Tuesday, August 26, 2008

season preview: East Carolina

Finally - the season previews are done, and I can focus on the team that I actually am supposed to be writing about. So here's the drill. I am in NoVa on business and will be here for another, oh, 22 hours or so. This is your big post for the day. Tomorrow, while I'm trying to waste three or so hours at the airport between the end of my Big Important Conference and my plane leaving, I'll try and write as much of the offense and defense previews as I can. This will likely be done without Internet access, so you'll see no actual product until late Wednesday evening when I get back. Offense will post then, defense will post on Thursday, and Friday morning, up goes the USC game preview. So now you know. And after this, you'll know about East Carolina, too.


8/30: Virginia Tech
9/6: West Virginia
9/13: @Tulane
9/20: @North Carolina State
9/27: Houston
10/11: @Virginia
10/18: Memphis
11/2: @Central Florida (Sun.)
11/8: Marshall
11/15: @Southern Mississippi
11/22: @UAB
11/28: UTEP (Fr.)

Projected starters:

QB: Patrick Pinkney (5Sr.)
RB: Brandon Simmons (5Sr.)
FB: Kevin Gidrey (rSo.)
WR: Jamar Bryant (Jr.)
WR: Dwayne Harris (rSo.)
TE: Davon Drew (5Sr.)
LT: Stanley Bryant (Sr.)
LG: Cory Dowless (rSo.)
C: Sean Allen (Jr.)
RG: Doug Palmer (Jr.)
RT: D.J. Scott (rSo.)

LDE: Zack Slate (5Sr.)
DT: Jay Ross (Jr.)
NG: Khalif Mitchell (Sr.)
RDE: C.J. Wilson (rJr.)
SLB: Quentin Cotton (Sr.)
MLB: Pierre Bell (5Sr.)
WLB: Jeremy Chambliss (rJr.)
CB: Jerek Hewitt (Sr.)
SS: J.J. Milbrook (5Sr.)
FS: Van Eskridge (rJr.)
CB: Dekota Marshall (rSo.)

K: Ben Ryan (Fr.)
P: Matt Dodge (Jr.)

Coach: Skip Holtz (4th season)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Skip Holtz is considered something of a mini-savior at ECU, which is a little bit of a misnomer. ECU historically has never been a true doormat in the Duke sense, and the Steve Logan years of the ‘90s were pretty good, especially for a “mid-major” program that hadn’t been I-A for all that long. John Thompson came in for two years and was a complete disaster, and was quickly replaced by Holtz, who has brought the team back to more or less its historical levels of competency.


Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass split time almost down the middle at quarterback last year so that really neither could be called the actual starter. Pinkney’s numbers were generally slightly better than Kass’, and Pinkney is a capable runner besides, so when the coaching staff decided they wanted to settle on one for 2008, Pinkney got the nod. Besides being a slightly better thrower, Pinkney was also ECU’s second leading rusher in 2007.

The leading rusher, however, is gone. Chris Johnson will have to be replaced; Johnson was the Pirates’ running game in 2007, racking up 17 touchdowns and over 1,400 yards and earning his way to the first round of the NFL draft. The hope was that Dominique Lindsay would fill the void, but he was lost to a knee injury in fall practice, leaving Brandon Simmons large and in charge in the backfield. ECU may find they can use Simmons (who weighs in at 223 pounds) and Jonathan Williams as an effective big-and-small combo.

At receiver, Jamar Bryant returns having led the team in all receiving categories last year. Opposite him is Dwayne Harris, who the coaches use in multiple ways. Harris is also the team’s punt returner, and carried the ball 20 times last year as well, averaging nearly 10 yards per rush.

I had the hardest time coming up with a cute and pithy way to describe the offensive line. It’s weird. Experienced, but a little weird. I suppose you could say it’s got some versatility. The only senior, Stanley Bryant, is a D-II transfer that found himself in the starting lineup six games into last season. Cory Dowless was a starter as a true freshman in 2006 and earned unanimous selection to the freshman all-conference team….then redshirted 2007. Sean Allen moved over from guard to make room for Dowless. Doug Palmer did a stint on the defensive line before moving back to the offense. About the only guy without a story is D.J. Scott, who was a starter last year as a redshirt freshman, which is still kind of a story. All this means that the cohesion may not be there yet, but the talent and experience is, even though there isn’t a single lineman with more than a year of starting experience. They may be struggling a bit early on but they likely won’t by the second half of the season.


This is where we get to make the joke about whether it’s a good thing if you return all your starters from a bad defense. C-USA is a little bit offense-heavy, which is the nice way of saying it’s defense-poor; ECU’s 83rd-rank in the nation in scoring defense was good enough for 4th in the conference. Interestingly enough they did very well against Virginia Tech: three turnovers, many many sacks, and only 33 yards for Tech on the ground, leading to a close 17-7 loss. Then they opened up the city gates and only three teams the rest of the year were held below 28 points.

You could say that they’re more experienced this year, which is the usual indignant response to the above overused joke. In the front seven there is only one player with less experience than redshirt-junior level (DT Jay Ross), and all of them except one started at least half of 2007’s games (LB Jeremy Chambliss, who started four.)

Talent is not completely lacking. Zack Slate and C.J. Wilson both earned second-team all-conference honors, so the defensive line will be solid on the ends. Safety Van Eskridge joins them on the second team. Eskridge was the team’s leading tackler in 2007.

So the extra experience - really only three players without extensive starting experience - will help. But this is still a team prone to royal clunkers like giving up almost 600 yards to 4-8 UTEP. Of course, the VT game shows they’re also capable of good things. Which defense shows up more in 2008 - the VT-game defense or the UTEP-game defense - will have a lot to say about the direction of the season.


Ben Hartman has missed fall practice with a “leg injury”, and legs being rather important to a kicker, his job is being taken over by a freshman, Ben Ryan. This may actually be an improvement; Hartman was woefully inconsistent last year, hitting just 13 of 22 attempts. He made his only attempt over 50 yards but also honked two inside 30 yards. Matt Dodge is a solid punter and the backup placekicker as well, with Hartman out.


ECU is hailed as an up-and-coming team with thoughts of contending for the C-USA championship. That will depend on the defense. They won’t be able to replace Chris Johnson, but the offense otherwise has its playmakers back and a line that should be able to clear the way for them. If the defense can improve, the Pirates indeed could find themselves playing for the conference championship. If it can’t? Well, ECU’s offense is good enough, and C-USA is weak enough, that they will still go bowling anyway. But it’ll be to the Please Sponsor Us Bowl, which is any one of the myriad crappy bowls that is too lazy to even come up with an interesting name and uses the name of the city or state instead. Kind of like how the softball team plays at The Park, which will remain so named until someone ponies up some money to buy them some better stands.

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