Chris Johnson has just started to show
what he can do as the first round draft choice of the Tennessee Titans.
Johnson had a 66-yard scoring run in his team's 34-13 exhibition win
over the St. Louis Rams on Saturday.
The play was presented as the top
highlight on ESPN's SportsCenter on Sunday, earning that distinction
over a collection of spectacular baseball and Olympic moments.
While Johnson opened his pro career
with a spectacular play that was typical of his performance at the close
of his East Carolina career, Johnson is indirectly continuing to boost
the Pirates program. Despite taking his zip to the NFL, he's part of a
new "chip" at ECU.
The Pirates have long been noted for
being at their best when carrying a chip on their shoulder. Almost eight
months after Johnson piled up an NCAA record 408 all-purpose yards in
ECU's dramatic 41-38 Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State, the program has
become a little sensitive about the media's perception of the effect his
graduation to the pros will have on the 2008 Pirates.
"Every magazine I've read," said
running back Dominique Lindsay on media day of the hype regarding
Johnson's departure. "That's like a challenge to me and the other guys
saying, 'Who's going to step up, who's going to fill in, who's going to
step in his shoes?'
"We're putting it on our shoulders. If
one person can't do it, we'll do it by committee but somehow we've got
to get it done. It kind of motivates you a lot because it seems like the
media doesn't know who you are unless you're a big-name guy.
"I never have a problem with it because
I know what I'm capable of doing and I know what my teammates are
capable of doing."
Injuries compound loss of C.J.
The latest news release on preseason
practice from the ECU athletic media relations department indicates that
ball-carrying production will be up to Lindsay's teammates as the season
opener with Virginia Tech at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on
Saturday, August 30, approaches. The non-conference contest, which kicks
off at noon, will be shown on ESPN.
Lindsay's impact during his senior
season was put into question with the practice report on Wednesday
evening that he faces knee surgery and will be out for an unspecified
duration after an injury in practice on Tuesday night. The news was even
worse for defensive lineman Brandon Setzer, who is expected to be out
for the season for knee surgery.
Lindsay has averaged 4.2 yards per
carry in three seasons as a Pirate with six touchdowns rushing and one
receiving. His absence means ECU's ground game faces another personnel
loss to overcome.
Pinkney, Palmer optimistic
"Each year every team is different,"
said senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney on media day. "Somebody has to
step up and I think we have that mindset that we're going to fill that
void and all of our running backs are going to have a great year.
"People think that they're not going to
do what Chris Johnson did. They don't have to. As long as we get five,
10 yards a pop, we're fine. Everybody's got to stick together and just
play as a team."
Pinkney is ECU's leading returning
rusher with 306 net yards in 2007. The running back committee now
includes junior college transfer J.R. Rogers, plus lettermen Brandon
Simmons, Jonathan Williams and Norman Whitley. Darnell Ballard, a
5-foot-7, 190-pound walk-on junior, also got some snaps with the second
unit offense on Wednesday.
Pinkney, who completed 60.5 percent of
his passes last season for 1,358 yards with 11 touchdowns and just four
interceptions, said the passing game is capable of compensating for the
potential loss of production in the ground game.
"I think we can go vertical more and I
think that's going to open our offense up more," Pinkney said. "We get
that vertical game going and that will be a big help to our offense."
The Pirates also have a committee of
potential big play wide receivers that includes Dwayne Harris, Jamar
Bryant, Reyn Willis, Darryl Freeney and Alex Taylor. Pinkney said the
receivers got faster in summer workouts.
Offensive guard Doug Palmer, an
All-Conference USA preseason selection, is confident despite Johnson's
departure to the NFL.
"We're going to miss Chris with those
long runs," Palmer said. "Every time you block, if he was in front of
you, you might as well let your block go and just watch a touchdown. But
I think we're going to be all right – not having Chris – because we've
got some talented backs.
"We've got some talented receivers and
last year we really didn't throw it that much because we had Chris
running all the time. We should get a lot out of our passing game this
Hokies in similar boat
To a degree, Virginia Tech has faced a
similar situation at running back with the dismissal of Brandon Ore from
the Hokies program following his junior season. Ore ran 992 yards and
scored 10 touchdowns in 2007. In a 24-21 Orange Bowl loss to Kansas, he
rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
ECU coach Skip Holtz said the Pirates
haven't overhauled their offensive scheme with Johnson's departure.
There is a lot of flexibility within the ECU package to allow for
changes in personnel.
"It will still be pretty much the same
thing," Holtz said. "If you look at the versatility of what this
offensive staff has put together. We've got two backs, two tight ends
... I think we'll start to see different formations utilized a little
"The offense will remain pretty much
the same as it was. We may highlight different phases and not get it to
the same guy as many times."