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Pirate Notebook No. 369
Monday, January 5, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Key questions await ECU in ‘09

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

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 preseason lists.

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 simple.

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 intermission.

“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 30-point plateau.

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 and efficiently 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.

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01/05/2009 02:57:43 AM

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