By Nathan Summers, Kinston (N.C.) Free Press
April 21, 2003 GREENVILLE Amid the crack of serious helmet-to-helmet contact and the shout of instructions from a somewhat unfamiliar voice, there were a couple of themes that dominated East Carolina's 2003 spring football practice.
First-year coach John Thompson was championing the ferocity of the hitting, saying he was thrilled with his players' intensity and progress as the team's 15 practices neared completion. ECU players, meanwhile, were singing the praises of their new leader, his new system and the restoration of the Pirates' collective confidence. In short, ECU's spring sessions were something of a rebirth for a team that ended its 2002 season in tumult.
Steve Logan, who coached the Pirates for 11 seasons, was fired by the university one day after a shelling at the hands of Cincinnati, in what seemed to be a merciful end to a long 4-8 campaign. The team was inconsistent at best. The Pirates turned in one of their most anemic performances against a mediocre UAB team in a game on which the Pirates' bowl hopes rested, and one week later they toppled Conference USA titan TCU.
Just four months removed from that season of misery, the Pirates were able to hit the reset button, thanks to the philosophy of Thompson, who left his post as Florida's defensive coordinator to take the vacant East Carolina job. Establishing a physical presence on the team appeared to be foremost in Thompson's mind, and to that end, the spring was a big success.
We have hit every day the NCAA will allow us, Thompson said. But we wanted to set the tone for our football team in being a tough, hard-nosed team, and these guys have accepted that. We've learned a lot about ourselves on both sides of the ball. It's been a fun spring. I've never been through as physical a spring as we've put our players through.
While many things already have changed under the tutelage of Thompson the Pirates will take the field in September with a completely revamped defense, for example many of ECU's key parts will stay right where they were a year ago.
Although he insisted he hadn't made a final decision on any single position, Thompson knows the ECU offense will funnel through a handful of primary components, led by junior and likely second-year starting quarterback Paul Troth.
As a sophomore, Troth personified the entire team, with flashes of greatness that often were muddied by poor decisions and inconsistent play. His most glaring stat was his 20 interceptions. But both Troth and his coach agreed this spring that a lot had changed in a short amount of time, and Troth said Thompson deserved a share of the credit for providing him a comfortable atmosphere that wasn't there last season.
I think we're having more fun, said Troth, who threw for 2,315 yards in 2002, the eighth-best total in school history. The enthusiasm every day has brought more fun to the game. We know we have a job to do, but we're having more fun doing it.
In keeping with the general Conference USA trend, Thompson said he hoped to build ECU's offense around the passing game. With the dazzling play of returning senior Terrance Copper at receiver, that seems like a good bet. In Thompson's eyes, there is no target more valuable than Copper.
Richard Hourigan has played well and Edwin Rios I could name all of them but none of them has been as consistent, had the big plays or been as tough as Terrance has, Thompson said. Terrance has been a difference-maker for our offense every day out there. Our defense has had to make some adjustments and double-cover him. He's a playmaker.
What Thompson might have never guessed, however, was that his running attack would be so deep and talented. Senior Art Brown, who sat out much of the spring with a leg injury, will lead the way after leading the nation in scoring for much of last season. Junior Marvin Townes spent much of the March and April sessions trying to prove that his dreadful 2002 performance is also part of the Pirates' past.
Brown finished last season as the nation's sixth-leading scorer, with 17 touchdowns in 10 games. He amassed 1,029 yards, becoming the 11th player in school history to crack the 1,000-yard plateau. Townes, on the other hand, steadily played himself out of the spotlight, managing just 304 total yards in 12 games with a pair of touchdowns.
The story of the spring on the offensive side was Vonta Leach, a converted outside linebacker who seems to have found his calling as a fullback. Leach saw his first action on offense last season, when Logan brought him to the other side as a blocker for the running game. It wasn't until this spring that Leach was revealed as a dominant runner.
Moving (Leach) to fullback as a full-time guy, he's had a big spring and some big, long runs, Thompson said. He's busted some plays and really been a dominating fullback, blocked well and run the ball well.
Troth agreed, saying Leach added a vital and powerful wrinkle to the team and gave him some serious backup.
Whenever we're second-and-four and third-and-two, we know that Vonta is getting the ball, and so does the defense, but they just can't stop him, Troth said. If we come out and know that we can get five yards on first down, we're in a good position to start the drive off with more first downs and more yardage.
The defense will be anchored by senior defensive tackle Damane Duckett. But Thompson, who helped the Gators to a No. 25 national ranking in total defense a year ago, wants his new, proactive system to produce a fierce unit that leads as a group. The system is powered by the idea of keeping the offense guessing, a sharp departure for a defense that spent most of last season on its heels.
It's a very multiple, very aggressive, proactive defense, Thompson said. It's pressure on an offense from goal line to goal line. It's not a reactive defense or a reading defense. It allows the players to do an awful lot of things by having a lot of freedom. We don't want the defense to be robots.
The much-maligned ECU secondary will be centered around senior safety Travis Heath, who forced a pair of fumbles and recovered two last year. He also authored the Pirates' most memorable play of 2002, stripping the ball from TCU's Lonta Hobbs in the fourth quarter and returning it 81 yards for a touchdown that lifted ECU to a 31-28 victory.
Thompson is flanked by offensive coordinator Rick Stockstill and defensive coordinator Jerry Odom. Also added to the group were assistants J. B. Grimes (offensive line) and Art Kaufman (defensive line). Eighth-year running backs coach Jerry McManus is the only returnee on the staff.