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View from the 'ville
Thursday, March 29, 2007

By Al Myatt

Running game gets special attention

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Todd Fitch's job as East Carolina's offensive coordinator involves finding a starting quarterback and making sure he's "coached up" during a demanding 2007 season.

Spring practice has kept the newest addition to Coach Skip Holtz's staff busy.

Fitch, of course, has worked with Holtz at Connecticut and South Carolina for a total of 10 years. When former ECU tight ends and special teams coach Don Yanowsky left the Pirates to become an assistant at Boston College, Holtz reshuffled responsibilities among his staff and brought in Fitch from Iowa State.

Spring ball has been a bit of an adventure, with hail shortening Wednesday's workout and a variety of personnel decisions to be made as ECU gets ready for a non-conference schedule that includes North Carolina and N.C. State in Greensville as well as Virginia Tech and West Virginia on the road.

"I think it's going well," Fitch said. "We're a little beyond the halfway point. We've kind of had an agenda on offense on what we're trying to get done. The first controlled scrimmage was Friday and we were very one-dimensional for a couple of different reasons."

The Pirates emphasized the running game in the initial scrimmage, an element that has the potential to take some pressure off an inexperienced quarterback.

"Of the nine practices, I've only walked off the field one time saying, 'I don't think we've gotten better today,' " Fitch said. "You don't want to have one of 'em, but that's pretty good. They've worked hard. We've made some progress. We still have a ways to go. The next few scrimmages will be a real good indication of where we're at in terms of the total offensive package and what we really need to focus on."

The Pirates released an updated depth chart on Wednesday and sophomore Rob Kass is listed as the top quarterback. Kass saw action in relief of James Pinkney in the Bowl, completing 10 of 19 passes without an interception for 138 yards.

Kass' back-up at present is the shared status of soph Brett Clay and junior Patrick Pinkney.

"Obviously, you had a player here in (James) Pinkney, who had played a lot of football, and not much experience behind him so that's been one of our main objectives," Fitch said. "So we've kind of been splitting those guys. Everybody's getting a look. Everybody's getting a shake to see what they can do.

"I think Rob Kass has done a nice job and he has probably the best understanding of everything in the offense. He and Brett Clay are both very good mentally, and Patrick Pinkney has done a nice job, too. He has a little bit of game savvy to him when he gets into competition.

"Those three guys have all shown me flashes that they can do a few things here and there. Consistency is the big thing we've talked about with them — making sure we do it the same way over and over. Really the biggest thing with Clay and Pinkney — because they have even less game experience than Rob — is to avoid the mistake that gets us beat.

"You're going to make some mistakes out there. We're young, we're inexperienced, but the mistakes we do make have to be ones that we can live with and go from there. We'll know a lot more about those guys I think in the next two weeks because ... we're going to put them in some more situations where they gotta make some more difficult plays in scrimmage situations.

"We've done it every day in practice, obviously, so we'll have a better gauge of where we're at with the passing game and quarterback decision making."

ECU's passing game has provided 64 percent of the offensive yards over the last five seasons. The Pirates haven't had a 1,000-plus yards rusher since Marvin Townes in 2003. Part of that is attributable to the emergence of James Pinkney as a passer. But now that Pinkney is gone, adjustments must be made.

"We want to be physical," Fitch said. "We know we have to run the ball to win consistently. That's one of the areas we wanted to address coming off of last year's team. Some of our better players are our running backs to be honest. We have a couple of guys back there who are running the ball pretty well for us right now."

Rising senior Chris Johnson, who averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season, and rising junior Dominique Lindsay, who averaged 4.9, are both listed first team on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Norman Whitley is third team.

Johnson's speed has been his biggest asset but Fitch noted that his running style has displayed some change.

"(Johnson and Lindsay) are the guys taking the top two reps right now," Fitch said. "They both had really good days last Friday. Chris probably ran a little more physical than he's run here in the past from what the coaches were saying. We know he has speed. We know he has breakaway speed.

"He and Dominique were doing a really nice job for us so we're looking to grow and let those guys get confidence in themselves — let them get on track and get a little rhythm in their running style and get 'em both involved in the game plan. They're two of our better players right now."

Lindsay's performance got stronger during last Friday's scrimmage.

"His first couple of runs were just OK," Fitch said. "But as he got into a groove and got a little bit more lathered up, he had some nice runs as the scrimmage went on. I was pleased with his effort on the day."

The running game will depend on the continued maturation of the offensive line.

"Offensive line-wise, we're trying to let those guys get comfortable, let them get in a rhythm and be coming off the ball and get a little confidence in themselves," Fitch said. "That's something we'll continue the rest of spring. ... We've got the makings of a good, young offensive line. Coach (Steve) Shankweiler has done a great job with those guys in spring so far. We have some guys in there who give us an opportunity to be physical."

ECU loses standout receiver Aundrae Allison but Phillip Henry and Steven Rogers return. There are also some promising new pass targets. Tight end Davon Drew has impressed Fitch. There has been an expressed goal of getting more production from the tight end corps this season.

Fitch is optimistic about the offensive outlook in 2007 and will find out more about his unit's potential in another scrimmage on Friday. The Purple-Gold game is April 14.

"I think a lot of people will think that with what we lost offensively that we'll struggle, but I've got great faith in these guys," said ECU's offensive coordinator. "They want to be great football players. I think the skill that we lost will be filled with people who come out and compete and are able to go out and scrap and make plays."

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03/29/2007 03:03:31 AM


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