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