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Henry's Highlights
Monday, September 12, 2005

By Henry Hinton

Big stakes ride on protecting J.P.


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James Pinkney is the key. Make no mistake. Simply put, the return of the junior quarterback to the East Carolina football team gives the program a chance to be competitive.

After serving an academic suspension during spring semester and spending summer school regaining his eligibility, it is hard to imagine Pinkney playing any better than he did in the opener against Duke. But the truth is he must play at that level each week if ECU is going to have a chance to win.

Coming into that game there were a lot of questions for both teams. Both programs needed a win badly to set the table for the rest of the season.

Who had the best players? What role would the home setting play for ECU? Would the new coaching staff make some early season mistakes? Was the Pirate defense really better as Skip Holtz had said after pre-season scrimmages?

The home stadium advantage was a factor. The Pirate players did seem to feed off the enthusiasm of a rejuvenated fan base. Dowdy-Ficklen looked and felt like the ECU of old. Emotion can only take a team so far but there is no question it was a factor in the opener. The challenge now is to carry that on the road this week at Wake Forest.

It would be somewhat forgivable if the new coaching staff did make some first game mistakes, but if they did it was not evident. Coach Holtz held what he termed “hideaway meetings” just before fall drills began. The purpose was to go over every potential situation, particularly on game day, right down to the smallest detail. It paid off.

The players seem to have noticed the extreme organization and precision of the coaching staff as well. There was a telling moment in this week’s Skip Holtz television show when some of the players were asked which team is best in the state of North Carolina. Srong safety Zach Baker, who made several key defensive plays in the Duke game, responded by saying that ECU is the best because “we have the best coaching staff.” ‘Nuff said.

Speaking of the defense, I was reminded of the great line from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch and Sundance kept saying, “Who are those guys?.” The defense played an inspired game particularly in the secondary. Every pass was challenged and many were either knocked down or intercepted. There were at least three knock-downs that might have and probably should have been intercepted.

Holtz and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson have put together a terrific staff that includes many years of experience. Consider this: there was not one player on the field on Saturday on the defensive side of the ball who was not in the program last year, yet another affirmation that coaching does indeed matter. Secondary coach Rick Smith has made a huge difference.

Now to the question of which team had the better players? Who do you think? In assessing that situation I have come to the conclusion that overall Duke may have had the edge, with the exception of three key positions. ECU had a better quarterback and running back. There is little question who had the best wide receiver. Aundrae Allison separated himself early as the best on the field.

Up front on both sides, while ECU looked much improved, Duke seemed to be more physical and won the battle of the trenches most of the time. Once again, give Holtz and his coaching staff credit. After we all watched Pinkney get sacked over and over again in 2004 it was amazing that the same line (for the most part) allowed just one sack against Duke — and truthfully that came on a shoestring tackle that Pinkney probably should have avoided.

Pirate fans have long known the coaching skills of Steve Shankweiler and it appears he is working his magic once again on a group of kids who struggled last season. While the O line did a nice job in pass protection it will become necessary in the coming weeks, starting at Wake Forest, for the unit to be tougher in the run game. Getting the push and making the holes for Chris Johnson to sneak through will require a more “smash ‘em in the mouth” attitude than we saw in game one. Duke looked stronger.

The play of the offensive line may actually be the key to the rest of the season. While we already know that Pinkney is not injury-prone (if he was he would have spent the entire season last year in the hospital), the O line must protect him.

Like I said, with Pinkney ECU has a chance. Without him… well, I prefer not to think about it.

Memo to offensive line: Play hard boys!


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04/21/2008 07:08:49 PM

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