Third-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Skip Holtz, who led the Pirates to their first bowl appearance since 2001 and their highest win total since 2000 last season, officially welcomed his 105-man preseason camp roster for a morning walk-through before guiding the squad through its first workout of the season on Hight Field at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex Friday.
Holtz led the Pirates through a three-hour afternoon session in shorts and helmets under sunny skies and heat indices that approached the 100-degree mark.
East Carolina will follow Friday's initial practice with single workouts at the practice facility through Tuesday before conducting the first of three two-a-day periods Wednesday, Aug. 8.
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 Sept. 1 when the Pirates travel to Virginia Tech for a season-opening 12 noon kickoff that will be nationally-televised on ESPN.
"It was certainly a spirited first day," Holtz said. "I was excited to see the upperclassmen pick things up where we left off from last year and impressed with the talent level of our younger guys. I thought the attitude was great, everyone was upbeat and positive, and we were able to have a high-tempo practice. Even without pads, I thought we got a lot accomplished today.
"Another facet I was pleased with was that we continued to work hard and maintain the same intensity despite the heat," Holtz added. "One of the reasons we scheduled our practices during the afternoons is to get acclimated to the heat, something we'll certainly see Sept. 1 in a noon start."
The Pirates return five starters on offense, eight on the defensive side of the ball and welcome back a total of 54 lettermen off a team which also recorded a runner-up 5-3 Conference USA East Division mark. In addition, ECU, which closed the year by winning five of its last seven games, turned in its highest single-season passing performance since 1992 and were among the nation's top 25 in passes intercepted.
Headlining the list of returnees are five seniors who were members of the season-ending depth chart in 2006, including offensive linemen Josh Coffman and Matt Butler, along with defensive tackle Mark Robinson, linebacker Fred Wilson and cornerback Travis Williams.
Coffman, who earned All-Conference USA honors as a junior, and Butler will help key an offensive unit that set a new school single-season record for first downs (264) while turning in the school's third-best passing mark and sixth-best total offense tally (4,526) in the program's annals a year ago.
All-league selections Robinson, Wilson and Williams played integral roles for a Pirate defense that allowed just 20.8 points per game in 2006, a mark which ranks among the top five Pirate teams since 1980, and also displayed one of the top 10 most-improved rush defenses in the nation last fall, shaving off nearly 80 yards per game from combined
averages in 2003 and 2004.
The Pirates also welcomed back a pair of All-Conference performers in junior linebackers Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell, who finished as ECU's second and third-leading tacklers a year ago. Both missed the spring practice period after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery but returned to action as "full-go" Friday.
In addition to traditional camp staples such as fundamentals, scheme orientation and conditioning, Holtz will also look to solidify and enhance the preseason depth chart released at the close of spring drills with the addition of 20 newcomers who reported to camp Thursday.
Along with the return of Coffman and Butler, East Carolina also brought back junior tight end Davon Drew but must replace all five skill position performers from a year ago in receivers Aundrae Allison and Bobby Good, fullback Kort Shankweiler, tailback Brandon Fractious and quarterback James Pinkney.
Sophomore Rob Kass, who completed 14-of-30 passes for 184 yards in five games as a redshirt freshman in 2006, will open camp as the Pirates' top signal-caller to replace Pinkney while sophomore Brett Clay, junior Patrick Pinkney and sophomore Joe Sloan will also experience plenty of snaps during the preseason. James Pinkney wrapped up his four-year career as the school's all-time leader in completions (687), attempts (1,189) and 200-yard passing games (23) while standing second in the school record books with 8,173 career passing yards.
While junior Marcus Hands, a preseason All-Conference USA selection, and senior Mark Robinson will join C-USA All-Freshman squad member Scotty Robinson as returning starters on the line, ECU's defense will also be bolstered by the return of a total of 26 lettermen. In addition to all-conference performers Cotton and Bell, the Pirates will also bring back C-USA honorees Zack Slate (DE), safety Van Eskridge and end C.J. Wilson, who were both chosen to the league's all-rookie unit in 2006.
Senior kickoff return specialist Chris Johnson, who represents the Pirates' only returning first-team All-Conference USA choice and earned a preseason nod on the all-league squad, will join punt returners Williams and Steven Rogers, and deep snapper Wilson Raynor as special teams regulars.
Although ECU returns sophomore Ben Hartman, who was a perfect nine-of-nine on extra-point tries and three-of-five on field goal attempts last season as a part-time starter,
the Pirates will have a large void to fill in replacing three-time All-Conference USA punter Ryan Dougherty - the all-time league record-holder in punts (237) and punt yardage (10,112).
Prior to the afternoon workout Saturday, the Pirates will conduct their annual media day activities inside the Murphy Center.