It isn't even spring yet but East Carolina
is well into spring football practice. Considering the challenges the
2007 season presents and the work to be done to get ready, the Pirates
can make good use of a head start.
Time is obviously of the essence as East
Carolina must find an offensive leader at quarterback, a go-to receiver,
a reliable running back and several healthy tight ends. The back end of
the defense from a 7-6 bowl season has pretty much left the building.
There is no time for Coach Skip Holtz
and staff to slowly simmer the recipe for continued success. With the
season opener Sept. 1 at Virginia Tech, which features eight starters
back from the nation's top defense, ECU must microwave on high as the
last days of winter are marked off the calendar.
When it comes to strength of schedule,
ECU's 2007 dance card appears fit enough to set some bench press records
in Coach Mike Golden's weight room at the Murphy Center.
It's a good thing Holtz is perpetually
in the tinker mode when it comes to improving the program. He saw the
only staff change after his second season as an opportunity for an
upgrade. He brought an old colleague aboard and shifted some staff
responsibilities after Don Yanowsky, who had coached tight ends and
special teams for the Pirates, left to join the newly-formulated staff
at Boston College.
"I was looking at it and saying, 'How
do we make our staff stronger?' " Holtz said of the situation following
Yanowsky's departure. "One of the things I really wanted to do was take
myself more out of the offense.
"I felt like if I could bring somebody
in that I was very comfortable with on the offensive side of the ball,
it would enable me to step back and be more of a head coach instead of
an offensive coordinator and being more involved in the offense. Hence,
Todd Fitch's name came up."
They say there's no friend like an old
friend and Holtz and Fitch have put their heads together on game plans
quite a few times in the past. The pair have worked together a total of
10 years, including five each at Connecticut and South Carolina.
Fitch will coach ECU's youthful corps
of quarterbacks and serve as an offensive coordinator. Fitch was
quarterbacks coach at Iowa State the last three years. Ironically,
that's where departing Pirate signal caller James Pinkney was headed
until a late recruiting push by former ECU coach Steve Logan persuaded
him otherwise. Instead of coaching Pinkney, Fitch will oversee the
competition to determine JP's successor.
The addition of Fitch means that Steve
Shankweiler will be able to focus more on the development of the
offensive line and Phil Petty will shift from working with quarterbacks
to boosting the performance of the tight ends. The change also should
help young Petty diversify his resume as he moves toward elevating his
career as a coordinator.
"We want our tight ends to play a
bigger role," Holtz said. "Coach Petty will jump in and he'll do a great
job with the tight ends with his youth and enthusiasm and excitement."
Special team responsibilities that
Yanowsky handled will be divided up among staff, which may allow better
management of those various aspects of the game. Field goals are indeed
a different animal from say, punt returns.
Shankweiler has been offensive
coordinator in title the last two seasons although Holtz has had major
input on that side of the ball.
"Everybody's asking how will it work
with Coach Shank and Coach Fitch," Holtz said. "Coach Shank has done a
great job here in the last two years. I know that Coach Shank has had
more on his plate than he can say grace over with the five offensive
linemen he's been trying to put out on the field. He will still be
involved in the coordinating duties of it all, but with my familiarity
with Coach Fitch, a large majority of the offensive coordinating duties
will fall on his shoulders."
Holtz has several overall objectives
for the ECU program in the weeks ahead.
"The most important thing you're trying
to accomplish is putting together a depth chart," he said. "We have a
lot of young men who played a very significant role in our football team
a year ago who have graduated. The skill positions on defense and the
skill positions on offense are very new. There's going to be an awful
lot of new faces there.
"You really have to turn and get some
depth and some priorities with where our starters are and where our
depth is on this football team as far as our back-ups and how deep we're
going to be at every position."
Holtz said spring practice is also an
optimum time to look at some position changes.
"Some guys will move for a week, only
to make the decision that he's better off where he was" said the Pirates
coach. "This is the time to experiment because we don't have to play a
This is also a time to take a look at a
number of redshirts and evaluate their respective stages of development.
Holtz said the defensive unit has some
priorities established for the offseason workouts.
"We need to get better in our front
seven as young as we are with defeating a block one on one," he said.
"It's not just necessarily holding a gap. We've got to become better
playmakers and play the game better fundamentally.
"We've got to do a better job of
breaking on the ball in zone coverage, especially with our underneath
people. We've got to get more pressure on the quarterback, which was
probably one of our weak points last year — not only in sacks but
containing them and not letting them out of the pocket and trying to get
some pressure on 'em.
"The fourth and final thing is that
we've got to do a better job in our blitz package. We've got to become
more productive in our blitz package."
The recently-restructured offensive
staff also has a checklist.
"We have to be able to eliminate the
lost-yardage plays," Holtz said. "We had too many plays that went
The primary factor there, Holtz said,
appeared to be inexperience on the offensive front.
"We've got to do a better job of
getting the ball downfield — not only in the passing game, but also in
the running game as well, as far as more big plays," said the Pirates
coach. "Our short yardage game has got to improve — probably our biggest
weakness on the offensive side of the ball. We were better on
third-and-five than we were on third-and-one.
"We just didn't have a lot of lead in
our pencil in order to turn and make that tough yard when we needed it.
That hurt us in the red zone. It hurt us in short-yardage situations."
The Pirates certainly have a lot to
keep them busy before going on public display with the Purple-Gold game
on April 14. The team will be off for spring break next week. A
scrimmage March 23 will be useful in solidifying the depth chart and
determining who will get the bulk of repetitions for the remainder of
this crucial spring session.