GREENVILLE, N.C. - Fourth-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Skip Holtz, who has led the Pirates to consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 2000-2001 and their first post-season win in seven years after guiding ECU to an 8-5 mark last season, officially welcomed his 105-man preseason camp roster to campus Friday before guiding the squad through its first workout of the season on Hight Field at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex later in the evening.
East Carolina will follow Friday's initial practice, which was conducted in shorts and helmets, with single workouts at the practice facility through Tuesday before turning in the first of three two-a-day periods Wednesday, Aug. 6.
The Pirates are scheduled to put on shoulder pads for the first time Sunday before following with full gear Tuesday per NCAA rules. ECU's preseason practice schedule will culminate Aug. 30 when the Pirates travel to Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium for their season opener against Virginia Tech. The contest, scheduled to start at 12 noon, will be televised nationally by ESPN.
"I thought it certainly was a spirited first practice," Holtz said. "I was pleased with the first day, but it’s just the first day. Everybody’s excited and real enthusiastic about getting ready to start the season. Guys were flying and running around - there’s a lot of quickness and a lot of speed out here.
“Fall camp is going to be really important to us," he added. "We have a number of guys who missed a lot of spring ball with all the surgeries we had. In fact, I think there were seven in all. It has just been real hard to put the whole picture together.”
The Pirates returned six starters on offense, nine on the defensive side of the ball and brought back a total of 50 lettermen off a team which also recorded a runner-up 6-2 Conference USA East Division mark. In addition, ECU closed the year by winning four of its last five and seven of its last nine games, and established new single-season school scoring records for points (403) and touchdowns (52), while also ranking fourth nationally in turnover margin.
Headlining the list of returnees are 12 seniors who were members of the season-ending depth chart in 2007, including tight end Davon Drew, offensive lineman Stanley Bryant, quarterback Patrick Pinkney and running backs Dominique Lindsay and Brandon Simmons, along with defensive end Zack Slate, defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell, linebackers Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell, safeties Leon Best and J.J. Milbrook, and cornerback Jerek Hewett.
Drew, who earned All-Conference USA honors as a junior, will help key an offensive unit that, in addition to its scoring prowess a year ago, turned in its highest rushing total since 1988 with 2,378 yards.
All-league selections Bell, Mitchell and Slate played integral roles for a Pirate defense that ranked among the nation's top 25 units in turnovers gained (31), fumbles recovered (14) and passes intercepted (17). In addition, the trio helped ECU enhance its reputation as one of the most-improved rush defenses in the nation last fall, surrendering only 142.2 yards per game after allowing 233.3 ground yards per contest and ranking 114th in 2004 - a year prior to Holtz' arrival.
In addition to traditional camp staples such as fundamentals, scheme orientation and conditioning, Holtz will also look to continue development of the preseason depth chart released at the close of spring drills with the addition of 24 newcomers who also reported to camp Friday.
In addition to the return of Bryant, East Carolina also brings back junior center Stephen Heis and junior guard Doug Palmer but must replace all-conference performers Josh Coffman (tackle) and Matt Butler (guard) on the line - a pair that combined to start 63 games during their respective Pirate careers.
Holtz also hopes that Lindsay, Simmons, sophomore Jonathan Williams and junior college transfer J.R. Rogers will provide ECU with a spark out of the backfield to help cover the void left by departing All-America selection Chris Johnson. Johnson, who also earned a national statistical championship in all-purpose yards, completed his honors-winning career with 1,423 rushing yards in 2007 - the Pirates' first 1,000-yard ground gainer since 2003 - before becoming ECU's second first-round draft choice ever when the Tennessee Titans picked him with the 24th overall selection.
The Orlando native tied or set a total of 18 single-game, season and career records after East Carolina's 41-38 victory over No. 22 Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl - a game in which he racked up a NCAA-bowl record 408 all-purpose yards, a SHB-record 223 of those coming on the ground.
Despite utilizing a two-man rotation with Pinkney and junior Rob Kass in 2007, Holtz has tabbed the senior as ECU's projected starting signal-caller this fall after earning the position at the conclusion of spring drills. Pinkney opened five contests, including ECU's bowl win, completing 121-of-200 passes for 1,358 yards and 11 touchdowns. Kass drew the starting nod seven times and accounted for 1,164 air yards and nine scores on 96-of-175 passing.
While juniors Jay Ross and C.J. Wilson join Mitchell and Slate as returning starters on the line and All-Conference USA safety Van Eskridge spearheading the Pirates' efforts in the secondary, ECU's defense will also be bolstered by the return of 23 total lettermen. In addition to Eskridge, who topped the unit with 104 tackles in 2007, East Carolina also brings back a pair of sophomores - tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Travis Simmons - who were both chosen to the league's all-rookie unit in 2007.
The Pirates will open the '08 campaign minus ECU and Conference USA's all-time kickoff return specialist in Johnson, but return nearly everyone else on the program's special teams squad. Punt returner Dwayne Harris, a C-USA All-Freshman Team selection last season, will join all-league deep snapper Wilson Raynor, kicker Ben Hartman and punter Matt Dodge as regulars.
Although he will open his junior season on the disabled list because of a leg injury suffered during summer training, Hartman established a new school record for consecutive extra points made (59) after a 50-of-50 performance and calmly nailed two time-expiring, game-winning field goals (North Carolina, Boise State) last fall. Dodge averaged 41.3 yards per punt and placed 24 of 80 boots inside the 20-yard line during his first campaign for the Pirates.
A total of seven players who missed the spring practice period to complete rehabilitation work after undergoing surgery either last fall or during the off-season have been cleared to return active status during preseason camp. Linebackers Jeremy Chambliss and Pierre Bell, defensive end Marcus Hands, receiver T.J. Lee, offensive lineman Doug Polochak and running back Norman Whitley are hoping to bounce back from shoulder injuries while center Fred Hicks looks to rebound from an ankle injury which prematurely ended his season after the UAB contest in late October.
Prior to the afternoon workout Saturday, the Pirates will conduct their annual media day activities inside the Murphy Center.
2008 ECU OFFENSE ... AT-A-GLANCE
Starters Returning/Lost: 6/5
Lettermen Returning/Lost: 21/9
2007 Rushing Offense: 182.9 (34/5)
2007 Passing Offense: 202.5 (79/9)
2007 Total Offense: 385.5 (66/11)
2007 Scoring Offense: 31.0 (43/6)
() National/Conference USA rank
2008 ECU DEFENSE ... AT-A-GLANCE
Starters Returning/Lost: 9/2
Lettermen Returning/Lost: 23/8
2007 Rushing Defense: 142.2 (50/5)
2007 Passing Defense: 289.02 (114/9)
2007 Total Defense: 431.2 (95/5)
2007 Scoring Defense: 30.4 (83/4)
() National/Conference USA rank
2008 ECU SPECIAL TEAMS ... AT-A-GLANCE
Starters Returning/Lost: 5/1
Lettermen Returning/Lost: 6/2
2007 Field Goals/Game Average: 1.00 (79/9)
2007 Net Punting Average: 32.8 (102/9)
2007 Kickoff Return Average: 24.3 (13/1)
2007 Punt Return Average: 7.6 (77/9)
() National/Conference USA rank