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Thursday, December 8, 2005

By Al Myatt

Stage set for Pinkney to lead the charge in '06

East Carolina quarterback James Pinkney looks to pass during the Pirates' 41-28 win over Rice at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Oct. 8. The victory over the Owls was the first of four Conference USA wins ECU would record in 2005, a season during which Pinkney displayed the qualities that could propel him to a senior campaign to remember in 2006. (AP file photo)




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If you're only as good as your last game, East Carolina quarterback James Pinkney is plenty good. His latest performance helped secure a season ending triumph that Pirate fans can savor the entire offseason.

That in itself is a welcomed change for the ECU faithful. It has been quite some time — since a 40-27 win over Texas Tech in the 2000 Bowl in Houston — that the Pirates have closed a football season with a 'W.'

With more than eight months left before ECU faces outside opposition again, there's plenty of time to dissect the most recent conquest from Pinkney's point of view.

The junior from Delray Beach, FL, was humble in victory, a stark contrast to his outspoken UAB counterpart Darrell Hackney prior to the final game of 2005.

Hackney had, of course, guaranteed a Blazers win over the Pirates but was outplayed by Pinkney in the 31-23 ECU win in Greenville.

Hackney threw three interceptions in his last game for UAB. Pinkney, on the other hand, was turnover free.

Pinkney was asked who was the best quarterback on the field after ECU had finished 4-4 in Conference USA in Skip Holtz's first season as Pirates head coach.

"The stats will prove that," said Pinkney diplomatically.

Indeed, the numbers did favor the Pirates passer who competently absorbed a new offense and quickly won the starting job in August without so much as the benefit of spring practice with the new staff. He managed to overcome some academic deficiencies in summer school after missing the 2004 spring semester. He diligently cleared tables at Logan's Roadhouse restaurant on Greenville Boulevard as he waited for the opportunity to rejoin the program.

Pinkney completed 21 of 33 for 286 yards with two touchdowns against UAB. Mr. Guarantee was 23 of 43 for 278 yards, no scores and the three picks.

While the Blazers had the ample motivation of playing for bowl eligibility, the Pirates were simply trying to send their long-suffering and hard-working seniors out on a winning note.

"They were dedicated from the get-go to get this thing turned around and get this thing going in the right direction," Pinkney said. "I just take my hat of to 'em and wish 'em the best of luck."

From 3-20 in the John Thompson years in 2003 and 2004, to 5-6 under Holtz, it does appear that things are moving in the right direction. Finishing with two wins has everyone associated with the program encouraged about the progress that has been made.

"It gives us more confidence in the offseason," Pinkney said. "It gives us something to work for and get ready for next year. It might take a little of the punishment off this offseason but they're still going to work us hard and we're ready for it."

For Pinkney personally, there was quite a contrast in season finales from '04 to '05. He got hurt early and was not a factor in a 52-14 loss to N.C. State in Charlotte to close his sophomore season. That outcome gave the Pirates a negative reading in terms of momentum for the offseason.

"Not being able to play the last game, that really hurt," Pinkney said. "But this year finishing out with a two-game winning streak and momentum, it does a lot for us confidence-wise."

Pinkney's judgment was praised by Holtz for taking a sack as time was running down in the UAB game. Had Pinkney thrown the ball away, an incomplete pass would have stopped the clock and given the Blazers precious additional seconds to mount a possible comeback.

"Yeah, they just had everything covered," he said. "They told me, 'Whatever you do, do not throw an incomplete pass.' I had nowhere to go so I just ate it."

One of the least appreciated dimensions of the Pinkney package is his running ability. Against UAB, he had six carries for 47 yards and a game-high average of 7.8 yards per tote. That included a 24-yard run for ECU's last TD of the season.

"They split wide open and they left the middle wide open," Pinkney said. "It was a good play call. We just capitalized."

Pinkney also hit Bobby Good in stride in the end zone for a 55-yard score in the first half on a perfectly-placed deep ball that wasn't even the first option.

"No, that wasn't my first option," he said. "That's just something we read the safety on. He took away my first option and I went to my second option. He was wide open."

Pinkney's favorite target, junior Aundrae Allison, who had gone over 1,000 yards in receptions earlier in the UAB game, went out with a knee injury but the Pirates' offensive leader adjusted to the loss of ECU's All C-USA performer.

Good wound up with five catches for 104 yards and two TDs. Phillip Henry, who didn't even have an assigned jersey number coming out of spring ball, came up big with six grabs for 88 yards. Steve Rogers got an opportunity to play and responded with two receptions for 21 yards.

"Receivers stepped up and made plays," Pinkney said. "They got open and they caught the ball and they made plays after they caught the ball. That's what we needed and they did it. They have confidence in themself that they can get open and they can catch the ball.

"Other receivers stepped up big time. ... The receivers as a group stepped up."

Stepping up became a program characteristic in Holtz's first year. While the UAB game was the final punctuation on a season of transition in 2005, it should also serve the Pirates as a positive springboard into a season of promise in 2006.

ECU will have to replace three players from the offensive front that started against the Blazers and an improved running game is needed to keep defenses from being able to overplay the pass. If the Pirates can give Pinkney adequate time in the pocket and achieve better offensive balance, he has clearly shown the potential for a special senior season.

As enjoyable as contemplations on the UAB game may be for the Pirate Nation, the reflections become even better in the context of anticipating what Pinkney may be capable of doing as a team leader next year.

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02/23/2007 12:33:50 AM

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