April 22, 2009
A random, too-soon look at East Carolina's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. With last year's C-USA championship -- its first since entering the new league as an instant contender a decade ago -- ECU completed the widest circle in the country: The Pirates were perennial doormats with three wins in two years when they took a shot on Lou Holtz's son as coach in 2005. Now, with the much-sought Skip and the vast majority of starters back from last year's triumph, including sixth-year quarterback Patrick Pinkney and three other players on the year-end All-C-USA team, they've completed the track from de facto 'W' to conference bellwether in double time.
With so few notable losses -- only three starters apiece on offense and defense -- the biggest challenges will be fighting off those old psycho-bugaboos, expectations and complacency. To the extent personnel losses will have any discernible effect, it will probably be in the front seven: Outgoing linebacker Pierre Bell and defensive end Zack Slate were solid multi-year starters, and linebacker Quintin Cotton was on track for an All-America-type season before he was injured in the third game of the year at Tulane. If there were any differences between the team that upset Virginia Tech and West Virginia in consecutive weeks to open the season and the one that suddenly had to find its feet again in October after a three-game losing streak, Cotton's absence from the lineup was the most obvious. But Bell and Slate, unless there are problems at both positions, don't seem quite as difficult to replace.
What's the Same. Pinkney was in a dead heat at the start of the season with Rob Kass, hero of the '07 Aloha Bowl upset over Boise State, and quickly buried the competition with a brilliant, 19-of-23, 221-yard effort in the win over Va. Tech; Kass attempted all of two passes. Pinkney followed that with a 22-for-28, 236-yard performance in the win over West Virginia, and a quasi-star was born. Actually, though, Pinkney -- representing the team as a whole -- was fairly ordinary over the remainder of the season:
So: How good is this kid? It's encouraging that Pinkney was at his best against the Pirates' toughest opposition, and that he has so many potential targets -- seven receivers had caught at least 17 passes last year, five of whom return, including leading receiver Dwayne Harris. What ECU still lacks, though, is any semblance of a running game: The team's 3.4-yards-per-carry average was 10th of 12 in C-USA and barely cracked the national top 100. Leading rusher Norman Whitley finished just shy of 700 yards and sat out the spring with "personal problems"; the most talented back, Jonathan Williams, was suspended at midseason after an arrest for assault with a deadly weapon outside a club (his second arrest since last April, when he was picked up for DUI). Both are in flux for the fall.
There are no real standouts among the many options at receiver, either, which puts Pinkney in a bind when defenses are able to clamp down in the secondary without fearing the running game. Holtz's scheme is built for balance, but sans the second coming of Chris Johnson or Aundrae Allison -- and there are none in sight -- ECU will have to find some way to manufacture a ground attack to take some pressure off its quarterback. When the chains are moving, Pinkney can be very, very good.
Keeping the heat on. The defense has been on a steady incline under Holtz, and probably won't be any better than it was last year, when it paced C-USA in yards and points allowed:
The prospects of matching last year's heights rest mainly with two All-C-USA returnees, defensive end C.J. Wilson, who harasses quarterbacks on the front end, and Van Eskridge, a four-year starter on the back end. Wilson, Eskridge and linebacker Chris Mattocks are part of the first class that has no memory of the bad old days, and (especially considering the competition around the conference) aren't likely to drop out of the top three or four defenses in C-USA. For a defense-oriented team that struggled through two overtime wins and four others of five points or less, though, that difference could be all-defining.
The crucial question will be whether Wilson, who established himself as the best pass rusher in the conference with double-digit sacks, can duplicate that kind of heat with no other proven hellraisers around him, or whether the inevitable double and triple teams will neutralize ECU's only major threat. You should hear Wilson's name and hear it often; if not, a quiet year from the best defender in the conference is probably bad news for an otherwise average-looking group.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. If the spring is any indication, the answer to the sagging running game might come in the form of Kentucky transfer Brandon Jackson, who took advantage of the wide-open depth chart -- aside from Whitley and Williams, Dominique Lindsay is still recovering from a knee injury -- to make a run at the starting job. Jackson, an Oregon native who had offers from Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Boston College before signing on with Kentucky in 2007, comes with higher recruiting ratings than almost anyone else on the offense and might as well be the de facto starter until Whitley, Lindsay or Williams manages to find his way back into the mix.
The Pirates also got a good showing from diminutive receiver Michael Bowman, who only caught two passes as a freshman but brought in a pair of touchdowns in Saturday's spring game, including a weaving 59-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass.
Best-Case. Give ECU this: The Pirates aren't backing down outside of the conference. Besides opening with notoriously dangerous Appalachian State, Carolina is renewing its dates with Virginia Tech and West Virginia, while adding in a trip to improving North Carolina for good measure. Last year's upsets notwithstanding, those three games are probably good for two losses, at best. Within the conference, though, the sky is the limit: A trip to Tulsa and a home date with Southern Miss are the tallest hurdles to a perfect run in C-USA; ECU will probably be favored in every league game. If the defense holds its ground and Pinkney fulfills his potential as the best quarterback in the conference, the Pirates should be back in the Liberty Bowl at 11-2, with a very real shot at the top-25.
Worst-Case. The five-game C-USA run between the back-to-back dates with West Virginia and North Carolina and the home game with Virginia Tech will define the season: ECU should win them all. If it drops even one game against UCF, Rice, Marshall, SMU or Memphis, and is ambushed by Tulsa or Southern Miss down the stretch, a return to the conference title game becomes far less likely; if Pinkney or one of the key vets on defense goes down, or is unusually disappointing, any bowl game becomes a dicey proposition at 6-6.
Non-Binding Forecast. The lack of playmakers on offense remains a concern, but last year's team effectively worked around that and this year's group shouldn't lose more than one game within the conference. The killer non-conference schedule -- 0-3 against WVU, UNC and Va. Tech is more likely than not -- will limit loftier goals, but the Pirates should be the runaway favorites in C-USA and disappointed with anything less than another trip to the Liberty Bowl at, say, 9-4.