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 GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -Ideally, Skip Holtz would already have found his next Chris Johnson, the speedy running back who led East Carolina's offense last season before becoming an NFL first-round draft pick.
Instead, the No. 23 Pirates are keeping everyone guessing as to who's going to get the next carry - including their own backs.
So far, East Carolina has relied on Brandon Simmons, Jon Williams and Norman Whitley. Their playing time is fickle. Each week, one mistake could put them on the bench while a long run could keep them out there the rest of the day. Simmons has started all four games, though all three have led the Pirates in carries at least once this year.
``The coaches pretty much go with the guy with the hot hand or based off the way the game is going,'' Simmons said. ``It's just a part of the game. You go out to practice every single day preparing for however many touches you might get. It's just about you making the most out of your opportunities.''
s will be divided each game for the Pirates (3-1, 1-0 Conference USA) heading into Saturday's matchup with Houston. Holtz is quick to say much of it depends on the flow of the game and the vulnerabilities of an opposing defense, and a change can be sudden.
Last year, the Pirates never stopped feeding the ball to Johnson, who ran for 1,423 yards and 17 touchdowns.
``I said at the beginning we were going to have to turn and replace Chris Johnson by committee,'' Holtz said, ``and we're going to have to turn and put those guys where they're best.''
Simmons has given the Pirates the tough, between-the-tackles yardage suited to his 223-pound frame. He had a combined 33 carries for 104 yards in the upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia, though he has had just 15 carries in the past two games.
Williams leads the team with 171 yards, highlighted by his 17-carry, 69-yard, two-touchdown day against the Mountaineers. The 6-foot-1 sophomore is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, though he's had just 11 in the past two games.
Whitley, a 5-9 sophomore, has been the big-play specialist. He didn't have a carry in the opener, but had a 51-yard touchdown catch against Tulane and a 42-yard scoring run in last weekend's overtime loss to North Carolina State. He led the team with nine carries in that game, an opportunity that presented itself once the Pirates decided to spread the field against the Wolfpack.
``They're pushing me to be the best I can be and I'm pushing them to be the best they can be,'' Whitley said. ``Me and Jon have a great time in practice and in class when we talk about, 'Somebody has to have a good game.'''
The formula has worked well enough so far, though Holtz and running backs coach Junior Smith said it could change. Both hold out hope that one of the three backs will do enough in the coming weeks to seize control of the workload, perhaps even become the every-down back the Pirates lost with Johnson's departure.
Until then, the Pirates could have a different look behind quarterback Patrick Pinkney with each possession.
``It's very challenging from a morale standpoint because as soon as another guy carries, a guy might think he did something wrong or that you've got something against him,'' Smith said. ``Basically we try to tell them it's about production: If you want to go in there and get more carries, then you've got to be productive and do what you've been doing through the week.''

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