your first full-time coaching position) in 2014?
A: As I mentioned before, Coach Houston was my high school coach and he left to take his first college job when I was going into my junior year. He and I stayed in contact and I actually reached out to him. We were in the middle of our 2013 season at ECU and they were about to go to the Division II playoffs, I think the semifinals if memory serves correct. I had just been sending emails to him, back and forth since he helped me out. He is a player’s coach – he keeps in contact with his guys after you are done playing. One thing led to another and I saw he got The Citadel job and was supposed to interview with him in Indianapolis, but my flight got delayed. I thought it was over and I would not get the job, so I just showed up at The Citadel and told him I would take the job. He said that he had not offered it to me, but I said I would take it. It has been great being with those guys ever since and I’ve met a lot of my good friends there. It all really was a blessing and I was probably guided there from a Higher power. I’m really lucky he gave me the opportunity and kept me around.
Q: What did you miss most about Greenville when you were away (The Citadel, JMU, WCU from 2014 to 2019)?
A: Probably Sup Dogs. It is a little bit different now when I go for lunch since I am with my wife though. I will tell you what, you miss the fanbase and the comradery of Pirate Nation. You miss how important football is here. It is not like that everywhere. I have had some really good jobs and they just don’t compare to East Carolina and the pageantry we have and the rabid fan base. It is fun to coach when expectations are high. As coaches, we want to be where expectations are high, so I think I missed that the most. Also, Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium full – I haven’t seen that yet since I’ve been back. So, I hope when we play South Carolina at home at 1-0, that it is a packed house so I can enjoy that again.
Q: Despite not being able to participate in contact work, how have you progressed this spring?
A: I have been learning how to become a better leader. Learning more of the defense (to become a better leader).
Q: What did you learn most from your first year as a full-time starter (first seven games before the injury)?
A: You have to take care of your body throughout the season. That is the biggest thing I learned, so you can last and help your team in any way you can.
Q: What are some of your personal and team goals as you prepare for the 2021 season?
A: My personal goal is to play well to help the team win and so I can make it to the NFL and have a career in the league. The team goal right now is a bowl game – that’s the primary one.
Q: You began your ECU career as a cornerback, so what were some of the adjustments you had to make moving over to safety?
A: The transition was not very hard. You back pedal, you cover dudes – the only thing taken out of my game was the press coverage. I was pretty familiar with everything I have to do now.
Q: You had a pick-6 and a career-high 9 tackles with a sack in different games last year – which was better and why?
A: I would have to put the pick first and then a tie between the sack and the 9 tackles. Those games were really fun for me.
Q: Much has been written about junior college football – what was your experience like at Garden City?
A: Honestly, it was a grind – a straight grind. However, it was also a blessing in disguise because without JuCo I would have not met people that I know now. I wouldn’t know the things I know now or be the ball player I am without it.
Q: Given your background in Cleveland, do you have any pointers to help teammates prepare to play in cold weather?
A: I have a lot of pointers. When we went to Cincinnati it was a little chilly, same with Tulsa. Vaseline helps though – rub some Vaseline on your arms and always keep hand-warmers somewhere on your body.
Q: You probably had the most significant number change this offseason – what went into your decision to ask for No. 0?
A: Well, I really wanted number 5 but C.J. Johnson wears that so Coach Houston was talking about a special team’s conflict. I kept asking for it for a while, so last year he told me if I do this or make this or that play, he would allow me to get number 0. We didn’t have the jerseys last year, so obviously I could not wear it then, but in the offseason he said I could wear it this season.
Q: What part(s) of your game have you really focused on this spring to elevate yourself to an even higher level (as the Pirates’ second-leading returning tackler)?
A: I have just been trying to get a little stronger. With the position I play, I face a lot of linemen and I blitz a lot, so my goal was to try and get stronger in the weight room to do things like get off blocks, rush the quarterback better and tackle better. A lot of the teams we play like Cincinnati and Tulsa have big backs, so I want to be a better tackler.
Q: What and who do you credit for your success last year (first as a full-time starter, topping team in sacks and forced fumbles)?
A: What I credit is my work in the weight room and then the work I did at home. When we were in quarantine for three or four months, I was working out a lot at home – running miles and working out with my dad. That helped my body to get in shape for the season. Also, I credit the coaches. I learned a lot mentally. We got a new defense, so a lot of film and extra work went into getting ready for the season. Obviously, we did not have a spring, so when we got here in the summer, they threw a lot at us, so just a lot of film work.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the position you play?
A: I think what I most enjoy is rushing the quarterback, getting sacks and making a lot of plays in the backfield. I played safety when I was in high school, so most of the time you make a tackle, it is not in the backfield. Last year was the first time I ever got a sack at the high school or college level.
Q: How do you balance your academic responsibilities so well (Honor Roll and Dean’s List student since enrolling at ECU)?
A: I never had a problem with grades. My parents were always on me growing up. You have time to do it, but when you tell yourself you don’t feel like doing work because you are tired, you just have to force yourself to do it. Self-discipline – that is really it.
Q: How has your parents’ service in the U.S. Marine Corps affected your growth, development and values?
A: For my growth and development, they weren’t really strict, but they did stress having respect for people and treating people right. The way you carry yourself right, and little stuff like that, every person should have with them. For values, that really comes from my family and what was instilled in me growing up, like family and loyalty coming first.
Q: On a related note, what did you gain most from your experience living in Japan?
A: I was really young. I was two to five years old, but I do remember little stuff like going to school. We lived on base, so I remember going off base and actually going on out on the town, seeing different parts of the culture. It was fun and I do not take it for granted. I wish I could have gone at nine or ten to experience and remember it more.