C-USA Preview: East Carolina

East Carolina will use a Steve Spurrier type offense while attempting to improve on their dismal 1-11 season last fall.

Each season, every team hopes to improve from the previous. Placing its daily focus upon getting better. Nowhere is that more evident that at East Carolina. The Pirates have implemented a new offense, made changes on defense, and developed a hunger for the respect that only comes by winning.

ECU's new offensive scheme will resemble the "Fun ‘N Gun" offense employed at the University of Florida by Steve Spurrier. Directing the Pirates' offense this season will be new offensive coordinator and former Gator quarterback Noah Brindise. Brindise spent eight years as player, graduate assistant, and assistant coach under Spurrier at Florida and in Washington with the Redskins.

"It's a totally different system," Thompson told reporters during spring practice. " I have competed against this offense and this style of offense three times, and it was undoubtedly the toughest style to prepare for. I think we're going to be a lot more of an explosive team with a lot more variety in our offense."

One thing that is certain to help the Pirates open things up with its passing game is the return of senior running back Art Brown. Brown missed the entire 2003 season after suffering a knee injury prior to the start of practice in August. Brown spent the spring getting back to full speed and is expected to be 100 percent when practice begins.

The men blocking for Brown along the offensive line have a new position coach this season. A veteran coach of almost 20 years, Robert McFarland spent the past four years as the offensive line coach at UCF, including three years as offensive coordinator.

In addition to Brown, East Carolina welcomes back 15 returning starters and a total of 41 lettermen, including 20 on offense, 16 on defense and five specialists.

Offensively, Brindise hopes that his system will be executed to the tune of more than 18.1 points per game that ECU put on the scoreboard in 2003. With the return of Brown and the emergence of several underclassmen during spring practice, including sophomore quarterback James Pinkney, the Pirate offense should be much improved from a year ago.

After watching the defense struggle throughout the 2003 campaign, Coach Thompson will have a more hands-on approach in his field of expertise. Anchoring Thompson's defense is senior linebacker Chris Moore, who finished second in the nation in tackles as a junior. The Pirates welcome back five of its top seven tacklers from a year ago.

Moore isn't the only talented performer at linebacker as the program has a mass of players that will be competing for playing time.

Also returning are several players in the secondary which includes 2003 Conference USA All-Freshman Team and Freshman All-America honorable mention honoree Erode Jean.

OFFENSE
Everything in the new offensive scheme starts with the quarterback and it was Pinkney who was the first to grasp the new system.

Pinkney started the final three games of the 2003 season and completed 43-of-87 passes for 422 yards and a pair of touchdowns. As spring drills concluded, he positioned himself into the starter's role, but will still have to fight off senior Desmond Robinson and sophomore transfer Patrick Dosh in preseason drills for the job.

Robinson was the Pirates' starter the majority of the season a year ago, making nine starts before being injured. Robinson threw for over 1,200 yards and completed better than 66 percent of his passes as junior. He also has the ability to tuck the ball away and run with it. Last season he ranked third on the squad in rushing with 127 yards on the ground.

Dosh is acclimating himself to playing competitively for the first time since his senior year of high school in 2001. Dosh transferred to ECU prior to the start of the 2003 season after redshirting at the University of Florida in 2002. Dosh was a very highly touted quarterback out of high school, setting a Virginia High School state record for yards passing (8,648), and is expected to push his teammates for snaps in preseason practice.

A new core of receivers will be the focus of the passing game after losing its top two receivers to graduation, including Terrance Copper, ECU's fourth all-time leading receiver. However the group returns seven lettermen and one returning starter, sophomore Brian Howard. Senior tailback Marvin Townes is the leading returning receiver on the team and could be pushed out wide once the season begins.

Senior Demarcus Fox averaged 21.8 yards per reception as a junior, catching six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. A member of the ECU track team, Fox has tremendous speed and is a threat on the balls thrown deep as evident during the season finale against Southern Miss, where he had a 65-yard touchdown reception.

Howard corralled nine balls last season for 67 yards in seven games played, making five starts. Fellow underclassmen Booby Good, Will Bland, Bryson Bowling, Kevin Roach and Iverick Harris give the Pirates a slew of receivers with big play capability. Roach is the only member of the group to have played in all 12 games last season.

ECU should be able to throw the ball effectively, considering that opposing defenses will have to honor the Pirates' running game. ECU will have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in its backfield this season. Brown rushed for over 1,000 yards as junior in 2002, while Townes went over 1,000 yards on the ground last season.

Brown ranked sixth in the country in scoring as a junior and earned second-team All-Conference USA honors. Brown rushed for 1,512 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first three seasons at East Carolina and should move into the top 10 on ECU's all-time career rushing list with another solid performance in 2004.

A second-team all-conference performer in 2003, Townes did more than his part to fill the shoes of his fallen teammate. Townes posted the 12th 1,000-yard rushing season in school history. His 1,128 yards rushing last season ranked as the eighth best single season rushing total in school history. He finished the season ranked third in Conference USA in both rushing and all-purpose yardage.

Sophomore Robert Tillman gives the Pirates a legitimate third running back. With Brown and Townes on the sideline during spring practice, Tillman received most of the repetitions in the backfield. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry as freshman and 4.6 yards a reception.

Junior Tyrece Hayden and sophomore Edwin Burke await their opportunity as does true freshman Pierre Bell.

Junior Jemarcus Veal and sophomore Kort Shankweiler will battle for playing time at fullback. Veal is the only one of the two to catch a pass last season. Shankweiler is moving from tight end.

Responsible for freeing up space for the backs to run through is an inexperienced offensive line. Senior Charlie Dempsey has all-conference potential and anchors the line at left guard. Senior Hagen Mason started a pair of games at right tackle in 2003, but is moving over to center after the departure of three-year starter Doug White. Junior Gary Freeman is the only other member of the line to have any starting experience. Sophomore Eric Graham is expected to take over for the departed all-conference performer Brian Rimpf at left tackle. Junior college transfer Joel Renaud and fellow junior James Myrick are both expected to play at right tackle. The Pirate O-line has paved the way for three consecutive 1,000-yard rushers.

The Pirates should also get good blocking down field from its tight ends. Shawn Levesque, a 6-4, 260-pound junior college transfer, will lineup on the end of the line along with incumbent starter Josh Coffman. Coffman earned All-Conference USA Freshman Team honors despite playing in just eight games. He averaged 14.5 yards per reception.

"You will see a lot of different looks offensively with a lot of different formations, getting the ball to a lot of different people," said Thompson during his spring media press conference. "It's a totally different system and one that is very difficult to defend."

DEFENSE
The Pirates return six starters on defense, but like its offensive counterpart, several who have seen limited action in the past will lend experience to Thompson's rebuilding program.

The nation's leading-returning tackler and All-Conference USA performer Chris Moore is the heart and soul of the Pirate defense. Moore, who has played in 20 games and made 18 starts during his career, was named second-team all-conference last season and honorable mention All-America after recording 148 tackles.

Returning to the Pirate secondary is Conference USA All-Freshman Team defensive back Erode Jean. Jean led East Carolina in pass breakups with nine and finished sixth on the team in tackles with 50. He was one of the Pirates' top defensive playmakers with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, including a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown against Southern Miss.

Other returning starters include defensive end Guy Whimper, linebacker Josh Chilsom, and linebacker Mickey McCoy.

Both Whimper and Chilsom saw limited action during their freshman season of 2002, but earned their way into the starting lineups in 2003. Whimper played in all 12 games as a sophomore as did Chilsom, who ranked fourth on the team in tackles.

McCoy finished second on the team in tackles with 105 and third in tackles for loss with 5.5. McCoy played safety last season, but is making the move to linebacker this fall.

Junior defensive end Shauntae Hunt, who was limited due to injury throughout the 2003 campaign, played really well up front during the spring and should get a shot at a regular starting role. Junior Richard Koonce, who accounted for 48 tackles and made a pair of starts last year, will also factor into the preseason battles for starting roles.

Eric Butler, who tallied 35 tackles as a junior, will also see significant action at linebacker.

Junior Dashaun Stephens and freshman Pierre Parker, a converted quarterback, will challenge for starting positions at outside linebacker. Stephens tallied 30 tackles in 11 games, while Parker was redshirted a year ago.

Six letterwinners and one junior college transfer are in the mix for four secondary positions led by Jean. Zach Baker, a junior college transfer with a reputation as a hard-hitting defensive back, is slated to be in the starting lineup free safety slot. Cornerback Donald Whitehead started nine games in 2003 and is a three-year letterman. Junior Markeith McQueen and sophomore Kyle Chase also return.

"Defensively, I think we played much better this spring because we played faster," stated Thompson.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Pirates have one of the nation's top punters in sophomore Ryan Dougherty. Dougherty ranked among the NCAA top 10 in punting with a 44.5 yards per punt average, which earned him first-team All-Conference USA honors in addition to all-conference freshman team accolades.

Cameron Broadwell returns to resume his place kicking duties. Broadwell made 12-of-18 field goals as a junior last season and was perfect inside of 30 yards.

The Pirates bring back their top kick returners from a year ago as Fox and Tillman split the majority of the kick return duties, averaging 20.9 and 18.9 yards per return. Punt returns may be handle by any one of numerous players including the aforementioned along with Townes and Rios.


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