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Pirate Notebook No. 379
Monday, April 20, 2009

Denny O'Brien

ECU offensive revival in the cards?

Restoration of prolific point-scoring legacy dependent on availability of key personnel

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

You have to appreciate the irony surrounding East Carolinaís run to the Conference USA football championship last fall.

Seriously, who would have predicted that defense would propel the Pirates through a league dictated by high-scoring, gimmick offenses? Or that ECU would routinely win games while scoring under 20 when the versatile spread is now the rule?

Not me. And probably not anyone else who closely follows East Carolina football.

Thatís because somewhere, someone earmarked the past two decades of ECU football history for explosive offenses sparked by prolific passers and other big-play performers. A departure from weekly 40-point outbursts hardly seemed the formula to coronate the Pirates in C-USA.

But itís exactly what occurred during a season when they eclipsed the 30-point plateau only twice in 14 games. And while it paved a path to a league title, it was the source of great heartburn for those who have grown accustomed to the Pirates visiting the end zone with regularity.

Nobody could envision Ė heck, even stomach Ė the thought of East Carolina navigating the land of misfit defenses with a conservative offensive path. Thatís why co-offensive coordinator Todd Fitch was the target of unfair criticism from fans expecting better offensive production.

It reached a point last season when seemingly every play and personnel decision was questioned. Radio call-in shows and Internet message boards served as the primary sounding boards for debate about ECUís perceived downward offensive spiral.

Forget that the Pirates won nine games Ė three against Top 25 opponents Ė and a conference title. Or that injuries and suspensions forced head coach Skip Holtz to peel players away from the scout squad to even complete a two-deep offensive depth chart.

For many, those footnotes werenít worthy justifications for not rolling up 450 yards of total offense per game. Besides, someone must be held accountable for these offensive atrocities, right?

Though no fan would seriously trade a league title for increased point production, there is no question that many who attended Saturdayís Purple and Gold Pigskin Pig-out Classic were mostly curious about East Carolinaís offensive posture.

Is there a better collection of playmakers? And better yet, has more razzle and dazzle been scripted into last seasonís conservative playbook?

Truthfully, Saturday didnít reveal too much of anything about the current state of ECU football. At least nothing significantly more than we already know. While it certainly introduced a couple of new playmakers, the verdict is out on how they will perform with the stadium full and when the opponent isnít wearing purple or gold.

Not that there isnít reason to be encouraged. There is. Itís just that any exuberance over a scrimmage should be tempered by the reality of what can actually occur throughout the course of a slippery 12-game slope.

ďIím encouraged with our skill players,Ē Holtz said. ďI think we have some playmakers. One of the things that we lacked, especially the second half of last year, was a big play threat. I think some guys are starting to step up and show that they have the ability to do that.

"Iím encouraged to turn and put the puzzle together now that the spring is over.Ē

And the puzzle should paint a more flattering offensive picture this fall. That is assuming that the injuries that plagued the Pirates throughout 2008 have healed, and that the off-the-field issues that added to the attrition have been resolved.

Though receiver Michael Bowmanís performance Ė three catches, 72 yards and two scores Ė fueled the most postgame fodder, it was made fairly clear by Holtz that he isnít ready to be an every down player. While exciting with the ball under his arm, Bowman hasnít quite mastered the other key aspects of his position.

At best, he needs to be the Pirates' fourth or fifth option in the passing game, complementing Jamar Bryant, Darryl Freeney, Dwayne Harris, and Joe Womack.

While running back Brandon Jackson is clearly more ready for a featured role in the ECU offense, he doesnít need to be an overused horse out of the running back stable. He and the Pirates would be best served if Dominique Lindsay, Jonathan Williams, and Norman Whitley were back to share the carries.

If that indeed is the case, the Pirates should be a more dynamic offensive bunch this fall. But if East Carolina does not have its full complement of playmakers, it might have to lean on its defense once again.

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04/20/2009 03:03:04 AM

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