08/03/08 — East Carolina begins preseason practice

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East Carolina begins preseason practice

Published in Sports on August 3, 2008 11:04 AM

GREENVILLE -- Fourth-year East Carolina head football coach Skip Holtz officially welcomed his 105-man preseason camp roster to campus Friday before guiding the squad through its first workout of the season on Hight Field at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex later in the evening.

The Pirates, who worked out in shorts and helmets, will conduct single workouts through Tuesday. They begin the first of three two-a-day sessions on Wednesday.

Holtz's team wear shoulder pads today before putting on full gear Tuesday per NCAA rules. East Carolina's preseason practice schedule will conclude Aug. 30 when it travels to Charlotte for a contest against defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia Tech. Kickoff is noon before a nationally-televised crowd on ESPN.

"I thought it certainly was a spirited first practice," said Holtz. "I was pleased with the first day, but it's just the first day. Everybody's excited and real enthusiastic about getting ready to start the season. Guys were flying and running around ... there's a lot of quickness and a lot of speed out here."

East Carolina returns six starters on offense, nine on defense and brought back a total of 50 lettermen off last year's team. The Pirates were 6-2 against Conference USA East opposition and closed the year by winning four of their last five games, including an upset of No. 22-ranked Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.

The Pirates established new single-season school scoring records for points (403) and touchdowns (52), and ranked fourth nationally in turnover margin.

Headlining the list of returnees are 12 seniors who were listed on the season-ending depth chart in 2007. The group is Davon Drew, former Goldsboro High standout Stanley Bryant, quarterback Patrick Pinkney and running backs Dominique Lindsay and Brandon Simmons. Also in the group are 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.

Bell emerged an all-conference performer at Wilson Beddingfield High School, while Best starred at North Lenoir.

"Fall camp is going to be really important to us," said Holtz. "We have a number of guys who missed a lot of spring ball with all the surgeries we had. In fact, I think there were seven in all. It has just been real hard to put the whole picture together."

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 enhance its reputation 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's arrival.

In addition to traditional camp staples such as fundamentals, scheme orientation and conditioning, Holtz will also look to continue development of the preseason depth chart released at the close of spring drills with the addition of 24 newcomers who also reported to camp Friday.

East Carolina also brings back junior center Stephen Heis and junior guard Doug Palmer. But the Pirates must replace All-CUSA 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.

The Orlando native tied or set a total of 18 single-game, season and career records after East Carolina's bowl win. Johnson racked up a NCAA-bowl record 408 all-purpose yards, with a Hawai'l Bowl-record 223 yards rushing.