He's got my back

By Bethany Bradsher

It might happen during the season opener against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte or a week later at home against Virginia Tech. But Coach Ruffin McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley are sure a play will occur when senior quarterback Dominique Davis does something truly amazing, causing television commentators to rave about his maturity, leadership and NFL potential. And when that top-of-the-world moment comes, the coaches will remember a chilly January night 18 months ago when they first met Davis, when he was on the bottom looking up.

Dominique Davis
Dominique Davis

Back then, McNeill and Riley had been in their new jobs at East Carolina for only a couple of days after coming from Texas Tech. Before they even moved into their new offices they booked a flight to Florida to meet Davis. A high school star in Lakeland, Fla., Davis had accepted a scholarship to Boston College in 2007; he showed promise on the field his freshman year but struggled to adjust in the classroom. Declared academically ineligible, Davis swallowed his pride and enrolled in tiny Fort Scott Community College in Kansas so he could pull his grades up and still play football. When he caught the eye of former ECU coach Skip Holtz, Davis believed he’d earned his ticket back to major college football. But when Holtz abruptly resigned to take the coaching job at South Florida, Davis thought his chance at redemption had passed.

And then McNeill and Riley showed up on his doorstep.

Riley remembers being impressed by Davis’ size (6'3" tall and 222 pounds) and physical condition. But the most convincing part was the way he handled himself throughout their conversation. “I told him what we’re going to do offensively,” Riley says. “He didn’t say a word; he just looked me square in the eye the whole time, and you could just tell there was a maturity. We walked out of that house, and we said, ‘I don’t know if he can throw, but that was pretty impressive.’”

From that first meeting, a strong relationship developed between Davis and Riley that helped ECU defy expectations last season. With Riley calling the plays from the sidelines and Davis leading the Pirates’ new spread offense, the team finished 6-6 and earned a school-record fifth straight bowl invitation. Davis proved to be a quick learner with the right strengths for the uptempo offense McNeill brought from Texas Tech. Davis was named Conference USA Newcomer of the Year. He was tops in the NCAA’s FBS ranks in completions per game (30.2) and total touchdown passes (37).

Now Riley and Davis are at the start of their second season together, and they agree on one central point: Last year might have been better than expected, but it only scratched the surface of how exciting and high-scoring the Pirate offense can be. The proof was seen in spring practice, when the offense seemed much more comfortable in spread formations and was thus able to focus on executing plays.

“I want the expectations to be a lot higher than what we did last year,” says Riley, who at 28 remains one of the nation’s youngest offensive coordinators. “I know it was good and I know, relative to a lot of seasons that offenses have had here, it was the best in a lot of categories. But it’s going to get a lot better. It’s going to get a whole lot better. If we keep working, stay on the path we’re on, we’ll look back on this year and almost laugh at it, because we’ll be so much better.”

“When people say we had a great season, that’s the fan saying that, but inside, it could have been even better,” says Davis, who is known around the football program as a fixture in the film room. “When you go to the film and look at it, we missed a lot of big opportunities that could have really, really exploded. We averaged 30-plus points a game; we could have easily scored 50 points a game if we had just done this little thing, and that little thing. In film, I can complete a pass, but there was another guy that was wide open. And I’m like, ‘oh man, if I had just stuck to my read, or held the ball a little bit longer it would have been right there.’”

Setting a new course

Riley and Davis are only two of many players and coaches who must have excellent seasons for the Pirates to again shine this year, but they carry some of the weightiest expectations. Oddly enough, they have each arrived at this point in their lives after being forced to admit failure and strike off in a different direction.

For Davis, the turning point came with his academic struggles at Boston College. He had begun a great relationship with his quarterbacks coach, ex-ECU coach Steve Logan, and completed five passes in his first spring game before redshirting his freshman year. His future as an Eagle looked bright but he was declared academically ineligible after that freshman year and found himself picking up the pieces in a landlocked community college in rural Kansas.

It might be a little-known school whose activities include livestock judging and rodeo, but Fort Scott Community College was Davis’ shot at redemption. He put his head down, did everything that was asked of him and became, he says, a man.

“I was very appreciative, because there are a lot of guys out there who would love to be in the shoes I was in when I was at BC,” Davis says. “Going to Fort Scott humbled me and helped me stay focused. I was given a second chance, and what made me a man is that I learned from those mistakes.”

Riley credits Davis’ maturity and his parents’ stability in helping him make the most of the community college detour, and the character forged on that Kansas field helped turn Davis into an exceptional leader among his fellow Pirates, he adds.

“A lot of guys get a second chance and think there’s going to be a third chance. They think there’s going to be a fourth or a fifth; they think those chances never run out,” Riley says. “He knows this is his chance. His maturity level, he’s got to be a lot more mature than most 30- or 40-year-olds. He’s serious about what he’s doing; he’s got a very businesslike, professional approach to it. And he’s just scraping the surface of how good he can be as a quarterback.”

Riley experienced his own disappointments as a college athlete. After playing quarterback in high school in Muleshoe, Texas, he went to a walk-on tryout at Texas Tech and made the team. He wasn’t good enough to get in many games, but he did get enough playing time on the practice squad to show head coach Mike Leach he had talent. However, Leach asked Riley to give up his spot on the roster to become a volunteer student assistant coach.

Riley was 19 years old. “It was like, ‘Do you want to grow up in a hurry right now, or do you want to live the college life?’” he says about the dilemma he faced then.

Riley accepted Leach’s offer, and for most of his college career he attended classes in the morning, worked as a coach all day until the wee hours, went to bed and started all over again. Through those long unpaid hours, he learned every intricacy of the offense that he and McNeill brought from Texas Tech to ECU, and the experience only confirmed his life’s calling as a football coach.

On the cusp of their second season together, Riley and Davis are more comfortable with the game plan and more at ease with the other players and coaches. They feel more at home at ECU now, they say, but neither wants to settle in so thoroughly that they forget to be hungry for more touchdowns, more victories, bigger bowl destinations.

Having been granted his second chance, Davis sees his senior season as a last opportunity to show McNeill and Riley that they made the right decision. “This year everybody knows what needs to be done and knows what’s going on,” Davis says. “It will be a lot more fast-paced.”

“The expectations within this offense are probably so much higher than they are on the outside,” Riley counters. “There’s not a player or a coach who’s satisfied with what we did last year. That won’t be good enough this year, and I won’t allow anybody to think that way.”