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Pirate Notebook No. 393
Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Offense returning to full strength

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

By the time East Carolina landed in Tulsa last December for its Conference USA championship clash with the Golden Hurricane, the Pirates' offensive depth chart closely resembled a scout team ensemble.

Decimated by injuries and suspensions, especially at key skill positions, ECU went from an efficient, drive-sustaining offense to one that almost exclusively emphasized field position and a cautious approach. In a league identified by its circus aerial attacks, the Pirates' championship run became a departure from the blueprint that has defined success in C-USA.

As East Carolina approaches the 2009 season, almost all of its offensive weaponry from the beginning of last season is back. Tight end Davon Drew is now earning a paycheck from the Baltimore Ravens, but much of the ECU offense that effectively moved the chains in victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 2008 returns and is plenty deep at most positions.

With the Pirates aiming to achieve what no team has done in C-USA's current configuration — successfully defend a title — the return of so may key contributors is key to another championship march. Though ECU returns a defense as good or better than the one that carried it during the second half of last season, relying too heavily on defense can be dangerous in what has evolved into a predominately offensive game.

With no shortage of offensive personnel, that shouldn't be the case this fall.

"We were excited in the spring," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "That was kind of the preview for what was coming up this fall. As we got into the second half of the spring, we saw some guys mature and really play with confidence. That's really the biggest part of it.

"As we get into this [preseason] camp, there are a lot of possibilities. One of the things that you have to do when you have good skill on the outside, good running backs on the inside, good experience on the line and at quarterback, is you don't want to do too much.

"We want to be wide open in terms of our package, but week by week we have to do a really good job to make sure we prioritize what's going to help us win."

And that means you shouldn't expect the Pirates to mimic Houston, Tulsa, or some of the other pass-happy spread attacks that litter C-USA. Head coach Skip Holtz said during the team's media day that it is important for the offense to complement the defense.

The offensive approach that was displayed to open 2008 — strong inside running and efficient play-action passing — is likely what the Pirates will implement again this season. After some off-season mending, the Pirates should have the legs they need for a strong inside rushing attack.

"The thing that we like about it is, we've got a veteran line who has played a lot of football," Fitch said. "So, you have a group of (running backs) who can make adjustments on the run.

"The running back position is one of competition no matter where you coach or where you are playing. Every time you get a rep, you better make it special. The guy behind you can take your job. That's a great motivating factor for those guys, and it makes them all better. And that's the whole key. Can you make yourself better?"

That's the question each of ECU's talented running backs must positively answer to ensure he receives his share of carries. At a position now six-deep, there is little room for error. One missed block, a fumble, or a poor read at the line of scrimmage could be enough to redistribute the workload.

Heading into Saturday's scrimmage, Kentucky transfer Brandon Jackson had the inside track on the starting job. He blends speed and power to provide the Pirates with a complete option at tailback, but not too complete that he can just assume his role as the starter.

With the return of Dominique Lindsay (knee), Jonathan Williams (suspension), and Norman Whitley (suspension), there is no shortage of proven contributors at the position. Combine that with the off-season strides made by J.R. Rogers and the addition of junior college transfer Giavanni Ruffin, and a once-thin position on the roster is suddenly one of the deepest.

That likely will translate into a by-committee approach.

"I think it's a good thing if you can have two or three guys who can come spell you," Jackson said. "When you have to carry the ball 20-30 times a game, it really wears down on your body and it's hard to last an entire season.

"You see that a lot with the NFL backs and college backs now. To have guys like, Jon (Williams), Dominique (Lindsay), J.R. (Rogers), and Norman (Whitley) come in and help me reach the goals that I'm trying to reach and keep me fresh at the same time, it's a great feeling."

No unit was more devastated by attrition last season than the receiving corps, where the Pirates lost Jamar Bryant, T.J. Lee, Dwayne Harris, T.J. Terrell, D.J. McFadden, and Darryl Freeney at one point or another. That thrust a number of inexperienced players into the fire and greatly limited what ECU could accomplish through the air.

It forced Holtz and Fitch to focus heavily on the running game and to utilize the tight ends more when going airborne. But it also provided a blessing in disguise — valuable game repetitions for several inexperienced receivers.

"That is the position that really got devastated," Fitch said. "Running back was a bad situation, but the receivers, you just didn't have guys you could go out there and count on and win with last year.

"In the long run, a Darryl Freeney, Joe Womack and those guys would be coming into this fall camp right now and saying, 'Well, I wonder if they can play 20 plays for us.' Well, we know what they can do. It's helped them so much with their confidence level that they're playing fast right now. A guy like Darryl Freeney, who was a bit player last year, he's probably the most confident guy we have out there right now."

And with so many returnees who were MIA last season, it has both Fitch and Holtz feeling confident that the offense will be more productive this fall.

E-mail Denny O'Brien.

Denny O'Brien's Archives

08/17/2009 01:28:30 AM

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