2006 East Carolina Pirates football preview
Today we begin our 2006 ECU football preview as CUSA-fans.com correspondent Bubba Rosenbaum previews the 2006 East Carolina football team. Later this week we will release the second part of this two-part preview. In today's edition Bubba takes a look at the ECU offensive side of the ball. Later this week we will add the defense, special teams, a schedule analysis and a final analysis.
Prior to the Skip Holtz era, East Carolina had only won three of its previous 25 games. A program that had grown accustomed to winning seasons and bowl games throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s had fallen to the depth of depths. The Pirates were not only losing, but they were rarely competitive during that stretch. Holtz knew the importance of establishing a solid foundation built on team unity, accountability and a winning attitude.
“Nobody wants to be accountable anymore for their actions and that’s the biggest thing we’re trying to do,” Holtz said. “Once you get a group of young men and get a positive attitude in where they’re trying to go and what they’re trying to build, we’ve got to make them accountable to each other.”
East Carolina went 5-6 overall, 4-4 in CUSA (tied for fourth) in Holtz’s initial season in Greenville, nearly achieving the program’s goal of a winning season and a bowl game, but equally as important, they laid the foundation that Holtz and his staff knew was necessary in order for the program to progress back towards respectability in the world of college football. The Pirates not only won five games in 2005, nearly twice the total of the two previous seasons and their most since 2001, but they were also much more competitive than they had been in the recent past. ECU was 3-6 with two games remaining, but finished the season on an extremely high note as they won at Marshall (34-29) and in the season finale’ at home against UAB (31-23). There were also near misses against upper echelon CUSA foes, Memphis (24-27) and UCF (20-30), as well as Sugar Bowl Champion, 11-1, West Virginia (15-20).
The Pirates improved in essentially every phase of the game last season. Expect to see improvements across the board again this year. Holtz and his staff will have the luxury of working with a solid, returning core group of players, who possess a familiarity with the coaches’ schemes, having now executed them for a fall and two springs. Despite there being quality, experienced players returning in many spots, there are depth, inexperience, and youth issues that ECU is dealing with in some key positions as well. Following spring drills, Skip Holtz stated, “I think we’re a long way away from where we need to be to be able to compete next year. I didn’t think our quarterbacks played very well. I think across the board, youth and inexperience showed up.”
Eighteen starters (7 offense, 6 defense, 5 special teams) and 42 lettermen return from a year ago. Newcomers and inexperienced players will be relied on to fill vacancies along the offensive line and at linebacker.
Offensively, East Carolina often showed potency last season that would remind its fans of past great Pirate offenses. The Pirates averaged 393.5 yards (256 passing/137.5 rushing) and 24.3 points per game a year ago while demonstrating the capability to score quickly and via big plays. The average scoring drive was 6.7 plays while taking only 2:28 off the clock. This is even more impressive when you consider the Pirates were not the beneficiary of many short fields, as 15 of the 31 touchdown drives were 70 yards or more. Led by quarterback James Pinkney, ECU passed for 2,816 yards in 2005, the program’s most since 1996. Pinkney’s primary target was Pirate newcomer, junior college wide receiver, Aundrae Allison. Allison caught 83 balls for 1,024 yards while on his way to a record-breaking season in the purple and gold. The running game struggled for the majority of the year, but there were flashes of brilliance from the trio of Chris Johnson, Dominique Lindsay and Brandon Fractious. With Pinkney, Allison, and wealth of other talented players returning at the skill positions, the Pirates’ fate on offense this season will be dictated by the development of the offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, first year defensive coordinator Greg Hudson engineered quite a turnaround last season. He simplified the Pirates’ schemes and this change was effective as the Pirates improved in nearly every defensive category. The East Carolina defense made great strides across the board, but particularly in its pass defense, where they ranked 20 th nationally a season ago. The Pirates did lose five of their top six tacklers from a year ago, including 1 st team All-CUSA linebacker and top tackler, Chris Moore. The Pirates also lost linebacker Richard Koonce, who was one of leading tacklers on last year’s team. Holtz and company looked to the junior college ranks to shore up these departures in the off-season, but this is undoubtedly the biggest question mark on the defense entering the season as the Pirates lack experience at the position. ECU’s focus will be on improving against the run, as they were near the bottom in the national rankings a year ago.
2006 ECU Offense
Offensively, the Pirates are fortunate enough to be led by returning senior quarterback James Pinkney. Pinkney had a breakout junior season that saw him complete 60.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,773 yards, 14 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. The 6-3, 211 pound Pirate signal-caller not only possesses the extensive game experience and knowledge of Skip Holtz’s offense, but he also brings a toughness factor to the table that can’t be taught. In addition to being a quality passer, Pinkney has good feet and the ability to run the ball, whether it is on designed runs or when protection breaks down. He ranked 20 th nationally last season in total offense yards per game, revealing the two-dimensional threat he offers at the position.
As the Pirates enter the fall, the biggest question marks regarding personnel on the offensive side of the ball revolve around the offensive line. However, there is also the question of who will emerge as the back up to James Pinkney. Redshirt freshman Brett Clay holds the spot following spring practice, but is not far ahead of current number three, redshirt sophomore Patrick Pinkney (no relation to James). Another redshirt freshman, Rob Kass, could also factor into the mix despite being number four following spring drills. The trio will give East Carolina quality (based on talent, not experience) depth at the position, which it did not have the luxury of having a season ago. However, the group has not taken a single game snap amongst them, but will still allow Holtz to breathe a little easier when James Pinkney takes shots.
At 6-0, 205 pounds, Clay gives ECU someone who can throw the ball effectively, but also offers excellent mobility. The redshirt freshman had one spring scrimmage where he completed 15 of 21 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns, but still needs to develop the consistency that comes with taking a lot of snaps.
Patrick Pinkney, a 6-0, 193 pound sophomore, is very similar to Clay in that he is multi-dimensional. He can be effective as a passer or runner and is trying to bounce back after missing last season due to shoulder surgery. He threw the ball well at times this spring, completing 7 of 13 passes for 81 yards in one spring scrimmage. He demonstrated his running ability in the annual Purple-Gold spring game as he totaled 42 yards on six carries.
At 6-4, 251 pounds, Rob Kass is your prototypical quarterback in terms of size and arm strength. He does not offer the mobility that both Pinkney’s and Clay do, but he can pull it down and run when necessary.
In the backfield, the Pirates are loaded as they return last season’s starter, the versatile Chris Johnson, but also his quality backups in sophomore Dominique Lindsay (5-10, 200) and senior Brandon Fractious (5-9, 187). This trio gives the Pirates a lot of versatility at the running back position and the capability to attack the opposition in a variety of ways.
Junior Chris Johnson (5-11, 184) is a speedster and is most effective when used to attack the perimeter of the defense. He rushed for 684 yards on 176 carries and six touchdowns as a sophomore. Although a quality runner, he might be utilized the best when used as a receiver, whether he lines up in the backfield or is split out. The Pirates liked him in this role a year ago, as Johnson was the team’s second leading receiver, with 35 receptions for 356 yards and two touchdowns (one of which was an 81-yarder against Rice). Johnson already holds the East Carolina record for most receptions in a career by a running back as he has totaled 67 in only two seasons. He did miss spring ball with a neck injury, but it appears he will be ready to go when fall practice begins.
“I have been told that they expect a full recovery and that he should be 100 percent ready to go.” Holtz said.
Dominique Lindsay, the starter coming out of spring ball due to Johnson’s injury, offers plenty of punch in his 5-10, 200 pound body. He allows the Pirates to run more effectively between the tackles. As a freshman, Lindsay ran for 210 yards on 41 carries, including a long of 32.
Senior Brandon Fractious (5-9, 187) possesses good speed and is also a good cutback runner. Fractious, the Pirates’ second leading rusher in 2005 with 261 yards on 47 carries, saw his playing time diminish due to his inability to hang on to the football. Against Central Florida, he burned the Golden Knights for 107 yards, East Carolina’s top individual rushing performance of the season. The Pirates’ coaching staff stated that Fractious protected the football better this spring.
A dark horse at running back might be the little known, Edwin Burke. Burke, a 5-9, 181 pound junior, has performed well in each of the last three springs. He totaled 47 yards on seven carries in this year’s spring game. Do not be surprised if Burke sees some snaps this year for the Pirates.
There is also the addition of freshman Norman Whitley (5-9, 180). Whitley, who has 4.47 speed in the 40, was regarded as the 11 th best prospect overall in North Carolina by SuperPrep Magazine. He rushed for 2,175 yards and 24 scores as a senior at Richmond County HS (NC). The Pirates should have the benefit of redshirting Whitley unless they sustain an abundance of injuries or the freshman is simply too good to keep off the field.
Senior Patrick Dosh (6-3, 232) or senior Kort Shankweiler (6-2, 228) will likely be taking over the duties as starting fullback for the departed Jermarcus Veal. Dosh saw his first action at the position in the spring, while Shankweiler was transitioning back into the role after playing last season as the back up quarterback to James Pinkney. Dosh spent last season at linebacker.
Incoming freshman, Kevin Gidrey (6-2, 250), could also fill the role as the “battering ram” in the East Carolina offense. Hopefully Dosh or Shankweiler will solidify the position so the Pirates can redshirt Gidrey.
James Pinkney will have numerous targets to pick from as the Pirates return good talent and experience at the wide receiver positions.
The quality group is led by senior Aundrae Allison (6-1, 191), an athletic playmaker who made an immediate impact in his first season for East Carolina a year ago after transferring from Georgia Military College. Allison has good size, speed, hands, and the capability to run after the catch—almost everything you look for in a quality receiver. He hauled in a team leading 83 passes as a junior for an East Carolina single-season record 1,024 yards, becoming the first Pirate to ever post 1,000 receiving yards in a year. Aundrae ranked in the top 25 nationally in three different categories: receptions per game (fourth), receiving yards per game (19th), and total receiving yards (25th).
Last season, ECU relied too heavily on Allison, so someone else will need to emerge and accept a bigger role this season.
One of the top candidates is junior Phillip Henry (6-0, 177), who was the team’s third-leading receiver in 2005 after coming to East Carolina as a walk-on. Henry caught 28 passes for 428 yards in his Pirate debut, including an 80-yarder in the Pirates’ victory at Southern Methodist.
Another wide receiver the Pirates are hoping will have a solid, senior campaign is 6-1, 195 pound Bobby Good. Good had been the primary target for East Carolina during a solid sophomore season, but suffered a knee injury during the end of that season. As a result, he started slowly last season, but became a significant contributor after catching his first touchdown pass of the year against Rice. Good finished his junior year with 15 receptions for 292 yards and three touchdowns, including a long of 55 yards in the season finale’ versus UAB. He was possibly the team’s top deep threat at season’s end.
Kevin Roach (6-4, 215) and Will Bland (5-9, 184) are other returning seniors who give East Carolina good experience at wide receiver. Roach, who gives the Pirates good hands in the form of a possession type receiver, caught 11 balls for 145 yards as a junior. Bland missed last season after suffering an injury during the first preseason scrimmage, but he has proven to be a viable big play threat at the position over his career. During 2004, he averaged 28.9 yards per reception with eight for 231 yards.
Other returnees who had receptions last year for East Carolina include juniors Steven Rogers (6-0, 179) and Juwon Crowell (6-2, 186). Rogers hauled in four passes for 48 yards and Crowell caught three for 31 yards in 2005.
Other possible contributors at wide receiver who have not touched the field yet for ECU include: redshirt freshmen Kyle Johnson (6-3, 212) and Alex Taylor (6-4, 210), and senior Derehl Staton (5-10, 171). Javon Brumsey, Melvin Patterson, and Demorio Waymon—incoming freshmen who possess great size and athletic ability, should be able to redshirt with the depth ECU has at the position.
At tight end, East Carolina will be replacing the departed Sean Levesque, who finished his Pirate career with a solid season in 2005. The Pirates didn’t throw to the tight end much, but Levesque made the most of his catches with ten for 142 yards. As fall practice approaches, there is a heated battle between returning junior Jay Sonnhalter (6-5, 254) and converted quarterback, sophomore Davon Drew (6-4, 237). Sonnhalter played in 2005, but was used primarily in two tight end sets and running situations, and did not have a reception. Drew, who made the transition to tight end during spring practice, gives ECU a big, athletic receiving target at the position.
The primary concern for the Pirate offense as the season approaches is filling some vacancies along the offensive line. Following the losses of center Gary Freeman and tackles Guy Whimper and Chris Sellers to graduation, there are undoubtedly some holes to fill.
The biggest one is at center, where seniors Tom Wingenbach (6-6, 300) and Drew Sutton (6-3, 282) are vying for the starting role. Sutton has some ground to make up though after missing spring practice with an ankle injury. Fred Hicks (6-0, 307), who played nose guard last season, could also be a factor.
The starters at guard at the end of spring practice are slated to be juniors Josh Coffman (6-7, 288) and Matt Butler (6-4, 308). Butler started every game for the Pirates in 2005, while Coffman redshirted to help him transition from tight end to guard. Redshirt freshmen Stephen Heis (6-5, 288) and Josh Stahl (6-4, 324) are vying for the back up roles.
At tackle, the Pirates return senior Eric Graham (6-6, 320). Graham started every game last season and is expected to be the leader of the offensive line in 2006. He had 65 KO’s as a junior and is a preseason All-Conference USA selection by many publications. Graham’s back up will likely be senior Lance Neisz (6-4, 295), who has only played in one game since transitioning to offensive line in 2004. At the other tackle position, the Pirates are extremely green as the top two players on the depth chart are both freshmen. After spring ball, redshirt freshman Terrence Campbell (6-5, 320) was number one on the depth chart and true freshman Andrew Farr (6-4, 290) was listed as his back up. Farr, an Alabama native, went through spring practice after his semester stay at Hargrave Military Academy in the fall of 2005.
Overall, East Carolina should be better offensively this season, but it will largely hinge on the development and consistency of play it gets up front. It has one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in James Pinkney. Pinkney has a stable full of quality running backs and a receiving corps that it rated by some publications as tops in Conference USA. If the hogs can come together under the leadership of excellent offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler, this Pirate offense will post impressive numbers.