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Skip Holtz and the East Carolina University football team stand at the end of an eventful and difficult transition, but the first-year coach has already made up a remarkable amount of ground in a short time.
The conclusion of the 2004 season marked the end of a 3-20 two-year ride for the Pirates under coach John Thompson. The months since have been filled with major changes at ECU, and Holtz, son of coaching legend Lou Holtz, has been asked to reverse that trend as his part in an athletic revitalization effort.
Holtz, who helped breathe life into Connecticut's program in the mid-1990s, delivered his first depth chart after the team's initial spring scrimmage, and had installed a rudimentary version of an offense and defense the week prior to that. With the Pirates' spring game completed April 16, a much-needed new football team started to emerge.
"We've just got to continue to coach them, and as I've told these players, we're not where we're going to be, but if we keep working, we have a chance to get there," Holtz said.
Holtz, a former South Carolina assistant head coach, sought the help of Illinois defensive guru Donnie Thompson, who is serving as assistant head coach and defensive line coach. Holtz also lured Greg Hudson away from Minnesota to lead his defense, and brought Steve Shankweiler back for a third tour at ECU as his offensive coordinator.
"We're doing a great job of picking up the offense and defense. It's probably more of the little things to make a certain offensive play run -- we're running the right route, but we've got to run it with better technique or run it on the right defender or understand how we run it against this coverage versus that coverage," said Holtz, who had offensive coordinator stints with South Carolina and Notre Dame. "It's that next step that we've got to take."
Holtz channeled most of his energy and experience as a quarterbacks coach into redshirt freshman Davon Drew in his first spring as the Pirates' head coach. But Drew will face pressure from redshirt freshman Patrick Pinkney and rising junior Kort Shankweiler in filling the opening left by 2004 starter James Pinkney (unrelated to Patrick), who did not enroll in spring classes and was considered by Holtz a long shot to return. Drew battled shoulder tightness throughout the spring but appeared versatile and strong on his feet early in the team's spring game.
Sophomore tailback Chris Johnson returns to the starting role he earned away from a pair of seniors last year. Johnson's '04 rushing numbers were anything but gaudy -- 561 yards and five touchdowns -- but were merely a reflection of a team that spent its entire season in a forced passing mode. Johnson's 32 catches were second only to wideout Bobby Good.
Transfer Aundrae Allison had a marvelous spring and earned himself one of the starting spots at receiver. A group of experienced juniors will also be in the hunt for starting assignments.
Holtz will build his offensive line around the foundation of 300-pounders Gary Freeman at right guard and left tackle Eric Graham, both mainstays on last year's line. Senior Chris Sellers has excelled at the other tackle since being brought back from the defensive line.
Senior middle linebacker Chris Moore returns after leading the Pirates in tackles each of the last two seasons. Moore played through knee problems his freshman and sophomore campaigns but started all 11 games last season and recorded 99 tackles. He's still the team's top run stopper. On the outside, '04 sack leader Richard Koonce returns with great speed and power on the edge along with early Holtz favorite Jarrett Wiggins, a redshirt freshman.
Up front, ECU is led by returning senior starter Shauntae Hunt at one end and senior first-year starter Lorenza Pickett at the other.
Senior Jamar Flournoy's move from linebacker to safety means that '04 starters Zach Baker -- who led the Pirates with five interceptions -- and Kyle Chase could be battling for the other safety spot. Junior starter Erode Jean, along with Demetrius Hodges, Kasey Ross and Travis Williams, stock an athletic cornerback corps.
Speed demon Williams boasted a school-record 17.7-yard punt return average, including a 69-yard touchdown stroll against Memphis. The Pirates also welcome the return of junior punter Ryan Dougherty, who averaged 41.8 yards last season. Holtz still must replace kicker Cam Broadwell, and will likely await the arrival of junior college star Robert Lee.
Thompson left the program reeling, but Holtz is depending on solidified roles and simplified schemes to make his start. Holtz will use what he has, but with Allison, Lee and other recruits moving in, the Pirates should enter the new-look conference with the beginnings of their own new look.
September road trips to Wake Forest and West Virginia could come a little too early, but much more important home dates with conference foes Rice and UCF will give ECU a chance to hold their ground in the standings.