GREENVILLE, N.C. - Fifth-year head coach Skip Holtz and the East Carolina Pirates officially opened the 2009 spring practice period with their initial workout Wednesday afternoon at Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex after Monday's scheduled opener was postponed because of inclement weather.
Holtz, who has led ECU to three consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 1999-2001 and its first conference championship in 32 years after guiding the Pirates to a 9-5 mark last season, led his 136-member roster through a two-hour workout in shorts and helmets under sunny skies and mild temperatures.
Of the 136 rostered players, 40 have joined the East Carolina program this spring as walk-on hopefuls.
The session, the first of 15 scheduled practices, will culminate with the playing of the Purple-Gold Spring Game April 16 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
"I hated cancelling Monday's practice but it did give us the chance to add some more days on the backside of the spring schedule," Holtz said. "We only have 15 of these days so I think it is important that we get the most out of them. Today's weather was absolutely gorgeous and we were able to get a good practice in as well as a good run at the end after taking 10 days off for spring break."
The Pirates will return eight starters on offense, eight on the defensive side of the ball and welcome back a total of 52 lettermen off a team which also recorded a title-winning 6-2 Conference USA East Division mark. In addition, ECU closed the year by winning six of its last eight games and stood among the nation's Top 30 in eight different statistical categories - including a No. 5 rank in passes intercepted and a No. 7 rating in total turnovers gained.
Headlining the list of returnees are 16 seniors who were members of the season-ending positional depth chart in 2008, including wide receivers Alex Taylor and Reyn Willis, offensive linemen Terence Campbell, T.J. Harper, Sean Allen and Stephen Heis, quarterbacks Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass, running back J.R. Rogers, defensive linemen Jay Ross, C.J. Wilson and Scotty Robinson, linebackers Jeremy Chambliss, Nick Johnson and Chris Mattocks, and safety Van Eskridge.
Pinkney, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA on Jan. 23 after missing the entire 2005 season due to a shoulder injury and subsequent multiple surgical procedures, has played a key role in the Pirates' combined 17 victories and pair of bowl appearances in 2007 and 2008. He opened 13 of 14 games last fall and completed 223-of-363 passes for 2,675 yards and 13 touchdowns, which included a season-high 296-yard effort against Kentucky in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
In all, East Carolina's offensive unit will welcome back 21 lettermen, 15 of which experienced playing time on the offensive line (nine) and wide receiver (six) positions. In addition to Campbell (T) and Allen (C), guard Cory Dowless and tackle D.J. Scott are back as returning starters.
All-Conference USA selections Eskridge, Johnson, Ross and Wilson played integral roles for a Pirate defense that ranked among the top three in the league's four major statistical categories - topping C-USA in scoring defense (21.1 ppg) and total defense (333.0 ypg), while standing second in pass defense (197.2 ypg) and third in rush defense (135.8 ypg).
While all-league junior tackle Linval Joseph will join Ross and Wilson as returning starters on the line, ECU's defense will also be bolstered by the return of 25 total lettermen. In addition to Eskridge, who was the Pirates' third-leading tackler with 97 in 2008, East Carolina's secondary will also bring back a pair of cornerbacks in juniors Dekota marshall and Travis Simmons. Although they lost Pierre Bell to graduation, the Pirates' linebacking corps should benefit by the return of Johnson (102) and Chambliss (60), who finished first and fifth among the unit's top tacklers, respectively.
ECU also opened the spring campaign minus reliable four-year deep snapper Wilson Raynor, but return nearly everyone else on the program's special teams squad. Junior kickoff returner Dwayne Harris will join punt returner Simmons, senior holder Joe Sloan, senior kicker Ben Hartman and senior punter Matt Dodge as regulars.
Hartman established a new school record for field goals made (21) and attempted (31) and delivered three game-winners (UCF, Marshall and Tulsa in the C-USA Championship Game) last fall, while Dodge averaged 43.9 yards per punt to earn a No. 14 national rank while playing a key role in the Pirates' No. 10 standing in net punt average (37.9 ypp).
East Carolina also opened workouts with a long list of players who are expected to miss a portion or all of spring drills because of injuries or to complete rehabilitation assignments after undergoing surgery either last fall or during the off-season. Ross (leg), wide receiver Harris (foot) and senior running back Dominique Lindsay (knee) could experience limited non-contact action in the later stages of practice. On the other hand, Johnson (shoulder), Taylor (foot), Mattocks (shoulder), junior offensive lineman Willie Smith (shoulder), sophomore linebacker Cliff Perryman (shoulder), junior cornerback Darryl Reynolds (leg) and junior linebacker Dustin Lineback (knee) are lettermen who will be sidelined for the duration of spring practice.
"We are going to come out here tomorrow in shorts again and then be able to put the pads on starting Friday," Holtz added. "I am just really glad to be out here on the grass again. You get to spend a lot of time with your players in the spring, working on your schemes and fundamentals instead of game-planning for opponents."
East Carolina will return to the practice complex Thursday and Friday before going back to its traditional Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout schedule next week. As Holtz indicated, the Pirates will wear pads for the first time Friday to begin preparation efforts for scrimmages April 4 and April 8 prior to the playing of the annual spring game.
EAST CAROLINA'S 2009 SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE
Next Workout: Thursday, March 19 (3:00-5:00 p.m.)
Remaining Workouts: March 20, March 23, March 25, March 27, March 30, April 1, April 3, April 4 (scrimmage), April 6, April 8 (scrimmage), April 13, April 15 and April 18 (Purple-Gold Game, 3:00 p.m.)