The opportunity for a 10-win season that eluded East Carolina's football team in Friday's Liberty Bowl loss to Kentucky should be there again for the taking in 2009, but only "if":
* If the right quarterback is in place.
Senior Patrick Pinkney soon will make a decision about whether to appeal to the NCAA for an extra season of eligibility. Having missed virtually all of one season with injuries, Pinkney probably would get a favorable ruling. If Pinkney doesn't return, the likely starter will be Rob Kass, who has extensive experience but an erratic track record and lacks Pinkney's mobility.
* If the Pirates can win the season-opening game against Appalachian State in Greenville. A loss to the Mountaineers, which is entirely possible, would zap ECU of much confidence and could leave the team in a panic mode.
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* If the onslaught of injuries that undermined the '08 team can be avoided.
Right down to the second half of the bowl game, when key receiver Darryl Freeney was sidelined, the Pirates had to deal with as much physical adversity as any team in the country. Skip Holtz said he had never confronted so many lineup depletions from serious injuries.
When the Pirates took an easy 24-3 win over West Virginia in the season's second game, they had as many quality wideouts as any team around. By the second half of the bowl game, Holtz was down to hunting and pecking for playmakers.
* If defensive coordinator Greg Hudson stays aboard the staff and can make as much progress with the unit as he did in '08.
Hudson has an uncanny knack for communication, motivation and roster plugging that ECU long has been missing on defense. Had it not been for a fumble recovery for a touchdown and kickoff return for another, Kentucky would not have been in a position to win the game in Memphis.
Keeping Hudson around likely will require a salary boost. But if he stays, ECU's defensive front next season should include C.J. Wilson, Scotty Robinson, Jay Ross, Linval Joseph and Nick Johnson with Van Eskridge among those in the secondary. There's a lot of NFL potential in that group. There shouldn't be a better unit in Conference USA and perhaps beyond.
* If the eternal Southern Miss puzzle can be solved.
The upside is that the Eagles do have to go to Greenville in '09. But more than any other team from any other league, the Pirates have never been able to get past Southern Miss on a consistent basis. A big part of it has to be psychological. Whatever, it's something ECU simply has to overcome to make the next step forward.