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Read Denny O'Brien's feature on Scott Cowen's confrontation with the Bowl Championship Series in Bonesville Magazine.

Pirate Notebook No. 228
Tuesday, February 8, 2005

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Holtz helps ECU rediscover recruiting base

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For Skip Holtz, the task of rebuilding the East Carolina football program is only two months old. To observers, the signs of progress are already apparent.

Since taking the reigns on December 3rd, the Pirates coach has hired a solid staff, signed a recruiting class, and begun preparations for his first spring practice. During that period, he even found time to help a close friend, new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, find a home.

But what's most amazing about the whirlwind pace at which Holtz has been running is the strides that were made on the recruiting trail. Not only did he ink 23 players in his inaugural class, he also began repairing some of the bridges that were broken between ECU and the North Carolina high schools.

The proof is in the 14 in-state players he signed, which is more than rivals North Carolina and N.C. State. In fact, Holtz's harvest of North Carolina was the biggest in Division I-A.

"We started in state," Holtz said last week after unveiling his first crop of recruits. "I made the comment on December 3rd that we were going to start in-state.

"I'm sure there are an awful lot of people who kind of folded their (arms) and sat back and said 'Well, we'll see'. The proof is in the pudding. We signed 14 members of this class in the state of North Carolina. I said we would start here, we would scour the high schools in the state of North Carolina, evaluate the film and make our decision if we felt they were good enough to achieve the goals we were trying to achieve in the classroom and on the football field."

Holtz's recruiting strategy appears to be a complete 180 from what previous coach John Thompson employed during his two-year stay in Greenville. Thompson's primary focus throughout his brief tenure was to recruit Florida, which, along with Texas and California, is one of the top producers of Division I-A talent.

Publicly, Thompson pledged to recruit North Carolina first and then target out-of-state players if there wasn't enough talent at home. But behind closed doors, Thompson made it clear to his staff that Florida would receive the most recruiting emphasis.

His second class supported that blueprint, as only three in-state players were announced on Signing Day. His third class was heading down the same path, with 18 scholarships offered to Florida players and only six to homegrown talent.

As a result, many North Carolina high school coaches and administrators questioned the sincerity of Thompson's promise to recruit their schools.

Despite the disadvantages Holtz faced when he took over the job, he says his presence on North Carolina prep campuses was well-received.

"The high school coaches in this state have been phenomenal," Holtz said. "We have made the commitment to say that we are going to start here in state, that we are going to try to get into every school in this state at least twice a year from a recruiting standpoint to help build those relationships and that rapport with those high school coaches.

"So when they feel like they have a player who can play here, they're going to pick up that phone and say, 'You know what, we need to call East Carolina. Those guys are in here twice a year.' They have been absolutely phenomenal. The high school coaches in this state have been extremely receptive. Nobody's been cold or closed their doors to us. ...It was a start."

That start began in Eastern North Carolina, which has played a huge role in ECU's longstanding tradition. One of the first commitments Holtz received came from New Bern standout defensive back Chris Mattocks, who was getting nibbles from other Division I-A programs but not many bites due to concern about a knee injury from his sophomore season.

Holtz inked several other Down East players in his first class, including Rocky Mount athlete Terrell Hudgins and Belhaven defensive back C.J. Wilson. However, that doesn't mean that Holtz is limiting himself to the area east of I-95.

In fact, talent-rich Charlotte will apparently receive a lot of focus from the Pirates.

"I have a lot of relationships with the high school coaches over there," Holtz said. "I recruited the Charlotte area a little bit while I was down in Columbia.

"I think there is an awful lot of talent in that area. You go up in Raleigh and you've got N.C. State right in Raleigh. You're fighting in somebody's back yard. ...You go down into Charlotte and it's kind of like neutral territory that you're fighting on."

That would appear to be a good strategy given historical trends. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg County area traditionally produces the most Division I prospects, followed by the Triad, the Cape Fear region, and then Eastern North Carolina.

Hiring the right staff ensured that Holtz would have a solid presence in each in-state hotbed. Junior Smith, for example, is a legend in Fayetteville and already has paid dividends with his work in the Cumberland County area.

But arguably the key piece in the recruiting puzzle is assistant head coach Donnie Thompson, whose knowledge of the Eastern North Carolina terrain is unmatched.

"Donnie Thompson is a great recruiter," Holtz said. "I think we have a lot of excellent recruiters on this staff, but I think Donnie has his feet so deeply entrenched from a relationship standpoint with so many coaches here in Eastern North Carolina because of the length of time that he recruited here.

"I think Donnie dug his feet into a couple of these battles and competed extremely hard. I think some of the quality of players that he brought in here were exceptional. You don't get them all, but like I told this staff, I'm not worried about any of them we lose, I'm worried about the ones we get."

From the looks of things, any recruiting losses East Carolina suffers on home turf won't come without a fight.

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02/23/2007 01:59:32 AM

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