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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, April 11, 2008

By Bethany Bradsher

Young bloods getting their chance

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

It might be a worn-out sports metaphor, but when Skip Holtz uses it to describe spring football practice it almost sings.

This East Carolina team, he explained on Wednesday, is like a big jigsaw puzzle. And spring camp is all about the coaches pulling the shrink wrap off of the box, cracking it open, examining each piece carefully and then fitting them all together to create a whole greater than its parts.

That process has worked pretty well over the past six weeks, with one small problem. Skip’s puzzle is missing at least 13 pieces. And the lost pieces are some of the most crucial in the whole image — think corner pieces, or the tip of the snow-capped mountain peak.

In all, eight defensive and five offensive players have been forced to miss all of spring practice while they rehabilitate injuries. The absentee list includes names like Marcus Hands and Jay Ross on the offensive line and Jeremy Chambliss and Pierre Bell at linebacker.

On offense, standouts that have sat out the spring include lineman Fred Hicks and running back Norman Whitley. They are represented as italicized names on the spring depth chart. No. 3 or No. 4 behind names like Maurice Mercer (freshman defensive tackle) and Steve Spence (freshman linebacker).

With hobbled veterans giving them a larger share of the spotlight than they might normally have, the younger players have responded so resoundingly that veterans like senior linebacker Quentin Cotton have taken notice.

“Oh, they’ve been tremendous,” Cotton said. . We have a whole lot of people hurt. As far as young guys stepping up, it’s been great. “

In light of injuries like these, the Pirate puzzle architects have had to content themselves with the scattered images they got to glimpse and with the evident quality of some of those pieces. And even though any coach would love to be pulling out the rubber cement and the puzzle frame at the close of spring practice, Holtz was quick to identify the silver lining to his team’s current limitations.

“Our redshirts and other younger guys got an invaluable amount of experience, and while many have distinguished themselves individually, it's also allowed our program to develop a lot of depth,” Holtz said. “Ironically, all of the injuries we've had this spring have been a blessing in disguise in the fact that it's allowed us to have many positive finds during camp.

“Yet, by the same token, having that many guys out hasn't really allowed us to get any closer in putting the big picture together."

At this point, the ECU trainers feel that all of the injured players will be strong and healthy in time for the late August kickoff. But for now, Holtz and his colleagues can only focus on what they have in front of them.

For quarterback Patrick Pinkney, caught in between his final spring camp and his final Purple-Gold game, the closing of spring practice is perhaps a little sentimental. But to dwell on the “lasts” would be to look backward, and Pinkney is determined to forge ahead to the Virginia Tech game, especially since the team gets more comfortable with the coaches and the game plan every year.

“Last spring, we weren’t where we are now,” Pinkney said. “Everybody knew what they were doing, and has learned a little bit quicker. So we have an extra step this year.”

The ECU coaches didn’t add anything substantially new to the playbook this year, Pinkney said, so these past weeks have provided young and old players the chance to focus on the fundamentals that give a team legs every November.

Pinkney, who is currently the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart behind junior Rob Kass, said that he is looking forward to Saturday’s Purple-Gold game — especially the adrenaline rush that always comes when the Pirates play for the fans after a long solitary stretch of practice.

“It’s for the fans, but at the same time it’s for us,” Pinkney said. “The coaches aren’t going to be out there telling us what to do. It lets us evaluate our players, see where they are.

Linebacker Quentin Cotton said that spring football starts with more collective rust from the preseason, because the winter workouts are all about strength and conditioning with no forays into football skills or plays.

“We mostly just do the fundamentals, because everybody has to brush up on things,” Cotton said of the spring workouts.

As a final example of the incomplete nature of this 2008 jigsaw puzzle, consider the linebackers slated to start during Saturday’s game. Cotton, the grizzled old veteran, will start alongside one junior and two freshmen.

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04/11/2008 01:17:28 AM

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