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Pirate Notebook No. 284
Monday, October 2, 2006

By Denny O'Brien

Holtz, staff keys to future

All Rights Reserved.

Skip Holtz made a profound statement following East Carolina's loss to West Virginia last week.


Bonesville columnist Denny O'Brien is a member of the 2006 voting panel for the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, commissioned by the Bowl Championship Series. O'Brien is also the editor of The Pirates' Chest, a senior writer for Bonesville Magazine and co-host of WNCT-AM Talk 1070's Game Day Countdown Show.

Here is O'Brien's ballot for this season's second Harris Poll, which was released Sunday by Harris Interactive:

 1. Ohio State
 2. Auburn
 3. Southern Cal
 4. West Virginia
 5. Florida
 6. Michigan
 7. Louisville
 8. Texas
 9. Louisiana State
10. Notre Dame
11. Oregon
12. Georgia
13. Tennessee
14. Clemson
15. California
16. Oklahoma
17. Georgia Tech
18. Nebraska
19. Florida State
20. Virginia Tech
21. Iowa
22. Missouri
23. Boise State
24. Rutgers
25. Texas Christian

Checking In:
Georgia Tech (17), Boise State (23)

Checking Out:
Michigan State, Boston College

Biggest Jump:
Georgia Tech

Biggest Plunge:
Texas Christian

View this week's full Harris Poll.

When asked to summate the Pirates' potential to regularly compete with the nation's elite, Holtz spoke with piercing confidence. But at no point did the Pirates coach dress his thoughts with hollow promises to fire up the masses. Instead, he responded that ECU "has a chance."

Had Holtz made a guarantee, it would have been an ill-advised play call with ECU clearly approaching the red zone. By going conservative, he reduced the chances of a deflating turnover.

Despite a somewhat stable forecast, there are few certainties in today's college climate. That's especially true when your residence is outside of a Bowl Championship Series conference — and inside one that spans all but one time zone in the continental US.

Even so, it is clear the positives have now surpassed the negatives for East Carolina, and that it has as much upside as any non-BCS school in Division I-A. Many mountains are left to climb, but I firmly agree with Holtz's assessment.

Here's why:

— Coaching: Holtz and his staff clearly have a firm reading on East Carolina's pulse, which is the first step in making any type of program advancement. That has enabled them to affect quick improvement to be competitive now, while laying a foundation for the future.

The staff is as seasoned as we've seen at ECU and excels in instructing the fundamentals. The schemes that have been installed on both sides of the ball are diverse and proven, and can be tweaked to conform to players' strengths.

Recruiting also is a strength, to which last year's class will attest. The annual talent haul will only improve as the number in the win column inflates.

— Defense: East Carolina now plays it with a swagger. The hitting that took place against West Virginia was as intense as we've seen in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and the second half against Memphis has to rank as one of the top performances in program history.

ECU's success is partially a testament to an upgrade in talent. But it's more so a credit to the teaching ability of defensive coaches, who obviously have drilled home the importance of fundamentals and discipline in a gap scheme.

The number of big plays that once haunted East Carolina has shrunk significantly. What hasn't is the number of opposing players who hobble off the field.

— Depth: It has taken less than two seasons to create it. Despite the losses of three veteran defensive linemen to injury, the Pirates more than held their own against the Mountaineers in the trenches.

With Brandon Setzer, Shauntee Hunt, and Wendell Chavis on the training table, the Pirates didn't miss a beat. And with the fruits of Holtz's recruiting labors already evident in the linebacking corps, the foundation of the ECU 'D' appears solid for years to come.

There also appears to be a stockpile of available personnel on offense, including quarterback. The biggest question mark there has been who will replace James Pinkney next year. Though his production occurred at garbage time against WVU, redshirt freshman Rob Kass looked as if he can provide an answer.

— "The Chip": Remember that gigantic chip ECU once proudly hoisted on its shoulder? That mentality helped lay the foundation for the Pirates' ascension up the football food chain, but went MIA a few years ago.

Well, the Pirates haven't rediscovered that chip — and that's a good thing.

Against West Virginia, ECU didn't look like a second class citizen or unwanted football orphan with something to prove. Instead, it proved that it belonged on the same field with a Top 5 team.

Had that been your first impression of East Carolina football, there would be no notion of the redheaded stepchild mentality. That's the reputation ECU needs.

— Home field advantage: ECU has created one. For years I've heard the talk about the Pirates' massive loyal fan base, but I've witnessed it only on a few isolated occasions.

The student support this season arguably is the best we've seen in Greenville, and that has transferred over to the Pirate Club members and season ticket holders. The environment in Dowdy-Ficklen against WVU was by far the best since Virginia Tech visited in 2000, and this year's game against Memphis wasn't far off.

It has become difficult to hear on third downs, which is a huge advantage for ECU on game day. It should also prove to be a nice one on Signing Day.

— Facilities: Since Holtz's arrival we've already seen an improvement. The practice facility is finally up to major college standards now that the field turf surface is in place.

Even more impressive are the new football meeting rooms that were completed this summer. There are breakout rooms for positional sessions and an auditorium with enough seats (which, by the way, are quite comfy and stamped with the Pirate logo) to host the entire roster.

In addition to being functional, these upgrades should pay huge dividends in recruiting.

To say that ECU has a chance to compete with the nation's elite is by no means an understatement. Though the Pirates are much closer than many thought, they still have miles to travel before they arrive.

The importance of locking up Holtz and his staff long-term, however, can't be overstated. Whether or not AD Terry Holland was lucky or good when he found him (my guess is good), the hire has proven a perfect fit.

But the moment ECU reaches the seven- or eight-win plateau, you can bet some school with a glamorous name and deep pockets will come courting. It could take a handsome check and significant commitment to cement Holtz Down East.

That would be a smart move on ECU's part. Because more than anything, Holtz and his staff are the reason the Pirates have a chance.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

Click here to dig into Denny O'Brien's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 02:03:26 AM

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