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After back-to-back bowl seasons, ECU ready to reach new level of success

By By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — A Hawaii Bowl victory and back-to-back winning seasons aren’t enough to satisfy East Carolina coach Skip Holtz and his Pirates.
Sure, their impressive 41-38 victory over Boise State in last season’s Sheraton Hawaii Bowl was one of the most memorable wins in program history, but the Pirates continue to harp on the victories that got away the past two seasons, costing them back-to-back chances at a first conference title since 1973.
Last season the Pirates appeared headed to the Conference USA Championship game when a 3-9 Marshall squad derailed ECU’s plans by handing them a 26-7 thumping in Huntington.
The year before, the Pirates were in prime position to make a C-USA Championship game appearance when they were shocked by Clark Fangmeier and the Rice Owls. Fangmeier banged a 40-yard field goal through the uprights in the waning moments of the contest, sending the Owls to an 18-17 victory in the conference finale for both teams. The loss eliminated ECU from title contention and gave Southern Miss a berth in the title game.
The Pirates, 8-5 a year ago, will enter the 2008 season with a plethora of returning starters on both sides of the ball in their quest to make the C-USA title game.
Offensively, ECU will return six starters. The quarterback duo of Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass, WR Jamar Bryant, TE Davon Drew, C Stephen Heis, and offensive tackles Doug Palmer and Stanley Bryant.
Of course, the big question offensively will be whether or not the Pirates can replace all-everything running back Chris Johnson who set a single season record for all-purpose yards (2,960) en route to rewriting the ECU record back last season.
Among those ready to jump in and take a crack at replacing Johnson are seniors Dominique Lindsay (607 career rushing yards) and Brandon Simmons (116 career rushing yards). But they won’t be alone. Sophomores Jonathan Williams and Norman Whitley will also get touches in preseason camp, as will junior college transfer J.R. Rogers, who Smith calls the fastest guy on the team.
Defensively, the Pirates are loaded with returners as they welcome back nine starters.
Middle linebacker Fred Wilson and nose guard Mark Robinson are the only two Pirate defenders that must be replaced.
The entire defensive line, considered to be the strength of the Pirates’ unit, returns three full-time starters and another who made six starts in ’07. Leading the charge will be First-Team Preseason Conference USA defensive ends Zack Slate and C.J. Wilson. They’ll be joined up front by junior Jay Ross and Kahlif Mitchell. The Pirates will also welcome back end Marcus Hands who started the first four games last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
The linebacking corps was also depleted by injuries over the past year. Outside linebackers Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell have both had shoulder problems in past nine months, but both claim to be healthy and ready to go.
The secondary was the Pirates’ Achilles Heel last season, but should be vast improved after ranking 114th in pass defense a year ago. Holtz expects that to change this year.
With so many key returners back this season, the Pirates believe the 2008 season could be a special one. Even if other folks don’t think so. On Friday, the USA Today coaches poll was released and 55 teams received at least one vote. ECU wasn’t among them.