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View from the 'ville
Thursday, February 5, 2009

By Al Myatt

New class capable of continuing tradition

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

National signing day is both an end and a beginning. In East Carolina's case, it's also about continuity and keeping the program at the competitive level to which it has ascended under the direction of Skip Holtz.

It's the completion of recruiting efforts by the coaching staff and the starting point for players who may represent a program for five or even six years, as in the recently-completed medical hardship appeal of East Carolina on behalf of quarterback Patrick Pinkney.

ECU's class didn't get high marks from the recruiting gurus but there are circumstances that make this group better than it might appear. rated the Pirates' talent haul 97th nationally and tied for 10th with Marshall among the 12 Conference USA members. ranks ECU a little higher, 83rd nationally and eighth in C-USA.

Southern Miss has the league's best recruiting class, according to Rivals, while Scout rates Central Florida highest in the league.

"Everybody wants to talk about who is going to play, who is the best recruit in the class and everything else," Holtz said. "Overall, I'm just really excited about the class for a number of reasons."

Recruiting rankings evaluate the talents of the individual recruits without regard for how the incoming players may fit in according to a program's needs. There is no consideration for character or academic ability, factors that can certainly influence a player's longevity on the collegiate level.

Recruiting rankings are seldom based on first person evaluations and it's generally acknowledged that projecting potential four or five years down the road in football is a highly-speculative venture at best.

Holtz likes his incoming players but notes that the new group has other appealing characteristics as well.

"I think it's one of the most talented classes we've brought in here," said the Pirates coach. "When you look at it top-to-bottom, it's also definitely the best class we've brought in from an academic standpoint in terms of GPA's (grade point averages) and test scores and where the kids are at there. And I think this class has great character."

Good players make good coaches and Skip Holtz has certainly proven himself as a more-than-capable coach at ECU. That indicates the Pirates are attracting good players already. When a program reaches the level of conference champion, recruiting becomes more about anticipating and filling personnel needs as players leave the program instead of simply attracting talent.

It really shouldn't be about bringing in a so-called 5-star player when the two-deep shows adequate depth at that particular position. Holtz also is savvy enough not to try and oversell a lackluster class to a perceptive fan base and create unrealistic expectations for seasons ahead.

The Pirates coach took an honest approach and seemed enthusiastic about the personnel the ECU staff landed in its recruiting efforts.

The majority of the incoming players are from North Carolina, the recruiting approach that has traditionally been most successful at ECU. Of the 20 new Pirates, 14 are in-state signees. There is a good degree of athletic and academic talent and Holtz expects minimal early attrition.

"In the last couple years we've kind of put a big class together and then had a lot of grayshirts and junior college transfers," Holtz said. "We have had to wonder a little bit about who was going to get here in the fall.

"But this class is pretty much what you see is what you get. There are 18 high school players and two junior college transfers in this class. Out of the 20, 14 are from the state of North Carolina. Out of those 14, seven were in the Shrine Bowl. We also signed three from Georgia, one from Alabama, one from Virginia and one from Florida."

Unlike the previous staff, Holtz has not devoted an inordinate degree of resources to recruiting the Sunshine state. He has taken advantage of opportunities to evaluate players personally in the summer, a characteristic of the successful Steve Logan regime at ECU.

"We had 14 of these young men in camp, where we had them for a full day out on the field with the ball in their hands," Holtz said. "That gave us the opportunity to make personal evaluations of them and not just where they were in terms of talent but also what type of people they were and how they interacted with others."

Offensively, the Pirates addressed some anticipated personnel voids at wide receiver, tight end and in the backfield. ECU added one quarterback, Rio Johnson of Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, GA.

"Rio Johnson has a chance to be special," Holtz said. "If you really asked me to summarize him, I'd say he's probably a taller Patrick Pinkney. He's athletic. I don't really think he's a runner, but he's athletic enough to buy time and make some things happen in the pocket."

The Pirate coaches had an opportunity to evaluate Johnson in a camp setting at ECU.

"When we had him in camp he was one of the most accurate quarterbacks I've seen since we've been here," Holtz said. "I think he has a tremendous arm and a huge upside based on the type of person he is and the talent he has."

Upside is a significant word for the Pirates. It makes more sense for ECU to identify players who have the potential for improvement on the college level rather than spend resources pursuing players who are highly-regarded recruits but will probably opt for a nationally-prominent BCS conference program.

Injuries and suspensions forced ECU to get players on the field earlier and more often than anticipated during the 2008 season, but the Pirate coaching staff showed the ability to get younger, inexperienced players prepared for that adjustment during the course of ECU's run to the C-USA title. Developing recruits is a similar process without the compacted time constraints and with more input from those who direct the strength and conditioning program.

"The key is not going to be their talent, but how they mature and develop as people, students and players over the next four years," Holtz said. "That's what excites me so much about them.

"If you look at some of our best players, like Davon Drew, C.J. Wilson, Van Eskridge, Jay Ross, Chris Johnson or Aundre Allison, they were all two-star athletes. They weren't some of the marquee players, but they came here and developed."

Defensively, the Pirates will bring in three interior linemen, three linebackers and one safety. There is always the possibility of position changes as the development of players and program needs occasionally dictate.

One need that was addressed was the depth of kickoffs, a seemingly consistent weakness for the Pirates over the years. While some programs possess players capable of launching the pigskin to the end zone and alleviating the pressures of kick coverage by making the opposition choose to take possession on the 20-yard line, the Pirates have seldom had kickers whose leg strength provided that luxury.

Matt Millisor of Greensboro Page is an invited walk-on who could impact special teams positively with his versatile abilities.

"I think Millisor has a chance to make us a better kickoff team after watching him in camp," Holtz said. "I also think he's got the ability to do all three as he is a punter, placekicker and a kick-off guy. We felt it was important to bring in a guy who has a chance to earn his stripes with Matt Dodge (punter) and Ben Hartman (placekicker) being seniors this upcoming year."

Holtz had some enjoyable moments on the recruiting trail. That speaks volumes about his ability to relate to young people and get the best out of them in the heat of competition.

He shot basketball with 6-foot-8 tight end signee Justin Jones of Conyers, GA, a voracious rebounder on his high school hoops team.

"I questioned his shooting ability a little bit when I had to beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E to get him to say he was coming to East Carolina," Holtz said. "I don't know if he threw the game, or if he's just not that great of a shooter."

The Pirate coach recalled other heartwarming moments as he looked back at the efforts to assemble the young men who signed national letters of intent to ECU on Wednesday.

"When I sit here and read these names I think of the home visits, the player's family and his personality," Holtz said. "I really get excited about this entire group."

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02/13/2009 01:29:09 AM


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