GREENVILLE, N.C. As West Virginia quarterback Pat White was ascending into the national spotlight two years ago, East Carolina's Patrick Pinkney was dropping almost out of sight.
He was down on the depth chart after two shoulder surgeries – a forlorn practice player trying to find his way.
It's much different now. While White still will go into today's 4:30 p.m. nationally televised game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with the bigger name and bigger game as a Heisman Trophy contender, Pinkney is emerging as a major player on the same stage.
ECU coach Skip Holtz said even he was surprised when Pinkney earned starting time in 2007, eventually splitting snaps with Rob Kass.
Pinkney won the job outright last month and in the season opener last week in Charlotte, he sparked East Carolina's offense as it beat Virginia Tech 27-22 with an ESPN audience watching.
“That quarterback puts them on another level,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said after watching Pinkney complete 19 of 23 passes.
If ECU wins today – and doing so would rank as one of the all-time biggest victories in school history – the Pirates' unlikely, underdog quarterback is expected to play a prominent role.
Pinkney first popped into the Pirates' picture just a year ago, in a 17-7 loss to the Hokies. Coming off the bench in that game, he showed composure, skill and astute game management.
Until then, Holtz had little reason to think Pinkney would ever become ECU's lead quarterback. He was third on the depth chart, biding time behind Kass and Brett Clay.
Pinkney might have harbored doubts as well, but said he never considered transferring from the school where his father, Reggie Pinkney, starred as a defensive back in the 1970s and has been elected to its Hall of Fame.
Kass was suspended before the 2007 Virginia Tech game after a DUI arrest. Then Clay went down with an injury and Holtz was forced to play his third-stringer. While Pinkney impressed that day, and then led ECU past North Carolina the following week, there would be some hard times. In the Pirates' 48-7 loss to West Virginia in the season's fourth week, he threw for 46 yards.
Eventually, Kass came back to start seven games, and he sparkled in the Hawaii Bowl win against Boise State.
Now, it's Pinkney's team, his time to shine. He can run. He can throw. And he leads with aplomb.
“He has done a phenomenal job running this offense … (and) has a poise and presence that makes him a great leader,” Holtz said. “He's also an emotional and spiritual leader for our team.”
“You can't let pressure get to you; you've got to stay strong-minded,” said Pinkney, who will be tested by a blitzing Mountaineers defense.
Always playing ball
Growing up in Fayetteville, Pinkney's formative years revolved mostly around sports, school and going to church on Sundays.
He started playing ball at about age 4, competed on rec and club teams, and became a football and basketball standout at Pine Forest High.
“The only thing he ever wanted for Christmas was a ball,” said his mother, Rose Pinkney.
Patrick had the pedigree. Reggie, who played in the NFL and currently is an elementary school principal, coached him in baseball, football and basketball until he reached middle school.
During that time, Reggie also taught the youngest of his five children (four by a previous marriage) about having the right attitude, sportsmanship and how to deal with adversity as well as fervently competing.
“He knows the ins and outs, knows what it takes to win,” said Patrick, who still accepts his dad's advice.
Pinkney, a wiry, 6-foot, 198-pounder, wasn't heavily recruited. He had several offers from small schools, and Duke wanted him to come as a defensive back.
No thank you, he said. Pinkney wanted to be a Division I quarterback and became a Pirate when former ECU coach John Thompson offered the opportunity.
Serious about academics, Pinkney succeeded in the class room and is a Conference USA honor roll student. But shoulder surgeries his freshman and sophomore years to repair a torn labrum clouded his football future, though not his vision. He stuck it out, saying “God had me here for a reason.”
Pinkney has a big personality, gives hugs and flashes a smile as bright as Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson's. This year, he lives alone in an off-campus apartment that would pass a good-housekeeping inspection – with a neat, orderly closet; shirts, pants, hats and sunglasses all carefully aligned. He attributes that meticulous manner to his mother, who says her son “has to have everything in the right place.”
One picture display stands out in the apartment. It is a photo of his father taken after ECU beat North Carolina in 1975. Next to it is a shot of Patrick after ECU's win last year against the Tar Heels, a team he torched for a career-high 406 yards passing.
Distractions don't distract him
This week, Pinkney continued practicing football with a serious purpose amid more distractions than normal. A tropical storm was bearing down on the N.C. coast, prompting regular updates about whether the game would be played.
The interview requests after the Virginia Tech win were so heavy that ECU's sports information department organized a special teleconference call.
It's the price of success as Pinkney commands more attention. But he can manage it. Co-offensive coordinator Todd Fitch can't envision Pinkney panicking, regardless of how Hanna swirls or how hard No.8-ranked West Virginia comes after him.
“He handles pressure extremely well,” Fitch said. “If he makes a stupid play or throws a touchdown pass, you couldn't tell. He has a calm about him.”
Receiver T.J. Lee, who scored the winning touchdown against Virginia Tech, concurs with Fitch.
“He has great composure, is a great leader … he knows what he's doing,” Lee said.
With that confident demeanor, Pinkney will go forth today, striving to lead East Carolina past another big BCS opponent. Before trotting onto the field, he'll pause to chat with his mom and dad.
As usual, Reggie will give him a “little pep talk,” reminding him to pray, play team ball and “be a playmaker.”
A.J. Carr: (919) 829-8948