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View from the 'ville
Thursday, March 1, 2007

By Al Myatt

Unforgiving grid slate has its pluses

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Spring football practice started Wednesday afternoon at East Carolina and, thankfully for the Pirates, Coach Skip Holtz was present. After the release of the 2007 schedule earlier this week, Holtz couldn't have been blamed for seeking refuge in a fallout shelter.

Holtz received a new $4.35 million contract over five years after the 2006 season and based on the gauntlet ECU faces next season, he will earn every cent in his third year with the program.

There will be no warm-ups before the Pirates hit the meat of the schedule. Whichever candidate emerges this spring in the quarterback competition to replace James Pinkney will get his first start at Virginia Tech on Sept. 1. He'll face a Hokies defense that returns eight starters from a unit that led the nation in fewest yards (219) and points allowed (11).

The Hokies were 10-3 last season and finished No. 18 in the coaches poll. Oh yeah, Coach Frank Beamer returns big time running back Branden Ore and seven more starters on offense.

"Our 2007 schedule, arguably, is about as challenging as they come," Holtz said.

Arguably? Who could possibly argue with that?

The second game on Sept. 8 features North Carolina in its second trip to Greenville. A win over the Tar Heels would probably be the most coveted by the Pirate Nation in any season. Add a visit from N.C. State on Oct. 20 and the Pirates are definitely in uncharted waters in terms of regional scheduling prestige.

For years UNC-Chapel Hill and the Wolfpack avoided playing in Greenville. To have both ACC neighbors coming to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in the same season is a testimony to the remarkable influence of athletic director Terry Holland.

It will also provide a tremendous challenge for Holtz and staff to prevent the team from investing so much emotion in those contests that they lose focus for the demanding Conference USA contests that adjoin the Heels and Pack on ECU's schedule.

Southern Miss comes to Greenville on Sept. 15, the week after North Carolina. The Golden Eagles return running back Damion Fletcher, quarterback Jeremy Young and tight end Shawn Nelson from a 9-5 team in 2006 that provided Conference USA with its only bowl win.

Southern Miss seldom seems to need much motivation when playing against ECU in Greenville, where the Golden Eagles own an astounding 13-2 record. Coach Jeff Bower certainly won't let his players forget last season's overtime loss to the Pirates in Hattiesburg.

Speaking of challenging locales, ECU will follow its league opener with a trip to West Virginia on Sept. 22. The Mountaineers were 11-2 last season with a 27-10 win in Greenville and they finished ranked No. 10 nationally. Coach Rich Rodriguez spurned big bucks at Alabama to remain with a program that has eight returning starters on defense plus Heisman Trophy candidates Patrick White at quarterback and Steve Slaton at tailback returning on offense.

ECU is 0-11 at West Virginia but played the Mountaineers tough there in a 20-15 loss on Holtz's first trip in 2005.

The Pirates end September in Houston taking on the defending Conference USA champion Cougars. ECU's opponents for its three games outside the East Division in C-USA have changed from Tulsa, Southern Methodist and Rice, which the Pirates played home and away in 2005 and 2006, to Houston, Texas-El Paso and Tulane.

"We certainly won't have the luxury of easing into it in September but it does represent a great opportunity for our program," Holtz said in a statement released by ECU's media relations department. "Obviously, I think everyone associated with the Pirate Nation is excited to open at Virginia Tech, play North Carolina and N.C. State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and make the trip to West Virginia, but when you add that our first two Conference USA games of the year are against the two teams that played in the league title game a year ago, it will be tough task, no doubt. We won't have a lot of time to get ready to go."

Time is obviously of the essence right now in spring practice in terms of preparing for the challenges ahead.

In October, the focus will narrow to C-USA with the exception of the N.C. State game. The Pirates host Central Florida on Oct. 6 and make the 1,900-mile trip to UTEP on Oct. 13. UAB and new coach Neil Callaway come to Greenville on Oct. 27.

Trips to Memphis (Nov. 3) and Marshall (Nov. 10) precede the only open date of the season on Nov. 17.

In 2006, the Pirates got a well-timed open date before hosting Virginia in the fifth game of the season. They regrouped from their demise in the fourth quarter against the Mountaineers to whip the Cavaliers, 31-21.

The only break in 2007 comes before Tulane, 4-8 last season and looking to make a turn-around under new coach Bob Toledo, visits the Pirates to close the regular season on Nov. 24.

The timing of the open date, which is determined by Conference USA, appears a bit absurd. But that is the nature of scheduling. Holland provides the league with ECU's non-conference dates and, for the most part, C-USA fills in the blanks with league games.

The 2007 schedule is both attractive and extremely demanding. It provides the opportunity for national attention and regional bragging rights. Season ticket sales should set records. Fans should fill all the end zone bleachers Holland can muster for the State and North Carolina games.

Adversarial personnel changes

Holtz knows that he doesn't just compete with North Carolina and State on Sept. 8 and Oct. 20 in Greenville this season. The ECU staff and the staffs of new coaches Butch Davis of the Tar Heels and Tom O'Brien of the Wolfpack will battle throughout the year in recruiting the top in-state players.

ECU held on to most of its signees for the 2007 class despite the arrival of the new regimes in Chapel Hill and Raleigh.

"Both of those new staffs start coming in on some of your players," Holtz said. "You just hope you've dug your feet in and developed a relationship with everything. We were able to compete a little bit more with the N.C. States and the North Carolinas than we have in the past.

"Obviously, they've made two great selections. They've hired two very good coaches, two proven winners. I think they'll do a great job of building those programs at N.C. State and North Carolina.

"We just have to continue to build ours. We can be, obviously, a viable choice for a lot of these athletes."

With that in mind, ECU has six home games in 2007, some of which will provide an unbelievable atmosphere to show prospective players.

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03/02/2007 02:06:49 PM


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