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Pirate Notebook No. 333
Monday, January 14, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Repeat in í08 could be tough

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

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 next fall.

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:

Offensive Identity

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 results.

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. State.

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.

Playmaking Ability

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 field.

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 concern.

Defensive Durability

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 noticeable.

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.

Widespread defensive 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.

Mental Maturity

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.

The Piratesí 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 year.

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?

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01/14/2008 01:47:59 AM

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