Running backs Jonathan Williams and
Norman Whitley will be running behind when East Carolina starts
preseason football practice in August. That's provided they can get back
in the good graces of Coach Skip Holtz and once again establish a
prominent niche in the program.
They were both productive during the
2008 Conference USA championship season but neither participated in the
spring football game on April 18. Their offseason absence has dropped
them off of the post-spring depth chart as others have emerged.
Whitley was ECU's leading rusher last
season with 698 yards in 14 games. He ran for four touchdowns. Whitley
also had seven catches out of the backfield for 83 yards, including a
51-yarder for a score in the third quarter at Tulane.
Williams played in seven games before
he was suspended indefinitely from the program. During that span, he
netted 380 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He also caught five
passes for 19 yards.
Williams was charged with DUI in April
of 2008 and was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in October,
leading to his suspension.
The situation with Whitley has not been
so clearly defined.
"There have been many rumors about
Norman Whitley's status on this team," Holtz said in mid-March. "I have
met with Norman on a number of occasions. I am hopeful that he can
finish his career here at East Carolina and Norman is also hopeful to
remain a part of this program for the rest of his career.
"It is a situation in which we are
constantly meeting face-to-face, and when there is more to report, I
will keep everyone up to date."
One report stated that Whitley was
graduating in the spring and had chosen not to continue playing at ECU.
Brandon Simmons has completed his
eligibility after running for 474 yards and seven touchdowns last
season. That means that the Pirates could be going forward without their
top three rushers from a year ago.
Both Whitley and Williams will be
juniors if they can navigate reinstatement.
"Not to be negative, but right now they
need us more than we need them," said Holtz after the East Carolina
team, led by returning quarterback Patrick Pinkney, took a 31-10 win
over the Pirates in the spring game.
Transfer Brandon Jackson established
himself as the No. 1 running back in the spring. Dominque Lindsay, who
missed the 2008 season after a knee injury in the preseason, is listed
on the second team. J.R. Rogers is the third team running back.
Jackson came to ECU looking for a fresh
start. He signed with Kentucky out of Marist High School in Eugene,
Oregon, but never got on the field for the Wildcats. There are threads
on a Kentucky message board stating that Jackson was dismissed from the
program in Lexington. He will be a sophomore at ECU.
He ran for 55 yards on 15 carries in
ECU's spring game and got good reviews from Holtz.
"Brandon Jackson has shown that he is
capable of being an every down player in this offense," Holtz said.
"He's physical, runs hard and did a nice job of hanging on to the
Jackson was named most improved at the
running back position at the conclusion of spring workouts. Darnell
Ballard was the running back who earned distinction for outstanding
attitude, effort and leadership. Ballard is just 5-7 but weighs 190.
Rogers ran 33 times for 134 yards as a
junior in 2008 and would be ECU's leading returning rusher if Whitley
and Williams don't return. Rogers showed his speed on a 50-yard scoring
run in the spring game. He also caught five passes for 31 yards.
"J.R. Rogers showed some flashes and is
trying to run more physical and doing some good things," Holtz said. "We
know what Dominique Lindsay can do coming back. When you look at those
guys, we have some talent there. I feel very comfortable with their
"Brandon Jackson has definitely
solidified himself as a guy who is going to be competing for the
starting job and is definitely going to play in the opening game."
The Pirates open the 2009 season at
home against Appalachian State on Sept. 5.
Jackson, who is 5-feet-10 and 195
pounds, handled himself well before the media after the spring
scrimmage. He liked the atmosphere which put 6,139 fans in the south
stands at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on a postcard day with sunny skies and
the mercury in the mid-70's.
"It was great," Jackson said. "We had a
nice crowd show up. Everyone was pumped up for it. I think we turned
around and gave everyone a nice little show of what's going to come up
next season. I think everyone did a great job."
Jackson said he is not taking his
opportunities for granted.
"We have two or three other guys who
can possibly step in and play who have been out with injuries or
personal problems," Jackson said. "I'm not taking anything for granted.
I'm just out here trying to help this football team."
Jackson did not play on Pinkney's team
in the spring game. Pinkney completed 19 of 26 passes for 229 yards with
two touchdowns and no interceptions, which bodes well for an offense
that managed a meager average of 10.5 points in games eight through 11
last season when the offense was forced into personnel adjustments
because of injuries and suspensions.
"Pat's had a great spring, which
prorates into us getting better as an offense," Jackson said. "Younger
guys have stepped up, especially at the receiver position. You've got a
guy like Darryl Freeney stepping up, becoming a playmaker for us.
Michael Bowman and Jacobi Jenkins."
Of Bowman's three catches in the spring
game, two went for touchdowns of 59 and nine yards from Pinkney. Jenkins
had five receptions for 55 yards and Freeney had five catches for 49
yards. Redshirt freshman Josh Jordan quarterbacked the team that
included Freeney and Jenkins.
The passing game has the potential to
take the pressure off of the running game and some of its inexperienced
components going into the 2009 season.
Jackson isn't anointing himself as the
starter at this point.
"I did all that I could," he said.
"There's no reason to go and look back now. (Spring practice) is over
with. I put my best foot forward every time I step on this field so the
rest is up to the coaches."
The Pirate coaching staff has had a lot
to figure out with 84 players competing for 70 spots on the traveling
team. The myriad of possibilities at running back typifies the depth
across the board that the program has developed. Holtz noted that about
15 proven players were out of spring practice.
"We have as much talent on this team as
we probably have ever had," Holtz said. " ... I'm encouraged to turn and
put the puzzle together now that spring is over."
Whitley and/or Williams, despite their
past productivity, may indeed become missing pieces of the puzzle as the
Pirates go forward. Holtz said that when practice resumes in August it
will be more about preparing for Appalachian State than competition for
"We're not rolling the balls out and
saying, 'OK, it's open competition for three weeks,' " Holtz said.
"We've got to get ready to play a season."
The chance to compete for positions was
available in spring practice. Whitley and Williams were missing in
"You can only work with who's here,"
Holtz said. "If we have to play with those three (Jackson, Lindsay,
Rogers), I feel very comfortable with the development of our running
"If we get some of them back — and
those are wild cards and those are bonuses — then we maybe give them an
opportunity to work into the depth chart. ... There's a lot of question
marks surrounding them both."
The burden for answering those
questions apparently rests on Whitley and Williams.
"They've both expressed an interest (in
returning to the team)," Holtz said. "They both have some things they
need to do to make that happen. I would love to have them back. I've
said that before. ... They are good, young players. They are very
talented but they've got to turn and continue to develop in their
actions on and off the football field.
" ... I'm hopeful that they will get
their life turned around and get it straightened out, start making
better decisions socially and understand that being part of this program
is a privilege and not a right."