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MEMPHIS — East Carolina
will likely be favored in most preseason polls to repeat as Conference
USA champions in 2009. Considering how voters typically lean with their
ballots, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates not residing atop most
With the proven
upperclassmen ECU returns and the youth that was pressed into duty due
to injury this year, there appears to be enough personnel on paper to
contend for another C-USA title.
But championships aren’t
won in the preseason or on paper. That’s why when East Carolina is
listed as the favorite to repeat as C-USA champions next fall, you
shouldn’t get a head start on booking your room in Memphis.
Too many unknowns and too
many obstacles await East Carolina. Though Pirates coach Skip Holtz has
significantly reduced the number of question marks within his program
over the past four seasons, the road to a repeat will be anything but
Perhaps the biggest
concern facing ECU is special teams, often overlooked in preseason
evaluations but often the difference between being good or great.
Against Kentucky in the AutoZone
Liberty Bowl, it proved the fatal flaw that separated the Pirates’ from
a 10-win season and perhaps a Top 25 finish.
It wasn’t just the visible
snafus – of which there were many – that had an impact against the
‘Cats, either. The kicking game’s inconsistency clearly affected in-game
strategy, which explains Holtz’s decision to not risk a 43-yard field
goal on 4th and 10 with less than a minute remaining before
“We had just had a (PAT)
blocked,” Holtz said. “I said, the farther out you go the farther you
have to drive the ball and the lower you have to kick it.
“It was one on one. We
threw the ball up there to Joe Womack, and I thought it was six. We knew
the coverage that they were playing. We had three great opportunities to
go get a one-on-one jump ball. The last thing that I wanted being up
16-3 was to kick a field goal and get it blocked and have them return it
for a touchdown.”
That’s hardly the approach
that any head coach would prefer, especially in a game of that
importance. The high percentage call in that scenario usually is the
routine three-pointer and a commanding 19-3 halftime lead.
Not with East Carolina.
And unless it can gain some consistency on special teams –
place-kicking, punting, and in the return game – nothing can be assumed
about the Pirates’ chances in ’09.
Ditto for ECU offensively.
The Pirates were anything but a proficient scoring bunch in 2008, some
of which can be attributed to the significant losses that were suffered
at key skill positions.
Even so, ECU’s offensive
shortcomings can’t be solely attributed to attrition. When the Pirates
were at full strength early this fall, they still couldn’t reach the
With a shortage of home
run threats and a lack of consistency under center, the Pirates
transitioned from a bonanza of big plays in 2007 to a methodically
plodding bunch in ’08.
If quarterback Patrick
Pinkney is officially granted his medical hardship, he must shed his
feast or famine ways. Will he be the field general who
torched North Carolina in 2007
worked over Virginia Tech and
West Virginia – or the erratic
QB who fizzled
against Houston and on a few
other occasions this season?
Defensively, the Pirates
should again be solid, but there still are some unknowns that can’t be
overlooked. Pierre Bell, Leon Best, J.J. Millbrook, and Zack Slate have
played vital roles in ECU’s success over the past three years, which can
be attributed as much to their understanding of the defensive system as
to their skill.
Replacing them will be no
cinch. Nor will filling the void of senior leadership that exited
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Friday night, no doubt the glue that held
the Pirates together during a season flooded with adversity.
Without them this team
would have crumbled. Their determination, passion, and pride is
ultimately what kept that from occurring, and you can’t overstate the
important roles those intangibles played on the 2008 season.
“This team is going in a
positive direction next year,” senior tight end Davon Drew said. “The
senior class with Patrick (Pinkney) and other players, we made this like
a stepping stone for the program. I’m excited to see what’s going to
happen next year.”
Drew and his classmates
certainly laid a strong foundation for ECU. And if the next senior class
possesses the same heart, desire, and leadership qualities, there is no
reason to believe the Pirates won’t repeat.
But it’s hardly a given.
The non-conference schedule, once again, will be difficult with greatly
improved Virginia Tech and North Carolina on the slate, and another trip
to West Virginia where ECU has never won. A 0-3 mark in that gauntlet is
a realistic possibility.
Then there is the ultimate
gotcha game against Appalachian and a C-USA slate that is always a
mental and emotional challenge.
East Carolina’s march to
Memphis in 2008 was a bumpy one, and reaching it was a huge step forward
for a program that Holtz has steadily rebuilt over the past four years.
There is no denying that
the pieces are in place for the Pirates to make another championship
run. The challenge, just like this year, is to successfully assemble the
puzzle and resourcefully reconfigure it should calamity strike.
If East Carolina isn't
consistent in the areas where it wasn't this fall, matching or exceeding
the 2008 win total is hardly a guarantee.