Fourth-year head coach Skip Holtz and the East Carolina Pirates officially opened the 2008 spring practice period with its initial workout Friday at Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex after Wednesday's scheduled opener was postponed because of unfavorable weather conditions.
Holtz, who has led ECU to consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 2000-2001 and its first post-season win in seven years after guiding the Pirates to an 8-5 mark last season, led his 122-member roster through a two-hour workout in shorts and helmets under sunny skies and cool temperatures.
The session, the first of 15 scheduled practices, will culminate with the playing of the Purple-Gold Spring Game April 12 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
"As far as first days go, this was certainly a good one," Holtz said. "It's always exciting to move into another phase of preparation and I thought we made the transition well from our winter workouts with the same work ethic and high level of enthusiasm. There's only so much we can get done in shorts, but it was a productive and positive start to what I feel can be an outstanding spring."
The Pirates will return six starters on offense, nine on the defensive side of the ball and welcome 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 continue its development 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.
Bell (shoulder) also heads a list of seven Pirates who will miss the spring practice period to complete rehabilitation work after undergoing in- or off-season surgery. Linebacker Jeremy Chambliss, 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.
In addition to continued fundamental work, Holtz' primary goal during the workouts will center around filling five offensive openings and two defensive slots - one at linebacker and one in the secondary.
"One of the things we obviously want to accomplish at the end of the spring is to establish a depth chart to where we put our best 22 on the field to give us the best chance to win," Holtz added. "Another goal is to enhance depth at as many positions as we can, so the spring is a great learning tool for the younger guys. For them, the additional reps many of our underclassmen got during our bowl preparation period in December has already proven to be invaluable."
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.
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.
Holtz also indicated that Pinkney and juniors Rob Kass and Brett Clay will open spring drills competing for the top quarterback position after the Pirates utilized a two-man rotation last fall. 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. Clay appeared in four games, which included a start in the season opener at Virginia Tech, and completed five-of-13 tosses for 26 yards.
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 will spearhead the Pirates' efforts in the secondary, ECU's defense will also be bolstered by the return of 24 total lettermen. In addition to Eskridge, who topped the unit with 104 tackles in 2007, East Carolina will also bring 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 spring 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.
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, while 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.
The Pirates will return to work next Monday, Wednesday and Thursday before taking a full week off for Spring Break beginning Friday, March 7. East Carolina will return to its traditional weekly three-workout schedule Monday, March 17, and has scrimmages scheduled for Friday, March 28 and April 4 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium prior to the playing of the annual spring game.
After planning on spending its first two practice sessions in shorts and shells, Holtz indicated ECU would conduct its first full-pad workout Wednesday.
EAST CAROLINA'S 2008 SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE
February 29, March 3, March 5, March 6, March 17, March 19, March 24, March 26, March 28 (scrimmage), March 31, April 2, April 4 (scrimmage), April 7, April 12 (Purple-Gold Game, 2:30 p.m.)