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CHRONICLING ECU & C-USA SPORTS
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View from the 'ville
Friday, May 1, 2009

By Al Myatt

Experienced backs may not be back

By Al Myatt
©2009 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

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 football."

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 development.

"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 positions.

"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 action.

"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 backs.

"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."

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05/01/2009 02:49:32 AM
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