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Pirate Notebook No. 349
Monday, July 7, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Expectations should be tempered by history

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Remember 2001? If you donít, itís a year in East Carolinaís football annals that is worth revisiting.

The Pirates were greeted that season with the anticipation of possibly reaching the ten-win plateau. Several forecasters even suggested that ECU was a threat to climb into the Top 10 and through the unwelcome doors of the Bowl Championship Series.

Much of that preseason buzz was directly tied to ECUís explosive arsenal of offensive firepower, perhaps the deepest, most dynamic group in school history.

David Garrard eclipsed virtually every ECU passing record that year, while Leonard Henry had one of the most productive seasons of any East Carolina running back ever. And thatís without even mentioning the Piratesí outstanding offensive front and talented corps of receivers.

But that was only half of the story. The Piratesí defense that season was as dreadful as the offense was productive, at times surrendering enough yards to overload a mainframe computer.

The finale itself was a microcosm of the Piratesí season, with ECU erupting for 61 points while its equalizing defense yielded 64. The result was a numbing 6-6 finish that wasnít foreseen in any worst-case scenario during the preseason.

Though it is difficult to compare the dynamics of the Pirates this year with the group from 2001, there at least are some similarities that shouldnít be overlooked. While the preseason hoopla isnít quite parallel to what ECU experienced nationally in í01, the buzz closer to home seems to be.

Visions of double-digit victories are beginning to circulate among the faithful. Comparisons of East Carolinaís greatest teams have become common banter and opinions abound about how 2008 could measure up among the schoolís most memorable seasons.

Attribute much of the optimism to East Carolinaís upward trend since Skip Holtz took the programís wheel. Each season has brought improvement in the win column and resulting success on the recruiting trail, so logic might indicate that an increase on last yearís eight wins should occur this fall.

If it werenít for the schedule, that would be my sentiment, too.

Off the bat, the Pirates have four non-conference games in which they are unlikely to be favored. That starts with the openers against Virginia Tech and West Virginia, two programs that, though they are experiencing transition, are still BCS outfits that are well-stocked with blue-chip talent.

Dates with N.C. State and Virginia wonít be as difficult, though youíre still dealing with programs that are well-coached and talent-heavy. Facing both on the road certainly doesnít lessen the challenge.

Then thereís the conference slate that includes trips to Southern Miss and Central Florida, neither of which is a gimmee. And you canít help but wonder if another Conference USA school will play the role of Rice or Marshall to ECUís championship dreams.

Now this doesnít mean that there shouldnít be optimism. After all, Holtz has rebuilt the program with an outstanding staff that has lured solid talent and maximized it by fitting the systematic approach around the skill that is available.

The ceiling has been raised as a result.

But there is no denying that there are glaring questions that should throw caution into certain expectations of what the Piratesí overall record should be come December.

Beyond the demanding schedule, there are some puzzles that need solving before the Pirates can claim a league title and trip to a bigger bowl.

It starts at quarterback. While the Pirates are infinitely more experienced under center than at this time last year, neither Patrick Pinkney nor Rob Kass seized complete control of the position during the 2007 season.

Both showed flashes of brilliance mixed with periods of struggles. And about the only common thread for both is that all-everything running back Chris Johnson provided the ultimate safety valve when the Pirates needed a rescue.

With Johnson gone, the quarterbackís role within the offenseís success only increases.

Defensively there is no overlooking the struggles the Pirates experienced against the pass last year. Ordinary quarterbacks often looked like Heisman hopefuls, with several breaking personal and single-game school records against ECU.

The amount of returning experience alone should generate improvement, but how dramatic and fast the Pirates progress remains to be seen.

ECUís intimidating defensive front is widely considered the programís new linchpin, but again there are uncertainties that canít be overlooked. Marcus Hands has yet to play an injury-free season while Brandon Setzerís inconsistency makes him a wild card. Though deep and talented, the defensive line is a couple of injuries away from sending defensive coordinator Greg Hudson into a mad scramble.

There are other areas of concern, too. The kicking game was less than spectacular last season and ECUís linebackers have a history of injuries. The running back rotation is a work in progress and there are only two proven playmakers at receiver.

Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now if this sounds like a prediction of gloom, youíre missing the point. There are certainly more reasons for optimism than pessimism, and there is no reason to believe the Pirates wonít compete for the C-USA crown and a spot in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

But to assume that the program will fulfill any dream scenario in 2008 is to apply unfair pressure on Holtz and his staff. There are too many potentially sobering moments facing the Pirates this year.

Somehow that got overlooked in 2001.

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07/07/2008 03:16:49 AM

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