2005 East Carolina Football Preview
July 11, 2005
When Skip Holtz was appointed as the new captain of the Pirates' ship in early December of 2004, he was assigned an all too familiar mission of rebuilding a once-proud football program. In East Carolina nautical terms, Holtz now owns command over a ship which has been traveling through rough waters the past couple seasons and will look to guide it back into the calm seas it sailed in not so long ago through an unmatched level of commitment.
"I can't tell you how excited I am and how committed I am to turning this program back around and into what it has been and what it will be again - a team that is going to contend for a championship and be back in the Top 20 year in and year out." Holtz said upon his hiring. "I look forward to those days and I look forward to the opportunity."
Yet, anytime a program undergoes a leadership change, there is always going to be a transition period that is encountered. To make this transition as smooth as possible, Holtz' first task was to get everyone in the program on the same page and striving towards a common goal.
He quickly assembled a solid, veteran coaching staff that jelled instantly. The importance of this chemistry can't be overstated and he was thrilled with the way the group came together.
"I could not be more pleased because I could not have hired nine better people to come together, "Holtz explained. "The resumes are impressive, but to me, the way they interact with each other and the way they have jelled together is even more remarkable."
The staff sought to begin injecting this same feeling of togetherness, unity and enthusiasm into the players over the course of winter workouts and spring practice. Sure, there would be schematic changes as far as X's and O's, but Holtz was equally as focused on building team unity and a winning attitude.
"The two ultimate goals we have are building the team togetherness and understanding how you win," said Holtz.
Major strides have been made in these areas, and Holtz largely credits new strength and conditioning coach Mike Golden for the quick progress. Golden, who was with Holtz at Connecticut and South Carolina, is considered one of the nation's top strength coaches whose intensity is infectious and his approach methodical. Holtz feels his program is the cornerstone upon which the foundation for a championship will be built.
While it is clear that some building must take place, Holtz is adamant that the team's goals for the 2005 season are nothing short of a Conference USA championship and East Carolina's first bowl appearance since 2001. Holtz, who has been a part of several championship-caliber programs, understands what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
With the coaching change, spring practice was critical for the team's development as it presented the staff with its first hands-on evaluation opportunity and allowed them to assess the team's strengths and weaknesses. Holtz indicated, throughout the workout period, that he was able to get a pretty good gauge of where the team was defensively, but injuries hindered development on the offensive side of the ball.
Holtz and his staff will have a solid, experienced nucleus of players returning as ECU returns 19 starters and a total of 47 lettermen, including 20 on offense, 23 on defense and four specialists.
The Pirates are also banking on receiving significant contributions from some newcomers, particularly junior college transfers Aundrae Allison, Brandon Fractious and Robert Lee.
Offensively, the Pirates should be more explosive with the installation of Holtz's high-powered offense that combines a power rushing attack with an effective short-passing game. His offensive coordinator Steve Shankweiler, who is in his third stint with ECU, will look to take advantage of some talented returnees to improve an ECU offense that averaged only 21 points and 92.8 rushing yards per game in 2004.
On the defensive side of the ball, new coordinator Greg Hudson will attempt to improve a unit that struggled in 2004 by making use of nine returning starters. Anchoring his defense will likely be senior linebackers Chris Moore, who led the Pirates with 99 tackles a season ago, and Richard Koonce. East Carolina also returns a strong nucleus in the secondary, including Zach Baker, who led the Pirates with five interceptions a season ago, and athletic former linebackers Jamar Flournoy and Pierre Parker.
As the Pirates enter the 2005 season, their biggest question mark concerns that particular position on the offensive side of the ball because of the questionable status of last year's starter James Pinkney, who was not enrolled in classes during the spring semester. If Pinkney does not re-enroll in the fall, the most oft-asked question around Greenville in August will be who will step up and become the starter at the quarterback position?
As the Pirates enter fall camp, it appears to be a three-man race for the starting quarterback job between redshirt freshmen Davon Drew and Patrick Pinkney, and junior Kort Shankweiler - none of the which have taken a single snap in a game for East Carolina during an autumn season. Pinkney and Drew both redshirted last season while Shankweiler was a high school quarterback who has played fullback and tight end during his first two seasons with the Pirates. He made the switch back during spring practice due to a lack of depth at the quarterback position.
The experience the trio gained last spring, while attempting to learn the new offense, was invaluable. All three demonstrated the potential to move the offense effectively, while bringing various strengths to the table. The majority of the snaps were taken by Drew and Shankweiler as Pinkney was held out of contact drills while recuperating from shoulder surgery. As spring practice concluded, none of the three had separated themselves from the others, which will make for a heated quarterback race as fall practice begins.
Drew, at 6-4, 215 pounds, offers the Pirates prototypical size at the position. He demonstrated the ability to throw the ball effectively during the spring as he completed a combined 35-of-62 passes for 370 yards and a touchdown in two scrimmages. In addition to his throwing effectiveness, Drew showed the potential to pull the ball down and run when his protection broke down.
Although not as sizable as Drew, Pinkney (6-0, 187) has plenty to offer. He received limited reps in the spring because of his injury but in a limited role during the Purple-Gold Spring Game, he put up 100 yards of total offense as he completed 12-of-21 passes for 59 yards while rushing for 41 yards on only four attempts. In addition to his past aerial exploits, he also gives the Pirates a bona-fide running threat at quarterback.
Wile Shankweiler saw action in most games over the past two seasons as a reserve fullback and top special teams player, the 6-foot-2, 233-pound hometown product now will attempt to earn the starting quarterback spot. The left-hander gives the Pirates good size, an accurate arm and good mobility. He completed a combined 26-of-55 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns during two spring scrimmages.
Incoming highly-touted freshmen quarterbacks Brett Clay (6-2, 190) and Rob Kass (6-4, 243) will likely be redshirted but the possibility does exist of asking them to make an early impact.
The receiving corps returns six lettermen, including starters in Bobby Good and Brian Howard. There is also the addition of three newcomers, including exciting junior college transfer Aundrae Allison, which should provide needed depth.
Good, ECU's leading returning receiver, totaled 33 receptions for 427 yards and four touchdowns during his sophomore campaign. He had a career-best eight receptions for 118 yards, which included a 46-yard touchdown catch in the Pirates' victory over Army last season.
The Pirates' also return their second leading receiver from a year ago in running back Chris Johnson. With Johnson's tremendous speed, ECU looked to get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways a year ago as a short- and deep-range threat. Johnson hauled in 32 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns during his rookie year.
The 6-foot-4 Kevin Roach, the Pirates' third leading receiver from a season ago, provides excellent size and great hands to give ECU a solid possession-type receiver. Allison, who should make an immediate impact and contend for a starting role in the fall, possesses tremendous athleticism that will give ECU a needed playmaker at the receiver position. He caught a combined 12 passes for 191 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown pass, during two spring scrimmages.
Junior Will Bland emerged at wide-out during the latter part of last season, catching eight balls for 231 yards. He gives the Pirates another option with big-play potential as he caught a 60-yard touchdown last season against Memphis as well as 58-yarder for a score at Houston.
Other receivers who should contribute include Bryson Bowling, Steven Rogers, Brian Howard, Phillip Henry, Juwon Crowell and Samuel Roy.
East Carolina's rushing attack should be much improved over its dismal 92.8 yards per game average it put up last season. One of the Pirates' few bright spots was the impressive freshman season turned in by speedster Chris Johnson, who carried the ball 134 times for 561 yards as a rookie. He also showed his breakaway speed when he dashed 86 yards for a score versus Wake Forest during his second collegiate game.
Junior Robert Tillman and transfer Brandon Fractious will both give ECU additional threats at the running back position. Tillman, who also gives Holtz a viable receiving and option play weapon, rushed for 66 yards as a freshman in 2003 before being moved to wide-out last season. The speedy Fractious enjoyed a stellar junior college career at Chaffey (Calif.) College and will enter the program in August as a viable starting candidate along with Johnson.
Returning starting fullback Jermarcus Veal (6-1, 241) returns for his senior season and should complement the Pirates' ground attack as a lead blocker out of the backfield and short-range receiving threat. Veal will get plenty of competition for time this season from senior Jason Pender and talented incoming freshman Ahmad Mayo.
Responsible for providing pass protection and opening holes up front will be an offensive line anchored by three returning starters and other returnees who logged significant playing time last season. The unit will be coached by offensive coordinator Steve Shankweiler, who has produced some of East Carolina's best offensive lines in the past during his previous two stints in Greenville.
Junior returning starter Eric Graham (6-6, 312) is projected by some publications as a preseason all-conference selection. Graham should secure one starting tackle position while seniors Chris Sellers (6-2, 296) and James Myrick (6-4, 287) will compete for the other spot. Senior Hunter Wood (6-3, 283) will contend for his old starting job at center, but must successfully rebound from an injury-plagued 2004 and spring season. Drew Sutton (6-3, 272), who drew raves from the new coaching staff after enjoying a successful spring, figures to battle Wood for the top snapping job though out the campaign. The Pirates expect to have two seniors at the guard spots in senior honors-candidate Gary Freeman (6-1, 331) and Trey Magee (6-4, 297). Freeman started seven games in 2004, while Magee made a pair of starts a season ago.
The Pirates are relying on solid production out of the tight end slot this season, something they sorely lacked a year ago because of injuries. ECU will have the luxury of welcoming back two quality tight ends with great size in seniors Shawn Levesque (6-4, 242) and Sean Harmon (6-3, 277), who both missed substantial time during their first seasons at ECU after suffering similar knee ailments. Junior Jay Sonnhalter (6-4, 227), who sat out last season after transferring from Wingate University, could also factor into the mix.
Senior linebacker Chris Moore (6-1, 228), if healthy, is once again expected to be the unit's leader. Moore, who earned second-team All-Conference USA and honorable mention All-America honors in 2003, led the Pirates in tackles for the second straight season in 2004 after totaling 99 stops, including 63 solos. Moore, a projected front-line performer in the middle, has started all but two games during his three seasons in the Purple and Gold but missed most of spring practice recovering from knee surgery.
Sophomore Durwin Lamb (6-1, 223) should also see significant playing time at middle linebacker, perhaps even pushing Moore for a starting job if his development skills continue to progress at a rapid pace. Lamb totaled 25 tackles, including 17 solo stops, while earning Conference-USA All-Freshman honors last season.
Moore is not the only returning senior linebacker, as the Pirates also have 6-foot-0, 237-pound Richard Koonce slated to start this fall. Koonce, who started nine games at defensive end last season and provides ECU with solid leadership, led the unit with six sacks and was second on the team in tackles for loss with 13.
Senior Dashaun Stephens, who made 38 tackles is a part-time starter duty last season, should battle for the other starting outside linebacker spot against fast-rising freshman Jarrett Wiggins and junior Pat Dosh. Wiggins experienced the bulk of the work during the spring and impressed Hudson with his work ethic and quick grasp of the new defensive alignment and operation.
Through hard work, senior defensive end Shauntae Hunt (6-5, 268) has positioned himself for a break-out season as one of the top defensive end candidates in Conference USA. Hunt accounted for 31 tackles while starting eight of 11 games in 2004. Senior Lorenza Pickett, ECU's inspirational leader who totaled 14 tackles in limited playing time last season, is slated as the starter at the other end spot coming out of spring drills.
Up front, Dontre' Brown is slated to anchor the line with a starting at defensive tackle after opening all 11 tilts a year ago. Newcomer Brandon Setzer, who sat out last season in a compliance period, is expected to make a big splash during his initial campaign on ECU's active roster. Sophomores Mark Robinson and Fred Hicks enter the fall going head-to-head for the top nose guard spot.
Nine letterwinners and four returning starters are competing for four starting positions in the Pirates' secondary, thus turning the ECU defensive backfield into one of the defense's deepest and strongest units. Senior strong safety Zach Baker headlines the list of returnees after leading the team in interceptions with five and posting a second-leading tackle total of 76 during his first year with the program in 2004. However, Baker's starting status will be strongly challenged by sophomore Pierre Parker, who made a successful switch from a linebacking position during spring drills.
Quick and speedy returnees Erode Jean, Kasey Ross, Demetrius Hodges and Travis Williams will all vie for the starting corner spots. Jean, a junior, led the Pirates in pass break-ups in each of the past two seasons, including seven a season ago. The deepest position in the secondary will likely be at free safety where converted linebacker Jamar Flournoy will battle returning starter Kyle Chase and past starter Mickey McCoy for the top nod. A former junior college transfer, Flournoy was third on the team in tackles last season with 75, including 14 for lost yardage.
With a good nucleus returning plus some solid newcomers, expect the Pirates to display marked improvement under battle-tested new coordinator Hudson.
Dougherty was named First-Team All-Conference USA as a freshman when he averaged 44.5 yards per punt, ranking him in the nation's top 10. Last season, he followed up with a 41.8 average and earned second-team all-league honors despite struggling through an early season slump.
Robert Lee, a junior college All-America pick last season, is expected to step right in and handle the placekicking duties. He will be counted on to replace reliable Cam Broadwell, who connected on 12-of-15 attempts in 2004. Lee successfully nailed 14-of-16 field goals and all 28 of his PAT attempts last season at Trinity Valley CC.
The Pirates' return game should provide significant production as they bring back the top performers from a year ago in Williams and kickoff returner Chris Johnson, who averaged 20.7 yards per return as a freshman. Accompanying Johnson will likely be junior Robert Tillman who returned kicks on a full-time basis in '03 as a freshman.
Punt returns will likely be handled by the electrifying Williams, who established himself as one of the nation's best last season, averaging 17.7 yards per return over the last seven games. Williams' impressive rookie efforts included a 69-yard return for a touchdown against Memphis. Senior Demetrius Hodges or Tillman could also see some action returning punts for the Pirates if Williams can't capture the same magic he did as a true freshman.
Hodges handled the punt return duties early last season before missing the rest of the season with an injury. During a season-opening four games, Hodges was very effective with seven returns for 76 yards, ranking among the nation's best prior to his season-ending injury. In summation, the duo of Williams and Hodges might give the Pirates one of the nation's most potent return weapon.
How quickly will new captain Skip Holtz be able to navigate the Pirates' ship back to those calm waters sailed in the recent past?
While the answers to those questions won't be determined until the late fall, the Pirates' degree of success this season will be dictated by how quickly the players are able to grasp and successfully execute the installation of new schemes across the board.
Actually, it will depend how fast Holtz and his coaching staff can teach a once-proud program how to win again through unity and teamwork.