Pirates to go where line play takes them|ECU has sights set on second C-USA title

Published 3:32 pm Thursday, September 3, 2009

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — Victories over No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia, along with a thrilling 27-24 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game made last year a dream season for East Carolina.
This year, the Pirates are looking to make that dream a reality.
Every so often in college football a team will jump out of nowhere to stun a few of the NCAA big dogs, capture the heart of America, then plummet back to obscurity.
The hard part isn’t so much knocking off a ranked opponent or getting a number put next to your name for a few week, but rather making it so that when you do win its not consider a tremendous upset. The rise is the easy part, holding steady at that high level is what makes a program top notch.
Right now Skip Holtz and his Pirates are heading in that direction. If ECU can topple a few of the big name non-conference teams on its schedule such as No. 21 UNC, West Virginia and No. 8 Virginia Tech it will help reinforce the notion that East Carolina football deserves to be mentioned with the other rising non-BCS teams.
ECU heads into the 2009 season in good shape on both sides of the ball. Getting veteran quarterback Patrick Pinkney back for his sixth year means everything. Bringing back eight starters on offense and eight on defense, the Pirates are a savvy club, but had they not been able to bring Pinkney back this team would not be poised to make a run at the big stage.
The cast of running backs has spent a majority of the time in the spotlight this summer as fans and media alike tried to speculate who will emerge as the No. 1 backs, but the truth is it might not matter much because whoever takes a handoff behind the Pirates’ beefed up, veteran line should have success.
East Carolina returns four out of its five starting offensive linemen, and they are all huge. Leading the line is 6-3, 310-pound senior center Sean Allen, who enters this year as a preseason C-USA first-team selection. Joining him up front is junior Cory Dowless, who at 6-5, 309 pounds started every game at left guard last season and will be playing right guard this year.
Taking his place at left guard is 6-5, 318-pound senior Terence Campbell, who earned his stripes filling in for the injured Stanley Bryant last year at left tackle. Mammoth junior guard D.J. Scott will be back at right tackle where he started a majority of his games last season.
The only newcomer is 6-6, 290-pound junior Willie Smith, who transferred from N.C. State last season. Smith’s only action last year was taking two snaps on special teams during the Liberty Bowl. However, he must be special if he was able to come in and earn the starting nod at glamor spot on the offensive line.
Behind the line, all of the running backs vying for time are capable starters and have showed promise at some point. Kentucky transfer Brandon Jackson (So) had a brilliant summer and for now occupies the starting role along with Dominique Lindsay (Sr), who is fully recovered from a knee injury that cost him all of last season.
However, its unclear how much the off-field trouble that juniors Jonathan Williams and Norman Whitley got into last season affected the coaching staff’s judgment. It’s possible that Holtz and his staff wanted to make the two jump through a few hoops before handing either one a starting position.
Then there is Giavanni Ruffin, who because of some transfer issues missed some time in practice this summer but has come on strong of late and received a lot of praise from Holtz.
The best guess is that this running back competition is far from over, and that a true No. 1 and No. 2 back won’t be recognized until roughly Week 4.
The ability to consistently run the ball should help open up a passing attack that due to injuries and suspensions was rather vanilla last season.
After being suspended for violated team rules for most of last season, 6-2 senior wideout Jamar Bryant will be back in the lineup for opening day. As a sophomore, Bryant was the team’s leader in most receiving categories. Joining him on the field in the other receiving spot is the electric Dwayne Harris. As a sophomore Harris led ECU with 58 catches last year, and with more weapons on the field in 2009 his numbers should increase all the way around.
Last year East Carolina was carried to victory by its defensive unit, which was one of the best in Conference USA. This year, the defense shouldn’t have to burden as much of the responsibility, but is just as good.
Like on offense, the power of the defensive unit will be up front. The ECU line lost two of its starters from a year ago in DE Zack Slate and DT Khalif Mitchell, who is now with the 49ers. However, this year’s crew could be better.
After placing second in conference in sacks (10.5) last year, the C-USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year will look to take home the sack title in 2009. Wilson is a dominate pass rusher and an equally strong run stopper who will no doubt be playing on Sunday’s next year.
Playing along side Wilson are two NFL-size tackles in 6-3, 314-pound senior Jay Ross and 6-6, 322-pound junior Linval Joseph. Bookending the line is senior Scotty Robinson. The 6-4, 274 pound Robinson is a little bit of an unknown, only making seven starts in his career, but he just has to be effective for the Pirates unit to be solid.
The big guys up front should do an excellent job occupying blockers so that C-USA preseason first team selection at linebacker Nick Johnson and his crew can do their job. As a junior, Johnson did well last year starting over half the games at middle linebacker and recording 102 tackles.
Johnson will be flanked by returning starter Jeremy Chambliss (Sr) and first-year starter at linebacker Chris Mattocks (Sr).
In the secondary, the Pirates are led by another preseason first-team selection in senior free safety Van Eskridge. Last year Eskridge was phenomenal as he tallied nearly 100 tackles and picked off four passes. Playing strong safety is N.C. State transfer Levin Neal, the senior started five games for the Wolfpack and should do a nice job for ECU.
At the cornerback spots are Dakota Marshall and Travis Simmons. Marshall started 12 games last year as a sophomore and at 6-1, 203 pounds has nice size for a corner. Simmons, also a junior started four games for ECU last year. Also in the mix is sophomore Emmanuel Davis, who had a fantastic freshman season, as injuries threw him into the mix and he responded by tying Eskridge with a team-high four picks.
Heading into the 2009 season one of the biggest concerns for Holtz is how soon PK Ben Hartmen will recover from his hip injury. As of Wednesday Holtz said he was still undecided how he would handle the place kicking responsibilities.
When you add it all up, the Pirates should be in for a stellar season. A good way to try and forecast ECU’s season is to break down the schedule into groups of four.
It doesn’t get much tougher then ECU’s first four games as it faces Appalachian State at home, then travels to West Virginia and No. 21 UNC before coming back to Greenville to host UCF. The Pirates should be able to top ASU and UCF, and if they can split between the two powerhouse teams, that wold give them a 3-1 record heading into the next stretch.
ECU’s next four games are the softest portion of their schedule and if the team really wants to make some noise it must go undefeated here. The Pirates will travel to Marshall and SMU, come home to play Rice, then hit the road again to play a solid Memphis team. If the Pirates can’t go undefeated through this stretch, then they can only afford to lose one game, which following the above scenario would give them a 6-2 record heading into the home stretch.
ECU has a tough back end to its schedule as it will play two revenge-minded teams in back-to-back weekends in Virginia Tech (home) and Tulsa (away). The Purple and Gold finish out the season with two home games with UAB and Southern Miss respectively. Once again, if you are a Pirates fan you would probably sign up for a 3-1 record through this portion of the schedule which would mean that ECU would finish the regular season 9-3, which should be good enough to nab the Conference USA East Division championship. If ECU can go through the first or last portion of their schedule a perfect 4-0, there could be BCS talk.