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College Sports in the Carolinas

View from the East
Monday, August 18, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Pirates' state of readiness tough to gauge


It's difficult to watch a scrimmage sometimes and really know what you're seeing. That was my impression after a couple of hours in the press box at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

First-year Pirates head coach John Thompson has been working to pull this team together since taking the job on Dec. 20 and in the context of his perspective, it was a good session in terms of progress from the previous scrimmage on Wednesday.

"Our execution was better," Thompson said. " ... We asked our guys to be better from Wednesday to today and they did that. ... Their enthusiasm was better after going through 10 days of nothing but grinds. They still had a little life out there."

It was a more relaxed atmosphere in the stands compared to the Purple-Gold game in the spring. About 200 people were scattered about the stadium compared to the 9,000 or so that were in the south stands in April.

A good degree of organization and crispness was apparent. True freshman running back Robert Tillman looks like he can contribute immediately. Paul Troth is struggling to find the consistency the offense needs from its leader. Redshirt freshman Ryan Dougherty appears more than capable of continuing ECU's fine tradition of punters with a spiraling 58-yarder to his credit on Saturday. The Pirates look to be well-conditioned and they have no shortage of kickers.

There were a total of 16 field goal attempts from five different kickers.

"We obviously set a record for kicks," Thompson said. "But we wanted to see what those guys could do under the gun."

Freshman Julian Rauch, whose field goal at Carter-Finley Stadium last year gave Gastonia Ashbrook a state title, hit from 42 and 46 yards. Cameron Broadwell hit twice from 42 yards. Chris Baglio provided good depth on kickoffs.

Position battles continue and the results may not be provided until the Sept. 1 season opener at Cincinnati. Saturday was the last open practice of the preseason. The situational nature of the scrimmage and the objective of involving as many players as possible kept the workout from having the same type of flow as a game.

Thompson placed the offense in varied situations — first and 10 at its own 35, first and 10 at the defense's 40, first-and-10 at its own one, etc. The Pirates worked on third downs, in goal-to-go and compacted-time situations.

"Our offense stuck it in there in goal-line situations and our defense came back and did some real good things," Thompson said.

Troth was with the first unit and James Pinkney ran the second unit. It appeared to be mostly first team offense against first team defense and second team offense against second team defense. Desmond Robinson, who has been competing with Troth in the preseason, did not play in Saturday's scrimmage as a precautionary measure because he slightly hyperextended his right knee on Friday.

Troth would direct a possession and then Pinkney would follow in the same situation. Tillman got 12 carries for 76 yards in the absence of Art Brown and Marvin Townes. It was announced this week that Brown will be held out for the season. ECU's leading rusher last season with 1,029 yards, Brown had not participated in preseason drills. An MRI dictated the advisability of a redshirt year. Townes sat out with a hamstring ailment but is expected to return to practice this week.

That gave newcomers Tillman and junior college transfer Kevin Fain a chance to show their stuff. Tillman is on the small side at 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds but defenders seldom get good shots at him because of his shiftiness. Good things come in small packages, especially when they have 4.3 second speed for 40 yards.

Fain ran 10 times for 28 yards and showed some good straight-ahead power. Vonta Leach ran five times for 26 yards. He may be utilized more in games but coaches got a good idea of what he can do in spring practice.

Pinkney threw the ball well and Thompson said he has progressed since spring practice. Pinkney threw a nice bomb to Bryson Bowling for a 40-yard score and hit Bowling again with a precise strike on a fade route to the corner of the West endzone.

Troth said he improved from Wednesday from the standpoint that he wasn't putting as much pressure on himself.

"I was kind of in the middle today," Troth said. "I made some good throws and made some bad throws. My performance could have been better. I didn't make the same mistakes I did last scrimmage. I just have to come out and improve on the mistakes I made today.

"As an offense, we just have to punch it in there. The first team needs to step up like the second team did today."

The Pirates in general and the offense in particular are works in progress.

"We're a long way from where we expect to be," Troth said. "A lot of people may come out here and think that we're coming along really good or we're a lot better but we have high expectations for ourselves and we're nowhere near where we should be. So I think we're halfway there, maybe. Maybe."

Troth credited the performance of the running backs.

"Kevin and Robert are coming along great," he said. "I think they've got so much energy and they want to do so well. The main focus is just holding on to the ball. I think both of those guys had fumbles today but that's nothing we can't correct. Coach Mac will get them in there and work on that. They just have a lot of talent. Kevin's more power and Robert's more finesse.

"With those two and Vonta leading the way, I think we have good replacements for Art because somebody's going to have to step up."

Tillman said his effort wasn't affected by his miscues.

"I fumbled the ball but I was still running hard," Tillman said. "Our team was behind me. We've got a good offensive line blocking for me so I give most of the credit to them but I think I did alright. I've just got a couple of corrections I've got to make — hold onto the ball a little bit better.

"It's not really more pressure on me with Art out. I've got people in front of me so we all work hard together. Whoever goes in, goes in and we see what we can do. It is an opportunity. If the coach puts me in, I have too run hard, step up and do my job. With my line blocking, hopefully I'll do good."

The offense lost three fumbles, which could be a source of concern. Three turnovers for the offense is three takeaways for the defense, which is a problem inherent in evaluating scrimmages.\

Pinkney completed a higher percentage of passes than Troth. Pinkney, a redshirt freshman wearing No. 9 — David Garrard's old number, completed six of 13 for 93 yards. Troth completed seven of 20 for 86 yards. Neither threw an interception, which has to be a positive sign for the Pirates after 22 pickoffs last season.

Transfer Patrick Dosh, who will sit out this season after spending a year in the program at Florida, also got some reps at quarterback. Dosh has a willingness to run but his scrambling was curtailed by quick whistles whenever the defense got near the quarterbacks. The defense wasn't supposed to hit the quarterbacks, who wore gold jerseys. The offense wore white and was on the north side. The defense, which worked from the south sideline, wore purple and the direction of defensive coordinator Jerry Odom could easily be heard in the nearly-empty stadium.

Around 1,000 fans, players, coaches and officials were fed at the "Meet the Pirates" barbecue and chicken dinner after the scrimmage under the north stands, the largest number the preseason event has ever attracted. Big crowds are anticipated for a home schedule that includes West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville and Southern Miss. Temporary stands are being erected at the East end of the stadium that will expand capacity by about 3,500 to 46,500.

The Pirates checked out of the City Hotel and Bistro on Sunday after 10 days of rooming together and riding buses to practice. Thompson's aim was to develop team unity. He had the players change roommates after five days to give them an opportunity to get to know each other players better.

"I think it's worked really well," Thompson said. "I've stayed at the hotel, too, and I've gotten to know these guys at 6:35 in the morning when they come down for breakfast. It's been a situation where we knew they were resting and eating right."

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02/22/2007 11:53:53 PM

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