By Al Myatt, Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer
August 20, 2002
GREENVILLE - East Carolina made its third straight bowl trip and had its fourth straight non-losing season in 2001, new ground for the Pirates since moving up to major college status in 1978, but the 6-6 record produced a general dissatisfaction among players, coaches and fans.
David Garrard's senior season could have been better, considering that the Pirates led in five of their six losses and managed to squander a 38-8 halftime cushion in the GMAC Bowl. But last season's frustration will be forged into a new focus for 2002.
"Big finishes," said junior offensive tackle Brian Rimpf, All-Conference USA last year and an Outland Trophy candidate this season. "That's our theme this season."
Despite such resolve, the Pirates have some significant personnel losses to overcome. Garrard made 41 starts at quarterback and set 28 school records. Sophomore Paul Troth, who attempted four passes as a freshman, will assume the controls of coach Steve Logan's diverse offense.
The Pirates plan to play to their running game and a revamped defense until Troth gets comfortable in the starting role. Backs Art Brown and Marvin Townes are actually faster than Leonard Henry, who rushed for 1,432 yards as a senior last season, but they must prove they have the same kind of durability.
Pernell Griffin set the CUSA career record with 460 tackles, and Greg LeFever was second on the team last season in stops. In their place are a fleet of smaller, faster redshirt freshman inside linebackers: Chris Moore, Josh Chilsom, Richard Koonce and Jermarcus Veal. Sophomore Eric Butler is the old man of the group.
"Wicked fast," is how Logan describes the youthful corps. "They'll make mistakes, but they'll be fast mistakes."
ECU has sacrificed some size for speed, which could be a detriment against power attacks. The thinking is that they will see more spread offenses in CUSA. Getting more speed on the defensive side was an offseason emphasis after that unit, particularly the secondary, absorbed much of the blame for the Pirates' too-frequent fades last year.
ECU allowed opponents an average of 261 yards passing during the regular season, which was last in CUSA, and Byron Leftwich torched the Pirates for another 576 yards in Marshall's 64-61 double overtime bowl victory. Pass coverage was a big factor, as foes converted 45 percent of their third-down plays.
The Pirates also would like to improve their meager total of 16 takeaways, which included just eight interceptions. They tried to use linebackers in many coverage situations last season but will go to nickel and dime packages on obvious passing downs this year.
Speedy junior Kelly Hardy has moved from corner to free safety. Antwane Yelverton, a hard-hitting senior, shifted from outside linebacker to nickel back. Vonta Leach, once thought to be the successor to Griffin inside, switched to outside linebacker. Jerome Steward remains at left corner but could get picked on because of his limited (listed at 5-9) stature. Travis Heath moved into the starting job at strong safety.
Logan hopes to redshirt the bulk of the 2002 signing class, but freshman defensive backs Reicko Jones and Jared Brogden may be given the chance to play immediately. Safety Richard Moton, the lone junior college signee, also figures into the mix.
Twins Antwan and Anthony Adams began the preseason demoted to reserves after combining for 20 starts last season at the safety positions. They still will see considerable playing time, as the Pirates generally get more than 60 players on the field. The philosophy of Logan and defensive coordinator Tim Rose is that they want maximum effort on every play, and the capabilities of fresh reserves often exceeds those of fatigued starters.
Tony Oden, the youngest assistant on the ECU staff, was assigned to coach the secondary last season after Paul Jette left ECU for a similar position at Baylor. Jette has returned to coach defensive backs, and Oden will work exclusively with the safeties in a labor-intensive effort to improve the secondary. More coverages were installed in the spring, and ECU will try to disguise its deployments more effectively in 2002.
Logan felt change was necessary after last season's performance. In the shuffling of staff responsibilities, Terry Tilghman returned to duties as recruiting coordinator after coaching tight ends for the last three years. Offensive coordinator Doug Martin will work with quarterbacks and tight ends. The Pirates actually refer to their tight ends as flex ends. Whatever they're called, they weren't overly productive last year, a factor that may have led to Tilghman, an offensive lineman at ECU from 1991-94, being moved off the field.
More consistent pressure from the defensive front could have concealed coverage deficiencies last season. Rose installed an attacking 3-4 scheme when he arrived at ECU from Boston College in 1999, but he dropped linebackers into coverage more often than blitzing them last season. The Pirates may play some four-front alignments this year, with an outside linebacker moving to a down position.
Nose guard Ronald Pou bench presses 475 pounds and is the strongest player on the team. He will be aligned between athletic tackles Damane Duckett and Ja'Waren Blair. The 6-7, 300-pound Duckett, ECU's answer to Julius Peppers, played briefly on the basketball team last season. Derek Helms, nimble enough to run the ball at fullback in the 2000 bowl game in Houston, backs up Pou. Eric Foushee, Hosea James and redshirt freshman Guy Whimper, who was snatched from UNC's recruiting class, offer depth at the tackles.
Outside linebacker projects as a team strength, based on the experience and big-play history of seniors Christshawn Gilliam and John Williamson. Gilliam was on crutches after rolling an ankle at an early preseason practice but is expected to be back for the Aug. 31 season opener at Duke.
Four starters return on the offensive line, including left tackle Rimpf, left guard Corey Schmidt, center Doug White and right tackle Brandon Pope. The Pirates have valuable depth up front. Schmidt actually was moved out of the starting job in the spring by Charlie Dempsey, and three-year letterman Phoenix Evans moved ahead of Pope.
The front should spring Brown and Townes and capably protect Troth, as he scans a fleet of talented receivers that includes split end Richard Alston, flanker Marcus White and H-back Terrance Copper. Someone needs to step up from the flex end group that includes Ben Thomas, Seth Yates, Dashaun Stephens and Tutu Moye.
The Pirates were picked third in CUSA by the coaches and lower in many other preseason evaluations.
"We have to earn respect," Blair said, "and that's the way we like it at East Carolina."