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View from the 'ville
Thursday, July 31, 2008

By Al Myatt

ECU has some pricey shoes to fill

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The Tennessee Titans have quantified Chris Johnson's value as a football player, signing the versatile former East Carolina star to a $12 million contract over five years.

That's roughly the price tag of the upper deck at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and works out to more than twice the annual salary of Pirates coach Skip Holtz. Twelve million bucks is the value of 48,000 football season tickets at East Carolina.

That's twice the price of Lee Majors' bionic components in the TV show, the Six Million Dollar Man.

More importantly, Johnson's contract expresses in monetary terms the sizeable void that ECU must fill in terms of offensive production this season. The fleet feet in Johnson's cleats means the Pirates have some big shoes to fill.

Johnson did a lot of everything for the Pirates during a four-year career and may indeed qualify as the best thing that former ECU coach John Thompson ever did for the program — sign the speedster out of Olympic High in Orlando, FL.

Many schools overlooked Johnson, who fractured a fibula and missed four games in his senior season in high school. But former Pirate defensive coordinator Jerry Odom did the leg work in signing Johnson and Johnson certainly did the leg work in his four seasons in purple and gold.

Despite weighing just 175 pounds as a prepster, Johnson could bench press 315 pounds. He could also traverse 40 yards in 4.4 seconds, a time he later reduced at the NFL combine to 4.24 seconds to earn the distinction of being the fastest man available in the 2008 NFL draft.

Johnson went 24th overall in the first round, putting him tied with linebacker Robert Jones in the 1992 draft as the highest selection from ECU.

Johnson's emergence just shows that not having four stars beside your name on the prominent football recruiting websites doesn't prohibit players from making it big.

Current Big East programs Connecticut and South Florida showed interest in Johnson but he chose the opportunity to make it big at East Carolina — which he certainly did.

Johnson ran, caught and returned kickoffs for 6,993 yards — almost four miles — in his ECU career.

Johnson's speed did a lot of things. The offensive line didn't have to maintain blocks that long for him to be effective. They just needed to give Johnson a quick seam in order for something sensational to happen.

He was a great option releasing out of the backfield when a quarterback's primary targets were covered downfield, and when defenders didn't take the proper angle or failed to contain Johnson, it was often six points for the Pirates.

Johnson has already done something with the Titans that he did at ECU and that was change numbers. Johnson went from No. 24 to No. 5 while with the Pirates. He reportedly paid Tennessee teammate Chris Carr $5,000 for Carr's No. 28. Johnson was initially assigned No. 29.

Holtz has said the Pirates aren't looking to one player to fill Johnson's shoes. ECU will depend on a committee that includes Dominique Lindsay, J.R. Rogers, Jonathan Williams, Brandon Simmons and Norman Whitley at running back in 2008.

The Pirates should hope the multiple running backs formula works as well as multiple quarterbacks did during an 8-5 season in 2007, which culminated with a 41-38 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl in which that man Johnson set an NCAA bowl record with 408 all-purpose yards.

Some reassuring thoughts for the Pirates, whose challenging schedule provides at least a theoretical shot at a BCS bowl, are that nine starters are back on defense along with some key special teams performers — kicker Ben Hartman and punter Matt Dodge. Patrick Pinkney showed unprecedented focus in the spring in winning the quarterback job going into preseason camp, which starts tomorrow.

The receiving corps may be better, even though the running backs and returning offensive linemen may not match Johnson's rushing production.

The defense, which ranked 114th out of 119 Bowl Subdivision teams against the pass last season as it allowed an average of 289 yards per game, will be helped greatly if a healthy Marcus Hands can return to his freshman form when he had nine sacks in eight games. Pressure on the opposing quarterback will be a key in improving the pass defense.

ECU's run defense held foes to an average of 142.2 yards per game, which ranked a respectable 50th in the Bowl Subdivision. Maybe that was because they got practice tackling a vapor in scrimmages when they faced Johnson.

SI picks ... Wariner

Sports Illustrated has picked all the medal winners in the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The magazine's choice in the 400 meters is Jeremy Wariner.

Former East Carolina star LaShawn Merritt is tabbed for silver and Chris Brown of the Bahamas is predicted to take home the bronze medal.

The 400-meter final is scheduled to be shown on NBC between 8 p.m. and midnight on Thursday, August 21.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

07/31/2008 01:51:10 AM


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