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View from the 'ville
Thursday, March 8, 2007

By Al Myatt

Spring practice: a time for tinkering

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 football game."

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 backwards."

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.

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03/08/2007 05:50:16 AM


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