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July 9, 2009
THE SCHEME: The Pirates use multiple sets, but the favored one has a tailback, a tight end and three wide receivers.
STAR POWER: Senior QB Patrick Pinkney isn't going to win all-league honors in C-USA, which has numerous star quarterbacks, but when he was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA, ECU became the favorite in C-USA East. Pinkney is a steady hand at the controls. He's an accurate passer with some mobility, and his presence seems to lift the offense.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Sophomore TB Brandon Jackson, a transfer from Kentucky, emerged from spring ball as the starter. He's versatile and a solid fit for the Pirates' offense. ECU is deep at tailback, but Jackson has the best mix of tools among those contending for playing time. He's not going to be a star, but he is going to be a steady producer.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Sophomore TE Michael Byrd played in six games last season and didn't catch a pass. But coaches are looking for a tight end with some speed with the departure of Davon Drew, and Byrd is the fastest tight end on the team. He has a chance to contribute as a backup this season and gain more playing time as the season progresses.
STRONGEST AREA: The line has a chance to be the best in Conference USA. If senior G Doug Palmer – who saw the most action last season of any lineman – rejoins the team after being suspended during the spring, ECU will return all five line starters. The line is a big, experienced group, and depth looks good, too. C Sean Allen might be the best in the league at his position. There is excellent depth at tailback; there is no star at the position, but coaches will be able to mix and match and receive good production. ECU was mediocre on the ground last season, averaging just 126.4 yards per game; look for that total to increase by about 30 yards per game this season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The biggest hole is at tight end, with the graduation of Drew – who tied for the team lead with three TD receptions – and backup J.R. Kraemer. The new starter is Kevin Gidrey, who split time at fullback and tight end last season. The Pirates also need more big plays from their passing attack. ECU threw just 15 TD passes last season, and the team leader in yards per catch was Drew.
THE SCHEME: The Pirates use a base 4-3 set, and they thrive on being aggressive and trying to create turnovers.
STAR POWER: Senior E C.J. Wilson is the reigning C-USA defensive player of the year. Wilson, an accomplished pianist, tied for the league lead in tackles for loss (18.5) and was second in sacks (10.5). Wilson had a sack in nine of the Pirates' 14 games and had more than a third of the team's total. Wilson finished with 70 total tackles and added five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. Senior FS Van Eskridge also deserves notice; he had 97 tackles and four interceptions last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Senior SS Levin Neal, a transfer from North Carolina State, had an excellent spring. He heads into fall drills No. 2 on the depth chart, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him beat out sophomore Derek Blacknall for the starting spot at strong safety. Leon Best and J.J. Millbrook, who split the job last season, are gone.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior T Linval Joseph has been overshadowed on the line by Wilson and fellow T Jay Ross, but look for Joseph to have a season that will get him all-league notice. Joseph is huge (6-6/300), but he moves well. He and Ross will be a formidable duo in the middle of the line. Because of his size and strength, Joseph has an NFL future.
STRONGEST AREA: Wilson heads what should be the best line in the league; there is good depth and a lot of star power. The secondary should be the best in the league, too. There is good depth at corner, with Emanuel Davis, Dekota Marshall, Travis Simmons and Darryl Reynolds forming the best quartet in the league. Eskridge is the best player in the league at his position. ECU forced 33 turnovers last season, tied for seventh-most in the nation. The experience and talent in the front four and in the secondary make ECU a good bet to force at least 25 again.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There is no real weakness on this defense, but the linebackers bear watching. There is no true standout, and depth is iffy. Still, this linebacker group is in the top half of the league, so …
K Ben Hartman was 21-of-31 last season and made at least one field goal in each of the 11 games he played. Hartman was bothered by a hip injury early in the season and took a while to round into shape. P Matt Dodge (43.9 yards per punt) is one of the best in C-USA. Simmons (punts) and WR Dwayne Harris (kickoffs) are good return men; the punt-coverage team did a nice job last season, but the kick-coverage unit was spotty.
Skip Holtz has done an excellent job rebuilding East Carolina into a consistent league challenger. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson oversees an aggressive unit, and he is underrated nationally. Todd Fitch and Steve Shankweiler serve as co-offensive coordinators, and they need to make sure ECU is more explosive this season, which shouldn't be difficult considering the amount of talent the Pirates have on that side of the ball.
ECU upset West Virginia and Virginia Tech early last season, and the potential exists to again make some early season noise, with the first three games against Appalachian State, West Virginia and North Carolina. There's also a game later in the season against Virginia Tech. While the non-conference schedule is one of the toughest in the nation, the league schedule is easily navigable. ECU won't play West Division favorite Houston in the regular season, and with the exception of a game at Tulsa, the toughest conference games are at home, including a Nov. 28 showdown with Southern Miss that could determine the East Division title. It wouldn't be a surprise to see ECU go 1-3 in non-conference play; it also wouldn't be a surprise to see the Pirates go 8-0 in conference action.
East Carolina was riding high early last season, thanks to back-to-back wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia to open the season. ECU also won its third game and speculation began as to what BCS bowl would host the Pirates and where Holtz would be coaching next. But the Pirates hit a rough patch, losing their next three games to fade out of the national picture. They rebounded to win the East Division of Conference USA, then shocked host Tulsa to win the league title and the resultant Liberty Bowl berth. Even a bowl loss to Kentucky couldn't dampen the enthusiasm that followed the hot finish. The Pirates are expected to win C-USA East again, especially after Pinkney was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA because of past injuries. Holtz has the Pirates humming along. The defensive line and secondary are big-time units, and the offensive line should pave the way for a much more productive rushing attack. ECU should be expected to again qualify for the league title game. The Pirates also should be expected to go to a fourth consecutive bowl for the first time in school history.