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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, September 22, 2006

By Bethany Bradsher

Young blood pumping new life into ECU 'D'

Fueled by their partisans in the stands, freshmen and sophomores making big plays

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On Saturday, as the Memphis offense became more ineffectual and the East Carolina defenders seemed to be creating turnovers at will, defensive end Zach Slate noticed a symbiotic relationship between the men in purple and the people in the stands.

“With the crowd being the way it was, I was excited,” Slate said. “Somebody makes a play, and the crowd feeds off of that, and at the same time the players feed off the crowd. Next thing you know, another thing happens, and then another thing. It’s like a snowball. It’s one after another. It just keeps rolling in and rolling in.”

Slate, who had the interception return for the touchdown that gave ECU the lead and turned the tide for the team’s first victory, is part of a defensive front that came in short on Division I experience but long on the desire and ability to make each play count.

With senior Shauntae Hunt out with an injury, the four players who are contributing at the defensive end slots started the season with a collective five games of collegiate playing experience, head coach Skip Holtz said. All five of those games came from sophomore Marcus Hands, who had earned a starting job last year before a shoulder injury ended his season.

The other three players — Slate, C.J. Wilson and Scotty Robinson — are true rookies, with Wilson playing as a true freshman and Slate and Robinson coming off of redshirt seasons. While three games hasn’t gone too far in seasoning them, it was enough of a glimpse to show the Pirate Nation what Holtz and Greg Hudson have long suspected — ECU has a formidable defensive line in the making.

“That position, we are much more talented than we were a year ago, but that does not necessarily mean that we’re going to be better,” Holtz said. “I think they’re playing really hard right now. They’re growing, they’re developing every day. You can see the progress.

“We just need to keep maturing. And the really exciting part of it is, they’re back for the next three years.”

Hands, a rising defensive star last year before his injury, has noticed a maturity in his less experienced teammates that accounts for their playmaking lately. Quentin Cotton, Pierre Parker and Kasey Ross also caused Memphis to turn the ball over in the Pirates’ first victory.

“If you really watch Zach Slate play, he plays like he’s a veteran,” Hands said. “The same for C.J. Wilson, Jay Ross, they’re playing like real veterans. It’s a good rotation.”

Slate, a native of Melbourne, FL, was recruited by the previous coaching staff in a time when he had never given a thought to ECU. Now a faithful Pirate, he marvels at the closeness of the defensive players, at their unity of purpose.

“I’ve enjoyed watching us become close as a group of friends and play together and learn together,” Slate said.

Their next step could be a stint as giant killers, if the Pirates can find a chink in West Virginia’s armor this weekend. The Mountaineers, ranked 4th in the U.S., come to campus without even playing a close game yet in their 3-0 season. So there is plenty to intimidate in this scenario, but Slate also sees the WVU game as an outing with exceptional potential to jump-start the program.

“It’s really just one of the greatest opportunities I think we as a team have had in four years,” Slate said. “It’s the type of stuff you dream about as a kid: A fourth-ranked team coming into your place, sold out, on national television. It’s stuff you literally dream about.”

While the players are dreaming Mountaineer dreams, Holtz is trying to tamp down their emotion and their anticipation so that they won’t be exhausted by kickoff time on Saturday, he said. He let them out of Wednesday’s practice 20 minutes early because he sensed that they were tired, he said. Now he and his players just need to sidestep the hype until it’s time to line up across from West Virginia on Saturday and prove whether bright spots like the defensive line truly have staying power.

“I just think we need to stay focused on what our role in this is,” Holtz said. “We’re not spectators in this thing.”

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02/23/2007 01:13:18 AM

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