CFN: East Carolina Offensive Preview

Skip Holtz likes to spread the field out and turn his quarterback loose, but with the battery of James Pinkney and Aundrae Allison gone, the Pirates will put more emphasis on the ground game.

What you need to know: Skip Holtz likes to spread the field out and turn his quarterback loose, but with the battery of James Pinkney and Aundrae Allison gone, the Pirates will put more emphasis on the ground game.  That means extra carries this year for versatile senior Chris Johnson and his young understudies, Dominique Lindsay and Norman Whitley.  While strong-armed sophomore Rob Kass will replace Pinkney behind center, an adequate replacement for Allison will be much tougher to find.  Look for the quarterback to utilize a group of tight ends that has the potential to be as good as any in Conference USA.  For ECU to improve on last season’s weak offensive output, the veteran line needs to give Kass an extra second or two in the pocket and create more daylight for the backs.         

Returning Leaders
Passing: Rob Kass
14-30, 184 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Chris Johnson
78 carries, 314 yds, 4 TD
Receiving: Phillip Henry
34 catches, 484 yds, 2 TD

Star of the offense: Senior RT Josh Coffman
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior LT Willie Barton
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore WR Jamar Bryant
Best pro prospect: Coffman
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Coffman, 2) Chris Johnson, 3) Senior WR Phillip Henry
Strength of the offense: The left side of the line, tight end
Weakness of the offense: Pass blocking


Projected Starter: Three contenders will be vying this year to replace three-year starter James Pinkney, one of the catalysts of last year’s resurgence for the program.  In the driver’s seat after a terrific spring is Rob Kass, a 6-4, 250-pound sophomore who was Pinkney’s caddy in 2006.  Easily the least mobile of the East Carolina quarterbacks, he has an unmistakable pocket presence and a powerful right arm that’ll bring the fly pattern back to Greenville.  Kass also has the best grasp of the offensive system and is the only Pirate passer to record statistics at this level, playing in five games last year and spelling Pinkney in the Bowl.                          

Projected Top Reserves: Nipping at Kass’ heels since last season ended have been junior Patrick Pinkney and sophomore Brett Clay.  An undersized dual-threat at just 6-0 and 195 pounds, Pinkney, who isn’t related to last year’s starter, is at his best when he’s on the move.  A poised leader that can move an offense, he’s the biggest threat to Kass if the frontrunner fumbles his current spot atop the depth chart. 

Clay is a fearless passer with a decent arm and the kind of speed that Skip Holtz really likes at this position.  While barely 6-0 and 200 pounds, he’s the type of player that’ll run through a wall to get a first down.  Neither of the two reserves has nearly the same arm strength as Kass.                                       

Watch Out For… Kass’ lack of mobility to cause headaches for an East Carolina offensive line that struggled in pass protection last season.  The Pirates were 77th nationally in sacks allowed in 2006 when the far more nimble Pinkney was taking snaps.
Strength: Kass’ cannon.  Pinkney had decent arm strength the past few seasons, but Kass is in a different league in this discussion.  Although he may struggle at times with his accuracy on the intermediate routes, he’ll compensate by stretching defenses and getting the most out of his receivers’ vertical speed.
Weakness: Experience.  No quarterback on the roster has started a college game which will be especially troubling in September when the Pirates open a brutal schedule with Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Southern Miss, West Virginia and Houston.
Outlook: If Kass survives the first half of the season, he’ll finish strong and solidify his spot on the depth chart for 2008.  If he buckles under the pressure of opposing pass rushes and turns the ball over, the staff won’t hesitate to turn to the one of the two athletic backups.
Rating: 5.5

Running Backs

Projected Starters: The epitome of an all-purpose back, there’s one thing senior Chris Johnson hasn’t done in Greenville: prove he can be the every down back for an entire season.  He’ll get that opportunity in 2007 on an offense that demands balance.  A tad undersized, he relies on his speed, quickness and change-of-direction to be one of Conference USA’s most lethal offensive weapons.  In 35 career games and 23 starts for East Carolina, Johnson has rushed for 1,559 yards, scored 19 touchdowns and caught 88 passes, a school record for running backs.  At his best in open space, the Pirates will look for ways to get him the ball, including splitting him out as a wide receiver. 

Johnson’s primary blocking back will be junior Jason Simmons, a 6-0, 228-pound transfer from Elizabeth City State University.  A former linebacker, he played in three games for ECU last season.         

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Dominique Lindsay ran 39 times for 192 yards last year, numbers that would have been a lot higher had he not missed seven games with a knee injury.  Healthy again and up to a solid 212 pounds, he gives the offense a more physical dimension, particularly between the tackles and in short yardage. 

The future at the position belongs to redshirt freshman Norman Whitley, one of the headliners of the 2006 recruiting class.  A shifty 5-9 back with great cutback ability, he’ll find his way into the rotation after a breakout first spring with the program.    

Watch Out For… Whitley to command more playing time as the season progresses.  Although he’s currently No. 3 on the depth chart, the freshman has the moves and big-play potential to take carries from Lindsay once he gets more comfortable in the offense.
Strength: Explosiveness.  Johnson’s the poster boy for electricity on this team, but when given some room to run, all three Pirate backs have the wheels and the burst to break off long runs.
Weakness: Is there a true workhorse in the stable? Johnson has never really been more than a 10-15 carry a game back and has had durability issues, meaning it’ll take a team effort for the Pirates to improve on last year’s 85th-ranked running attack.
Outlook: Although Johnson is on target for the best season of his college career, don’t expect 1,000 yards unless he shows he can consistently handle 20 carries a game and the line suddenly improves at run blocking.  The Pirates will be better on the ground than last year, but still not to Skip Holtz’s liking.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: There’ll be a ton of pressure on a receiving corps that loses three of its top four pass-catchers to graduation, including current Minnesota Viking Aundrae Allison.  Senior Phillip Henry is determined to pick up some of the slack as he slides into the role of go-to receiver.  The starter in the slot has been an underrated complement, catching 62 passes for 912 yards and three touchdowns over two years, but now needs to become more of a consistent downfield threat and security blanket for the first-year starting quarterback. 

Sophomore Jamar Bryant showed glimpses in the spring that he’s ready to replace some of the long ball potential on the outside that Allison used to bring to Greenville.  The 6-2, 205-pound sprinter originally signed with Georgia out of high school, but failed to meet academic requirements, and eventually landed at ECU where he caught ten passes last year in an abbreviated freshman year. 

When the Pirates go three-wide, they’ll turn to unselfish senior Steven Rogers.  While not the flashiest receiver, he has good hands, runs tight routes and averaged more than 17 yards on his 22 catches in 2006. 

Junior Davon Drew leads one of the deepest collections of tight ends in Conference USA.  A quarterback when he arrived on campus, the 6-4, 247-pound athlete is quickly becoming a reliable receiver, finishing second last year with three touchdown receptions.              

Projected Top Reserves: His redshirt season now in the rear view mirror, Pirate coaches are hoping freshman Dwayne Harris is ready to fulfill the expectations that made him a signature get in 2006.  A terrific athlete that played quarterback in high school, he’ll back up Henry in the slot. 

Senior Juwon Crowell brings experienced and a nice grasp of the offense, but in three years, has yet to expand his role beyond just special teams.

 With just three catches in three years, he’ll do well just to stay ahead of long and lean sophomore Kyle Johnson who has a bright future with the Pirates.  The same holds true for Alex Taylor, a 6-4, 215-pound sophomore who’s still learning the sport after playing just one year of football in high school.  One of the team’s best leapers, he should be dynamite on jump balls near the goal line. 

After sitting out last season, junior tight end J.R. Kraemer is making a case for playing time in 2007.  At 6-5, the Illinois transfer has the size and athletic ability to take catches away from Drew this year.

Watch Out For… Bryant to lay the groundwork in 2007 for a breakthrough season in 2008.  Still somewhat rough around the hedges, he’s the receiver that’ll benefit most from new quarterback Rob Kass’ big right arm.
Strength: Depth at tight end.  Drew and Kraemer are both good enough to start on this team, as is senior Jay Sonnhalter who actually did start five games last year and is recovering from an ankle injury.  While Drew and Kramer are the pass-catchers, the 6-5, 262-pound Sonnhalter is like a sixth lineman on run downs.
Weakness: Unlike the last two seasons, there’s no sure-thing No. 1 target on this offense.  Unless Bryant blows up into a force way ahead of schedule, the Pirate offense doesn’t have that singular receiver that can make opposing secondaries quiver.
Outlook: The receivers are a steady, if unspectacular, bunch that needs to develop more weapons before the conference schedule gets into full swing.  Henry will have the most catches, but Bryant will lead the way in plays over 40 yards.
Rating: 5.5

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: Many of the struggles the East Carolina offense faced last season could be traced to an offensive line that opened too few holes for the backs and finished 77th nationally in pass protection.  Four players with starting experience return in 2007, but that alone doesn’t ensure consistency from this unit.  The anchor of this group will be right tackle Josh Coffman, a versatile 6-7 senior who started games at both guard and tackle in 2006.  A converted tight end that’s literally grown into an all-league lineman, he has the feet to stay with edge rushers and a team-high 61 knockdowns last year as a run blocker. 

The line’s biggest question mark is at left tackle where 6-5, 350-pound giant Willie Barton is being asked to replace Eric Graham and guard the quarterback’s blindside.  While extremely tough to move off his spot, he also can be lumbering which will be an issue against some of the league’s quicker pass-rushers.

After starting the final nine games last fall at center, senior Matt Butler is settling back at his more familiar left guard spot.  At 6-4 and 310 pounds, he’s one of the team’s strongest linemen coming off a solid second season as a starter. 

Butler’s shift outside creates an opening at the pivot for sophomore Stephen Heis, a rugged 6-5, 292-pound player that must prove he can quarterback this line in his first season as a starter. 

Since arriving at ECU, sophomore Doug Palmer has gone from offense to defense back to offense where he’ll likely stay.  Now at right guard, he’ll use his athleticism to protect the quarterback instead of harassing him. 

Projected Top Reserves: When Butler moved to center last year, sophomore Cory Dowless started eight games at left guard in his first year on campus.  While he made plenty of mistakes, he has the size and now the experience that’ll benefit the second unit. 

Like Dowless, guard Sean Allen cracked the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2006, including the Pirate’s bowl game versus USF.  A nimble athlete that’s still growing and getting stronger, he’s an important part of the future at East Carolina.

The top reserves at tackle will be redshirt freshmen D.J. Scott and Travis Melvin.  While Scott is easily the stronger of the two, Melvin moves like a tight end at 6-6 and 265 pounds.  One of the underclassmen better evolve quickly in the summer, in the event Barton isn’t ready or Coffman gets hurt.             

Watch Out For… the health and recovery of Terence Campbell.  The sophomore was about to become a pillar at left tackle following a terrific freshman year, however, the discovery of a heart ailment has left his future in jeopardy.
Strength: Guard depth.  On the second unit is a pair of true sophomores that have already logged starts at guard for the Pirates.  Plus, the team’s best blocker, Coffman, started 11 games at the position a year ago.
Weakness: Short yardage blocking.  The Pirates were brutal on third-and-short last season, largely because the line couldn’t create a push and allowed way too many plays for negative yardage.
Outlook: Forget the losses of James Pinkney and Aundrae Allison.  The play of the line is the offense’s biggest concern in 2007.  After Coffman, the unit is below average, and a lack of depth could plague the Pirates all year long.
Rating: 5


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