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Pirate Notebook No. 352
Monday, August 4, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Pinkney no longer a secret for ECU

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Last year he was nowhere to be found. If he was, nobody noticed.

While his teammates paddled through the hall of reporters gathered for East Carolina’s 2007 football media day, Patrick Pinkney was treading the undesired waters of relative obscurity. He was the backup to the backup quarterback, a distinction that carries with it little demand from the media or attention from the fans.

Truthfully, Pinkney couldn’t have been more hidden on ECU’s roster if he had been a special teams lifer or equipment manager. It was the type of role that, if you’re lucky, you’re entrusted with the tedious task of signaling offensive plays to the teammates responsible for executing them.

That was Pinkney’s plight. Caught somewhere between irrelevance and a fading memory, the once-promising dual-threat quarterback seemed destined to have little statistical impact on ECU’s football history, much unlike the career of his father, Reggie.

But life threw Patrick Pinkney a Hail Mary. An unfortunate incident that earned Rob Kass a one-game suspension suddenly thrust Pinkney into the spotlight and onto a stage bigger than anyone could have envisioned.

Kass’ suspension forced Coach Skip Holtz to rewrite the Pirates’ offensive script, with Pinkney finally finding himself in a major role. With only a week to prepare for last season's showdown at ninth-ranked Virginia Tech, Holtz and his offensive staff were forced to change their game plan and offered only two hints about their revised strategy:

Brett Clay would start, but Pinkney also would play. Beyond that, the number of snaps each took would depend heavily on each player's performance and the flow of the game.

In a surprisingly close 17-7 loss, it was Pinkney who stole the show.

“It was a great blessing for us to see how Patrick came to life in that environment, in that atmosphere,” Holtz said. “He didn’t get big eyes, and wide-open mouth, and you weren’t looking at the back of his head like a deer in headlights.

“He had a smile on his face. He was into it. He was vocal. He was a leader. And then watching him come back out here the following week against North Carolina and to see how he performed out here was very encouraging.”

Though Pinkney’s statistics against Virginia Tech didn’t shatter any records (115 yards passing, 48 rushing), he showed a repertoire of improvisational skills that kept the vaunted Hokies’ defense frustrated. He also did so while protecting the football and leading the Pirates to their only touchdown in his first series under center.

Pinkney also displayed the type of mobility that eventually allowed offensive coordinator Todd Fitch to expand the playbook. And though Fitch had the luxury of tutoring Pinkney throughout spring and fall camps, even he admits to have been somewhat surprised by the playmaking ability Pinkney displayed against the Hokies.

“At this time last year, I thought he had some personal characteristics,” Fitch said. “I thought he had a great charisma about him, and the players liked him and were attracted to him as a leader. So that didn’t surprise me.

"But the physical performance that he turned in, I think we were a little bit unsure that we had that kind of talent there.”

To be sure, Fitch was even more surprised by Pinkney’s performance the following week against in-state rival North Carolina. Having earned the right to start with his play against Tech, Pinkney led the Pirates to a thrilling 34-31 victory with a heroic passing effort.

The QB who carried with him the stigma that often is associated with mobile quarterbacks – great athletes, but average passers – showed that he could hurl his team to victory with his right arm. He did so against the Tar Heels by completing 31 of 41 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns.

It was the second best passing effort in ECU history, second only to David Garrard’s 414-yard effort against Memphis in 1998. Pinkney’s, however, was far more significant than the record books could capture given the setting and the opponent.

On many of his 31 completions that day, Pinkney displayed the poise and pocket presence of a seasoned veteran. When the protection broke down, he utilized his mobility to elude rushers and extend plays, often leading to huge gains.

“The thing that I talk about all the time for all of our quarterbacks is to have the ability to keep the play alive,” Fitch said. “The way that the defenses play nowadays, the way that they are aggressive, you’ve got to be able to buy that extra tick on the clock to let a guy open up as a receiver, to maybe avoid the rush and make that scramble with your feet just to keep drives alive.

“(Patrick) has that uncanny ability right now to have a pretty good field awareness and vision down the field with some of his throws and yet also be a decent scrambler.”

Though Kass eventually took over the starting role when the Pirates faced Central Florida, Pinkney didn’t disappear from the offense. ECU transitioned to a two-quarterback system, a move that enabled the staff to exploit opponents that struggled in specific areas defensively.

Pinkney provided a much-needed boost when Kass struggled against UAB and Memphis, and it was the win over the Tigers during which the Pirates heavily showcased a spread look offensively. The Pirates would again use the spread during their 41-38 victory over Boise State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, with Pinkney registering 119 passing yards and 53 more rushing.

Pinkney rode that performance to a strong showing in spring practice and eventually grabbed the No. 1 spot at the close of camp. With fall camp now underway, Fitch says smoothing out the peaks and valleys is the next step for his senior QB.

“He needs to be more consistent through the course of a ballgame, through the course of a season,” Fitch said. “Not to have some of those highs and lows, and just stay focused on getting better everyday.

“He and Rob have played a lot of football now. We need them to step up their level of execution and playmaking, but yet at the same time being fundamentally sound and protecting the ball as well as they did a year ago.”

Though Pinkney enters the fall atop the depth chart, he didn’t separate himself from Kass to the point where the position can’t be taken away. Kass, too, showed his ability to lead the offense last year, and he rescued the Pirates with his clutch play against Boise State.

Pinkney recognizes the challenge ahead and says he feels no insecurities because of it. In fact, he seems to embrace the competition that he will face this fall.

“That’s what I came to school for,” Pinkney said. “Football is all about competing. It’s about having fun. That’s what I do. I keep a smile on my face and don’t let the pressure get to me.

“Because at the same time, everyone has one goal, and that’s to win. That keeps me going. I know I have my teammates who believe in me.”

A year ago at this time, that might not have been the case. It certainly wasn’t with those outside of the East Carolina locker room who hadn’t seen Pinkney perform in a live-game setting.

But now the perception of Pinkney is much different. Not only do his teammates and fans believe in his ability as a performer, they now expect him to succeed.

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

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08/03/2008 11:49:32 PM

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