Natrone Means first arrived in North Carolina to play for Mack Brown as a promising running back, then went on to pursue an NFL career that included a landmark Super Bowl appearance.
More than three decades later, he’s working again to help Brown’s Tar Heels, though now in the kind of supporting role that spans across the Atlantic Coast Conference and sport.
Titles vary. Analyst. Quality control coordinator. Even the loosely defined “special assistant” and “senior adviser”. But the directive is the same: add more eyes, hands and experience to meet the growing demands of running a power conference program.
“If it takes some things off the plate (from the coaches) and they can focus more on the opponent this week, obviously we feel like we’ve done our job well,” said Means, now an analyst for the UNC offensive.
Means hopes to develop his own coaching career which includes stays in Division II and high school, calling it “precious experience that I couldn’t pass up.” It’s also valuable for programs, exemplified by how they’ve expanded the size of their staff over the past decade.
These positions are not permitted to directly coach players in games or practices as assistant coaches or graduate assistants. Instead, they work behind the scenes. Some review movies or look for statistical trends. Others are looking at future opponents beyond the focus of this week’s game.
They range from former head coaches to newcomers forging their own path.
“It’s not a one-man show,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin, previously an analyst and non-coaching assistant under Dabo Swinney. “There’s a reason we have a whole staff dedicated to this stuff, just great resources, whether it’s bouncing stuff off the offensive guys or the guys in the (defensive) room.
“You get a second perspective from guys you trust and you know they put in the time, put in the work. They study the game and know what is going on. It’s a huge resource, no doubt.
A look at public record data offers insight into ACC schools’ investments:
– In 2015, Clemson had four staff members – two in “player development” and two as analysts – costing more than $218,000 in salaries. There are now 13 staff members — seven in offensive or defensive player development — approaching $1.5 million in salaries.
– North Carolina had two quality control staff as temporary hourly employees in 2015. There are now seven additional positions – including the former South Carolina and State head coach of Appalachia Sparky Woods as Brown’s senior adviser — costing more than $520,000 in salaries.
– North Carolina State had three quality control coordinators and two player staff for recruiting at a combined cost of $228,500 in 2015. These positions remain today, although there are three other recruiting staff with former East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill as a special assistant. to head coach Dave Doeren, bringing that budget to nearly $766,000.
– At Florida State, the Seminoles went from more than $275,000 in salaries for eight quality control staff in 2015 to $790,000 for eight analysts or support positions – including new scouting directors for the offense and defense at $125,000 each – in 2022.
“It’s such a new era in college athletics (with) high school players, you get transfers – you have all the different elements of what it’s like to try and manage your own roster,” said said Seminoles coach Mike Norvell, pointing to needing better efficiency in running a program.
It was clear watching the four new coaches in the league.
Miami went from six quality control staff last year to 14 for the arrival of Mario Cristobal. Brent Pry of Virginia Tech (six analysts and one analytical assistant), Tony Elliott of Virginia (five analysts) and Mike Elko of Duke (five analysts and two QC coordinators) also all have gains from 2021.
“I wanted to make sure we could build infrastructure to support our student-athletes in the right way,” Elko said. “It was something that was essential for me. When we started talking about this job opportunity, it was much more about having the ability to do these things than anything for me.
For some, personal relationships and timing create the right fit.
McNeill, with nearly four decades of college coaching, took the NC State job in 2020 based on his long relationship with Doeren, whom he met when Doeren was a Southern California graduate assistant and McNeill was a Fresno State assistant. For Doeren, it gave him “someone who’s been in my shoes who I trust and who will tell me the truth.”
There was also the allure for McNeill to return to North Carolina to tend to his family’s needs, such as caring for his ailing father in his hometown of Lumberton, about 100 miles from Wolfpack’s Raleigh campus.
How does the one affectionately nicknamed “Coach Ruff” see his role?
“Be the extra eyes and ears, and be there for Dave in any way he might need me,” McNeill said, highlighting everything from sharing a practice observation to managing a team engagement. speaking for the program.
As he said, “You can’t buy this time.”
AP sportswriter Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, and AP freelance writer Bob Ferrante in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
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