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(All information as of June 20, 2008)
COACH AND PROGRAM
The East Carolina program Skip Holtz inherited after the 2004 season had fallen on hard times, winning just three games in two seasons under former coach John Thompson.
The East Carolina team Holtz takes into the 2008 season carries every sign of being a legitimate contender for the Conference USA East Division title.
In between the Pirates have climbed from 5-6 in 2005 to 7-6 in 2006 and 8-5 in 2007. They played in two consecutive bowls for the first time since 2000-01, including a 41-38 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl last season. Along the way, Holtz and his coaches have laid a stronger foundation built on younger players who have seen considerable playing time the last three seasons.
The result is a team that returns more than 72 percent of its lettermen and more than 68 percent of the position players who started last season. Of the players who participated in spring practice, 53 are upperclassmen (24 seniors and 29 juniors).
"We've come a long way," Holtz said. "The biggest thing that's happened is that the first two years we were trying to win a little bit with smoke and mirrors and trying to highlight our better players because we had so many weaknesses and chinks in our armor that we were trying to hide. It was a real challenge from a coaching standpoint.
"The biggest difference now is the depth we're starting to form on this football team. We're starting to get some of the pieces of the puzzle put together. Now we've got to keep it together and keep moving forward. These players have been working extremely hard, and I'm proud of what they've accomplished to this point, and I couldn't be more proud of their attitude right now, their work habits, the way it's all coming together."
It better be coming together, because the Pirates will face one of the nation's most challenging nonconference schedules in 2008, with an Aug. 30 "home" game against Virginia Tech in Charlotte, a Sept. 6 home game against West Virginia, a Sept. 20 game at NC State and an Oct. 11 game at Virginia.
Last year, the Pirates went 1-3 against Virginia Tech, West Virginia, NC State and North Carolina. In 2006, they finished 2-1 against West Virginia, Virginia and NC State.
"For us to get where we want to be, that's the level of competition we want to be able to compete at," Holtz said. "It's impossible to get to that level if you don't understand what that level is all about and then play at that level. If you look at the progress we've made as a program in so many areas, this schedule has helped us recruit, it's helped set three season ticket sales records and it's helped put us on a fast track to being able to get to that level quicker."
Holtz is hoping the Pirates' tough schedule will prepare them to win the C-USA East.
"The last two years we've gone into the final stages of the season with an opportunity win the division," Holtz said. "We went to Rice two years ago and stubbed our toe and lost on a last-second field goal or we would have represented the East in the conference championship game. Last year we went to Marshall and lost there and gave Central Florida the nod in the tiebreaker situation.
"When you look at it, we've been right there. We just haven't been able to get over that hump."
The next logical step for the Pirates is moving past that hurdle and winning the division.
"We haven't been the same team at the end of the year that we've been at the beginning of the year the last two years because we've had so many injuries and so many young players have had to step up," Holtz said. "We're constantly trying to upgrade the talent level and build some quality depth and experience.
"We've still got a long way to go to get where we want to be. It's certainly not time to pat ourselves on the back and say 'look at how far we've come.' We've shown that we can compete at that level, but we've got two hurdles to climb. One is the physical hurdle in terms of talent and depth.
"The other is the mental hurdle. When you walk into a program that hasn't won a conference championship since 1973, there's a mental hurdle you have to climb as well. When you look at the Rice and Marshall games, we were playing not to lose, and you can't play that way. We've gotten uptight and put a lot of internal pressure on ourselves to win the game and haven't played well as we have in other games where we've just gone out there and let it go."
For the East Carolina offense, taking the next step means building on the success it enjoyed late in the 2007 season when the Pirates won four of their last five games and averaged 43.25 points per game in those wins.
"Last year as the season went along we improved weekly and kind of found our identity," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "We were so young with our skill players. Our quarterbacks hadn't played. Most of our receivers had been backup guys or had never played. Coming out of the spring, I think we're a more complete offense than we were last year at this time.
"We have a better feel for who we are and a better idea of where our strengths lie than we did a year ago. We have better depth across most of the offensive positions. Our offensive line is in the best shape it's been since Skip's been the head coach here because we have eight or nine guys we can put in the game and feel pretty comfortable with."
The Pirates' biggest offensive challenge will be replacing versatile running back Chris Johnson, a first-round choice of the Tennessee Titans in the 2008 NFL draft.
"Obviously Chris Johnson had a great year, and losing him is a big blow, but even though he's gone now, we still feel like we've got 3-5 five guys who are all pretty good players and we have great competition there," Fitch said.
"I'd say my biggest concern coming out of spring is explosive plays. When you lose a guy like Chris, who made so many big plays, you have to find a way to replace those."
On the other side of the ball, the defense needs to prevent those big plays after allowing 30.4 points, 431.2 yards per game and 5.7 yards per play last season. On paper, the Pirates should be better simply because they return nine starters, but the numerous injuries that led to so many breakdowns last season carried over into the spring. And as defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is quick to point out, there are different ways to define "nine starters."
"We've got nine starters, but I don't think we've got nine guys who are playing at a true 'starter' level," Hudson said. "We've had nine guys who have started games because of injuries to starters who graduated, but really we've only got six guys I can hang my hat on as full-time starters last year."
Giving up points and yards isn't the issue in a conference in which wide-open, high-flying offenses and talented skill players rule. Instead, it's a matter of coming up with the decisive plays at the most important points in those tightly wound high scoring games.
"We've got to be better finishers -- of games, of quarters, of halves, of series," Hudson said. "We've got to finish in the game just like we emphasize in practice. I recently read something from Tony Dungy that really struck me. He said everybody thinks David won with the slingshot, but what people don't remember is that he finished Goliath with a sword. We've got to finish."
Senior Patrick Pinkney (6-0, 198) started five games and played in all 13 last season, junior Rob Kass (6-4, 255) started seven times and played in 10 games, and the competition between the two remains wide open entering preseason practice.
Kass, the better pocket passer of the two, completed 54.9 percent of his passes for 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Pinkney, the better runner, ran for 306 yards, but he also passed for 11 touchdowns and completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,358 yards. In the 34-31 win over North Carolina, he passed for 406 yards.
While their strengths are clear, how well they improve on their weaknesses will go a long way toward determining who plays quarterback for the Pirates in 2008.
For Pinkney, Fitch said, "There were a couple of areas we wanted him to get better at in terms of learning the offense a little bit, getting more comfortable with mental aspects of it, understanding what should happen before the ball is even snapped. He has a pretty good knack for making plays once the ball is snapped. He has very good vision and an innate ability to ad lib and keep the play alive.
"We also wanted his pass completion percentage to improve, and he did that. And his arm strength continues to grow."
As for Kass, Fitch said, "The big thing we talked about with Rob was becoming a little bit lighter on his feet, getting him to trim down a little. He has a good mental understanding, he's a very fiery competitor and has great arm strength, but he's got to be able to maneuver better in the pocket and make a defender miss so he can buy more time. We also want him to improve his accuracy. The last week to 10 days of spring, we saw some flashes of that."
For now, Pinkney's response to the tone and tempo of the way college football is played these days is playing the single most important factor in his status as the No. 1 quarterback heading into the season.
"They both do some good things, but as of today, if we had to look at everything, Pat is giving us a little more because he's more of a threat to run and more able to avoid the rush, keep plays alive and avoid minus-yardage situations," Fitch said. "Right now he's the starter going into camp, and it's his job to lose. Rob has some great qualities, but with the way the college game is played now, defenses are coming after you and you have to stay alive back there. Nobody's going to sit there and drop everyone into coverage for you."
Of course, it's also possible Pinkney and Kass will continue to share the job as Fitch attempts to make the best possible use of their particular strengths.
"Skip and I have talked about it a lot, and that's not our plan, but we won't rule it out," Fitch said. "But, as we tell the quarterback, our job is to win, and we've got to put the best offensive unit on the field. Do I want to play two quarterbacks? Not particularly, but if it takes two quarterbacks, we'll do it. With our nonconference schedule being so difficult, it might take two.
"I'll give our guys credit. They've both handled it well. They might not always like it, but they put the team first and they want to win."
The Pirates don't have one single back who can replace Johnson's speed (4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash for NFL scouts) or his 2,960 all-purpose yards
Instead they have a collection of backs who all bring various qualities to the backfield.
"We'll have to find ways to utilize our depth at tailback," Fitch said. "We'll have to use different formation groupings to make the best use of those guys.
"At the same time, our depth there will be a great motivator for those guys to compete every day, because those touches are so valuable and the guys know they're going to have to do a good job in practice to get some playing time."
"Dominique Lindsay is an older guy who actually started a few games for us the last year or two and early last year he was getting equal carries with Chris," Fitch said. "Brandon Simmons has played here and there for us in the past and really had a solid spring. They're both good vision guys. Dominique is very good in the passing game with his protection. Brandon can be a really good red zone back for us. Those two guys will give us an anchor, especially early, because of their experience and their physical nature."
The other group includes sophomore Jonathan Williams (6-1, 206), who averaged 6.8 yards per carry on his 22 carries in 2007; junior J.R. Rogers (5-11, 197), who came to East Carolina last year as a junior college transfer; and sophomore Norman Whitley (5-9, 187), who had surgeries on both shoulders since he arrived at East Carolina and missed the spring.
"We have a couple of guys who have a lot of talent, and we have to hope they'll come along and mature as we go," Fitch said. "John Williams played last year and made some big plays for us in spots before an ankle injury really set him back. He's as talented a player as we have. He's a physical runner, he's got good hands as a receiver and he's got the potential to be a really good player, but like a lot of young backs, he's got to learn there's a lot more to being a college back than running with the ball.
"We redshirted J.R. Rogers last year out of junior college and he really worked last fall and the spring and I think really laid a foundation for this fall. He probably has the best speed of the group. When we turned on tape in spring ball, he's the one guy we looked at and said, 'there's a guy who has a different speed level.'
"Norman really has a lot of vision, a lot of elusiveness, very low to the ground. He's shown flashes of being a really good football player when he's been healthy, so hopefully he'll have an opportunity to show that if his shoulders are in good shape."
Sophomore Kevin Gidrey (6-2, 260) can play both fullback and H-back while senior Jason Simmons (6-0, 237) is Brandon's brother and a pure power fullback.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Sophomore Dwayne Harris (6-0, 198) had an immediate impact as a freshman, making plays as a receiver, runner, passer and punt returner. This year Fitch hopes to expand Harris' role even further.
"Dwayne Harris is our jack-of-all-trades," Fitch said. "He'll play receiver, some running back, some quarterback. We have to find more ways to use him, because he's proven to us he's a playmaker in the open field. He's tough to tackle and he's very physical. He doesn't have the flat-out breakaway speed Chris had, but he's got a knack for making people miss. Some guys are just football players, and that's what Dwayne is."
Harris will play outside receiver in ECU's two-receiver sets and the slot in three-receiver sets, while junior Jamar Bryant (6-2, 208) will line up outside as ECU's other key receiving target.
"He was kind of like our offense last year -- as the season progressed he got better and made more and more plays," Fitch said. "He's a very physical receiver, a very good blocker on the perimeter. He really enjoys competing and playing the game.
"Jamar and Dwayne have to be our key guys as far as making the tough third-down catch, the big play, getting the ball into the open field and doing something with it."
When the Pirates line up with three receivers, the most likely third receiver will be junior Alex Taylor (6-4, 207).
"He's a good, solid player," Fitch said. "We know if we throw the ball to him, he can catch it. We'll rely on him to be a real valuable role player for us."
The surprise receiver of the spring was junior Reyn Willis (6-3, 215), an Alabama transfer.
"He has some talent and real good size," Fitch said. "He gives us more of a vertical threat. We can put it up there and let him go get it against a shorter corner."
Red-shirt freshmen Darryl Freeney (5-11, 196) and Michael Bowman (5-9, 165) both did some positive things in the spring but need experience.
"If I had a major concern, it would be getting those young guys some game reps early," Fitch said, "because we'll need them."
At tight end, senior Davon Drew (6-4, 254) is a former quarterback who appeared to take a significant step forward in the spring.
"I told him he better get in shape, because he's not coming off the field," Fitch said. "He did well at times for us last year, but I thought he was a little inconsistent. He hasn't played tight end all that long, and if you look at the entire spring practice, he was probably our most consistent skill athlete. He's gotten a lot more physical, and he caught the ball extremely well. He can be a difference maker for us, especially in matchups with linebackers and safeties and in third downs and red-zone situations."
For the first time since Holtz took over, he can name nine offensive linemen ECU coaches feel good about using in game action.
"Not that they're all All-Americans," Fitch said, "but all but one have played, and played in some big games. When we line them up in the opener against Virginia Tech, they're not going to be in shock."
The anchor of the group is junior right guard Doug Palmer (6-3, 300), the only returning lineman who started all 13 games last season.
"Doug is by far our most physical football player," Fitch said. "He brings a real presence up there. Last year it was all new to him, but this spring I could see he was a lot more relaxed and confident."
At left tackle, senior Josh Bryant (6-5, 282) is a converted tight end who moved into the starting lineup six games into the 2007 season and made significant improvement in the spring.
"We threw him into the fire and he really did a nice job for us last year," Fitch said. "He's got good feet and he's becoming a solid player for us."
The other three jobs are open to competition in the fall, the outcome at two positions hinging on junior Sean Allen (6-3, 307).
"Sean Allen really came a long way in the spring," Fitch said. "I'm not sure he's our best center. Between left guard and the center, Sean will be a starter in there somewhere, but right now with our situation at center and left guard we're penciling him in there at guard."
At left guard, junior T.J. Harper (6-2, 317) is a mid-year JUCO transfer who came through with a strong spring. At center, senior Fred Hicks (6-0, 304) started the first five games in 2007 before a broken ankle ended his season and kept him sidelined during the season. Junior Stephen Heis (6-5, 285) started the rest of the season.
At right tackle, sophomore D.J. Scott (6-6, 324) started eight games as a redshirt freshman and continued to improve in the spring, while the coaches are just thankful to have junior Terrance Campbell (6-5, 320) back on the field. He started all 13 games in 2006 but sat out 2007 after emergency heart surgery on Feb. 27.
"He went through  winter conditioning for us, and as a coach you just sit back and say, 'boy I hope this works out for him and us,' " Fitch said. "Then in the spring there were days when he looked rusty, but he really had a nice spring and I think he'll be there for us in the fall.
"Between Terrance, D.J. and Stanley and another young guy, [sophomore] Travis Melvin (6-6, 291), I think we'll have four guys who know what they're doing."
While junior Ben Hartman (5-11, 210) made game-winning field goals against North Carolina and Boise State, he also missed 7-of-18 field goals and missed attempts from 27, 28 30, 32 (twice) and 37.
"Ben has to become a lot more consistent," Holtz said. "He kicked the game-winner against North Carolina from about 40 yards, but he missed two from inside the 15-yard line during the game. If he makes those, it never comes down to a game-winning field goal.
"He's going to be a junior, and mentally as a kicker you've got to go through some demons that you have to fight through so you can gain some confidence. He has all the talent to be as good as he needs to be. He has a strong leg, he's got good mechanics and he's got a chance to be a really good kicker, but he can't be young and inexperienced anymore."
The strength of East Carolina's defense starts up front with junior defensive tackle Jay Ross (6-3, 306).
"Football's a lot like baseball in that you've got to be strong up the middle," defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. "Jay Ross is an anchor, a steady guy, a playmaker, and he has the work ethic to be a special player. He's the guy we really count on."
Hudson said the other tackle spot is "completely wide open" but that's a positive. Senior Brandon Setzer (6-6, 335), senior Khalif Mitchell (6-6, 306) and sophomore Josh Smith (6-1, 240) are all competing for the starting job.
"We've got more bodies and it's forcing guys to
be more consistent," Hudson said. "The guy who graded 78 percent last year isn't going to play. Instead, it's the guy grading 90 percent, and that's good for our entire defense."
At end, ECU goes for quickness and versatility on one side with senior Zack Slate (6-5, 221) and strength on the other side with junior C.J. Wilson (6-4, 271). Slate, a second-team all-conference selection in 2007, is "our hybrid guy," Hudson said. "He's a tall, underweight defensive end, but he's a playmaker. He allows us to be multiple in our sets because he can play end and linebacker. He's a great pass rusher and a high motor guy and a leader."
Wilson, a converted linebacker, is "still learning how to play D-end," Hudson said, "but he has a chance to be a real difference maker at that position."
Behind Slate and Wilson, junior Scotty Robinson (6-4, 246) and senior Marcus Hands (6-5, 281) both bring starting experience. Hands has been limited by injuries throughout his ECU career, including three shoulder surgeries.
"He was a big-time recruit and a big-time player here until he got hurt," Hudson said. "There's not a thing he can do about it, but I'll tell you what, he's as tough as the day is long because he played a lot of games knowing his shoulder was going to come out and he never slowed down."
While the talent is improving at linebacker,
Hudson has only two players he considers "completely trustworthy starters. I'm talking about guys who
have played at Virginia Tech and beaten NC State and North Carolina the last two years. The rest of the guys are inexperienced."
Those two are senior Will linebacker Pierre Bell (6-2, 231), who finished second on the team with 97 tackles last season, and senior Sam linebacker Quentin Cotton (6-2, 224), who recorded 66 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
"They've played a lot of ball here, they've won a lot of games," Hudson said. "The first year we were here, we finally made Pierre Bell a starter in the last two games, and we won those two games and he had an interception in both. Since he's been a starter, we've won 17 out of 26 games."
Junior middle linebacker Jeremy Chambliss (6-0, 227) started four games last season, but he missed the spring because of shoulder surgery. In his absence, junior Nick Johnson (6-1, 215) came out on top at middle linebacker, but Hudson said redshirt freshman Steve Spence (6-2, 215) is a talent to watch.
After moving from safety during bowl practice, sophomore Melvin Patterson (6-3, 219) made the switch look astute with a strong spring.
"By the end of the spring he was in our two deep at Will linebacker," Hudson said. "He's big enough to be a linebacker and fast enough to run like a safety, and he gives us real quality depth and options there."
The Pirates have numbers in the secondary, but Hudson still has plenty of concerns. For example, junior safety Chris Mattocks (6-0, 210) and senior safety J.J. Milbrook (5-9, 191) combined for eight starts last season, but Hudson considers neither to be set as a returning starter.
"We're two-and-a-half deep in the secondary, but we're battling for starting jobs because the young guys are pushing the so-called starters," Hudson said. "Mattocks and Milbook both started games, but they were part-time starters and they still have to prove themselves as full-time starters."
The only player close to being secure at this point is junior free safety Van Eskridge (6-0, 200), a second-team all-conference selection who led the Pirates with 104 tackles last season.
"Van Eskridge is like a bonus linebacker," Hudson said. "Van is a guy we're expecting to play big-time football this year."
The player who got Hudson's attention in the spring was senior strong safety Leon Best (6-0, 205), whose strong coverage skills, coupled with the speed of ECU's Will linebackers, means Hudson doesn't always have to rely on nickel packages.
"Leon was 175 pounds when he came here as an un-recruited walk-on and he ran about 4.85, but now he's bigger, stronger, he runs, he can jump and he has long arms," Hudson said. "We can't recruit that kind of finished product."
At one corner, senior Jerek Hewitt (5-11, 195) and sophomore Travis Simmons (5-10, 179) continue to compete for the starting job after sharing the position throughout the 2007 season. At the other, sophomore Darryl Reynolds (6-1, 189) and redshirt freshman Emanuel Davis (5-11, 187) are battling for the starting spot.
Junior Matt Dodge (6-2, 220) finished fifth in C-USA by averaging 41.3 yards per punt and dropped 24 punts inside the 20-yard line but, like, Hartman, he needs to be more consistent.
"He's got a cannon for a leg and he's got an awful lot of talent," Holtz said. "We threw him into the mix as a sophomore, and he struggled at times, but the positive thing he was a young player who did some positive things for us and now he's got two more years to punt for us."
ECU returns its kicker, punter, senior snapper Wilson Raynor (6-2, 235) and junior holder Joseph Sloan (5-11, 176) as well as a dynamic punt returner in Harris.
"Dwayne Harris returned punts for us in the second half of the year and he has a chance to be the kind of impact player on punt returns that Chris was on kickoff returns," Holtz said.
The challenge will be to find someone who can replace some of what Chris Johnson brought on kickoff returns. That person could be Harris, Williams, Rogers or Whitley.
"We lose a guy who was a real weapon for us on kickoff returns," Holtz said, "but we've also got a lot of young guys who maybe haven't played a lot for us but have the ability to make something happen in the return game or at least make up some of the ground we lost."
Holtz expects the most significant change in the special teams may come in the coverage units because of ECU's improving experience, depth and talent.
"We redshirted 19 freshmen last year, and I think a lot of those are going to be really good players for us in the future, but if we can get them 15-20 plays a game on special teams, I think it's going to go a long way toward preparing them for the future," Holtz said. "It also gives us more talent in those special teams roles. We definitely had some holes in our special teams the past two years in our coverage teams, and they were really glaring weaknesses, especially against the BCS teams on our schedule where we had to play in space and we were exposed."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Holtz may be a big believer in all the positives that come with a demanding nonconference schedule, but at the same time he's realistic enough to know such a schedule can take a toll on the Pirates' overall record.
"Players want to play this kind of schedule, and our fans want to see us compete at this level," Holtz said. "There's an atmosphere, an excitement, an energy, an enthusiasm for a very proud football program that's been revived by fan support, by recruiting, by going to a couple of bowl games and by having a chance to compete for the East. It's hard to argue that we're not going about it the right way.
"We also have a difficult challenge to be a much better football team than we've been the last couple of years. We might be a better football team than we've been so far, but the win-loss record might not show it because of who we play."
None of those nonconference games can prevent the Pirates from winning their first C-USA division title. Instead, making a serious run at the league's East Division will require stronger leadership from those seniors and juniors who have improved the program but must now learn to win the close games that lead to a championship.
"Freshmen and sophomores want to play, juniors want to start and seniors want to win," Holtz said. "We've got some guys who have been there who are not going to walk out into Panther Stadium in Charlotte against Virginia Tech on national television in the first game and have to leave the field because they have to run back in and go to the locker room.
"We've played a lot of younger players the past two years, and hopefully we're going to start seeing some of the fruits of their labors and they can eliminate some of the mistakes they made as younger players."
For the most comprehensive previews available on the Division I-A teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2008 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).