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Itís tough to predict
where East Carolina will go without Chris Johnson in its backfield. But
itís safe to presume the Pirates wonít visit the end zone nearly as much
At least thatís my
prediction given Johnsonís impact on 2007, a year in which ECU
experienced its biggest offensive renaissance since the 2001 campaign.
By far, Johnson was the
primary reason behind that resurgence. His speed and versatility
affected three phases of the game ó the run, pass, and special teams ó
while his playmaking ability enabled ECU to overcome its year-long
dilemma under center.
Without Johnson, East
Carolinaís team speed offensively will drop considerably. That is the
one area in which the Pirates held an advantage over most opponents, and
the offense performed at its zenith when Johnson was the primary focus.
Entering spring practice,
the number of offensive questions far exceeds the answers. Who replaces
Johnson atop the depth chart at running back is one, but there are other
equally pressing offensive unknowns as spring drills approach.
Ditto for ECUís defense
and special teams. The Piratesí ability to positively address several
key areas will dictate their success in í08:
East Carolinaís offense
displayed two distinct personalities in í07. At times the Pirates
focused on running out of the spread, and at others they displayed a
more traditional pro-set package.
Both produced mixed
The Pirates were mostly
magnificent out of the spread against Memphis and Boise State, but
downright dreadful against Marshall. The pro set proved explosive
against Houston and Central Florida, but mostly anemic against N.C.
Perhaps much of this will
get settled this spring if Piratesí coach Skip Holtz ditches the
two-quarterback system and identifies a full-time field general. Heís
been fairly vocal about that desire, and one QB can definitely breed
more chemistry and consistency.
If Rob Kass wins the job,
ECU takes a more traditional approach. If Patrick Pinkney takes the
reins, the Pirates likely will shift more towards the spread.
The X-factor in this race
is super slasher Dwayne Harris. Heís faster and has a stronger arm than
Pinkney, and should get a serious look this spring.
Harris, regardless of his
position, is a big-play threat. He has the potential to go the distance
on any given play, though the challenge will be finding him enough
touches if he isnít the QB.
Beyond Harris, there
arenít many proven home run hitters in the fold.
Receiver Jamar Bryant has
the potential, but thus far hasnít displayed consistent separation speed
from defenders. Jonathan Williams has shown he can go the distance, but
off-the-field questions raise concerns about his ability to stay on the
The Pirates need at least
three playmakers to emerge to fill the voids left by Johnson in the
running and passing game and special teams. At this stage, there arenít
three game breakers who have proven themselves enough to erase this
The Pirates canít afford
the wholesale casualties that inflicted them in 2007. Much of the season
was spent with Marcus Hands and Khalif Mitchell on the shelf, while
linebackers Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell played wounded all year.
ECU still lacks the depth
to overcome injuries to its frontline defensive performers. Though the
talent drop-off between ECUís first and second stringers is steadily
shrinking, the mental and emotional gap between the two is still
Mitchell, for example,
brings unmatched enthusiasm and is an emotional sparkplug in the huddle.
Cotton and Bell are irreplaceable leaders who direct as much by their
performance as by their words.
injuries this spring wonít breed comfort for the fall.
Special Teams Consistency
Was there a more
inconsistent bunch than ECUís third unit? Enigmatic kicker Ben Hartman
was the poster boy for that overriding theme.
For the year, Hartman was
a frigid 13-22, unimpressive by any standard. But when it came to
nailing clutch kicks, he was an unshakable Iceman who drilled game
winners against North Carolina and Boise State.
It was just the opposite
for punter Matt Dodge. He typically punted well early in games, but had
a knack for the sideways shank when the Pirates desperately needed to
pin opponents deep.
Even more perplexing was
ECUís willingness to relinquish momentum with coverage blunders against
kick returns. Thrice opponents took kickoffs the distance and foes
flirted with paydirt on countless other occasions.
In a tight conference
race, this unit could be the difference between the Liberty Bowl and
some other middling postseason game.
This might have been the
difference between eight wins and ten this season. Some players
acknowledged overlooking N.C. State, and itís not a stretch to assume
that applied to Marshall as well.
non-conference schedule is tougher in í08 with West Virginia and
Virginia Tech locks for the Top 25 and Virginia a serious contender.
N.C. State should be significantly improved in Tom OíBrienís second
ECU wonít be a favorite
until it hits the conference gauntlet, and its most difficult league
games are on the road. Winning at both Central Florida and Southern Miss
will be no easy task.
Another factor that could
take a mental and emotional toll is the placement of key games on the
schedule. Given the Piratesí success in í07, you can bet ESPN will
pursue adding them to the docket more in í08.
And in Conference USA,
that could mean appearances on Tuesday or Wednesday night, which can
completely disrupt a teamís rhythmic approach. Do the Pirates have the
maturity to handle that?