GREENVILLE, N.C. -- First-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Skip Holtz and the Pirates officially opened the 2005 spring practice period with their initial workout Monday afternoon at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.
Holtz, who was appointed to ECU's top football position last Dec. 3, led his 90-member squad through a two-hour workout, the first of 15 scheduled practice sessions which will culminate with the playing of the Purple-Gold Spring Game April 16 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
"I've been very pleased with the progress they've made as a team and what we've gotten out of our winter workouts," said Holtz. "They have worked hard during the off-season and I've seen a bond forming along with leadership skills emerging from our seniors.
The Pirates will return seven starters on offense, nine on the defensive side of the ball and welcome back a total of 47 lettermen off a squad which recorded a 2-9 mark under former coach John Thompson last season.
Headlining the returnees are six players who earned Conference USA post-season honors in 2004, including leading tackler Chris Moore, leading rusher Chris Johnson and top return specialist Travis Williams. As a true freshman, Williams finished fourth nationally in punt return average with a 17.7 clip and was the only Pirate to be selected to an All-America squad while being cited as a first-team all-conference performer.
Holtz' primary goal during the spring workouts will be the installation of new offensive and defensive schemes and the establishment of the program's first depth chart.
"Our whole goal 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 while coming out with a good nucleus on offense and defense and everyone knowing what's going on," Holtz said. "We'll take the first six days and install the offensive and the defensive schemes. That's really what we're trying to get out of that period - getting the offense and the defense taught, then we can do a little better job evaluating our team with where we are."
In addition to the return of skill performers Johnson, fullback Jermarcus Veal, wide receivers Bobby Good and Brian Howard, East Carolina also welcomes back three starters on the offensive line who were instrumental in helping the Pirates to a 215.5 yards-per-game passing average, which ranked among the top half of the nation. On the ground, Johnson rushed for 561 yards on 134 carries in 2004 while standing second among all receivers with 32 catches during his freshman campaign.
One primary concern for Holtz is the development of a new quarterback this spring, filling a void left by the departure of sophomore James Pinkney who is not enrolled in classes at ECU this semester. Pinkney passed for 2,195 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2004 while ranking among the nation's top 40 quarterbacks in pass completions per game (17.3). Holtz is expecting a battle between redshirt freshmen Davon Drew and Patrick Pinkney along with newly-inserted junior signal-caller Kort Shankweiler, who was moved from his fullback position prior to the start of drills.
"What our quarterbacks can do is going to be critical in to how much we can install this spring," Holtz said. "That's the double-edged sword we have right now since we don't know who the quarterback is going to be. You have to take that position and build your offense around it.
"We've got the make a decision rather rapidly with who we are kind of going to give this first shot to," Holtz added. "We're going to have to make this decision quickly and put that guy in that position the second half of spring. I'd like to come out of the first six days and say this is the guy who is going to give us the best chance and start to give him the majority of the reps."
A pair of All-Conference USA selections, senior linebacker Moore and senior free safety Zach Baker, are expected to help key a Pirate defensive unit which ranked among the nation's top 35 in fumbles recovered (11) and 44th in turnovers gained (23) a year ago. In addition to Moore, a member of the 2004 Dick Butkus Award Preseason Watch List, and Baker, ECU also returns linemen Dontre Brown and Shauntae Hunt, linebackers Jamar Flournoy and Richard Koonce, and defensive backs Erode Jean and Kyle Chase. Moore, who booked a team-leading 99 stops in 2004, will lead a group of returning starters which were the Pirates' top six tacklers on the squad.
Several players will miss the entire or part (held out of contact drills) of the spring practice session with injuries, including four who are trying to come back after undergoing season-ending knee surgeries last fall (WR Good, TE Sean Harmon, TE Shawn Levesque and LB Dashaun Stephens). Center Hunter Wood will also sit out drills this spring after having shoulder surgery during the winter.
The Pirates will return to work Wednesday and Thursday before taking a full week off for Spring Break beginning Friday, March 11. East Carolina will return to its traditional weekly three-workout schedule Monday, March 21, and has scrimmages scheduled for Friday, April 1 and April 8 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 this Thursday.