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Meet East Carolina: A program with only one way to go

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The Pirates are looking to rebuild after bottoming out under Scottie Montgomery

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 East Carolina Spring Game Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the second time since the turn of the century, the East Carolina football program finds itself in rebuild mode. Former coach Scottie Montgomery ran the Pirate ship aground in Greenville, winning a grand total of nine games in three seasons (three of those wins were against FBS bottom-dweller UConn). I mean, seriously... look at this:

Bill Connelly, https://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2019/3/29/18278426/east-carolina-football-2019-preview-schedule-roster

This was avoidable, though. The Pirates had a perfectly good, successful coach in Ruffin McNeill - a beloved son of the university and a great representative of the program. It obviously wasn’t the decision of the fanbase at large to get rid of McNeill, but when you make bad hires in leadership positions (Jeff Compher, AD) - and especially when you make bad hires at multiple levels (Cecil Staton, Chancellor) - everyone has to live with the unfortunate results.

But despite the pain and embarrassment that was the Scottie Mo/Jeff Compher era, things might actually have worked out for the best. East Carolina brought in Jon Gilbert as the new AD, and before Gilbert even held his introductory press conference he hired new football coach Mike Houston from James Madison. Houston may well be the most qualified coaching hire the Pirates have ever made. He’s 80-25 across eight seasons of collegiate head coaching experience, with six conference titles and a national title (plus two other national title game appearances) to his credit. Not to mention he’s a native of the state and has spent his entire coaching career in the immediate region.

Houston has one heck of a challenge ahead of him to right the Pirates program, but unlike when Skip Holtz took over for John Thompson in 2005, the cupboard isn’t bare in Greenville these days. The previous coaching staff left behind some nice parting gifts scattered throughout the roster, with Sophomore QB Holton Ahlers being the topmost example of that.

Ahlers is a left-handed, dual-threat QB whose college choice came down to the Pirates and Wolfpack. He led ECU in rushing last year (119 carries, 592 yards, 5.0 yards/carry, 6 TDs) despite only playing in ten games and starting just five of those. His overall passing numbers aren’t eye-popping (127-of-263, 48.3%, 1785 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INT, 118.1 QB Rating), but he was playing as a true freshman in a poorly designed offense. That TD-INT ratio is impressive for any freshman not named Trevor Lawrence.

The offense figures to run through Ahlers, but given Houston’s history, one can safely assume that an emphasis will be placed on establishing the run game. The Pirates return three of their top four rushers not named Ahlers. Junior RB Darius Pinnix (56 carries, 222 yards, 4.0 yards/carry, 3 TD, 12 rec, 168 yards) will get the nod as the lead back for the opener, and will be joined in the backfield rotation by SR Hussein Howe, rSO Trace Christian, and impressive FR Demetrius Mauney.

At wide out, the Pirates have big shoes to fill with the departure of 2018 All-AAC selection Trevon Brown, but do return experience in rSR Deondre Farrier (30 rec, 372 yards, 2 TD) and rSO Blake Proehl (29 rec, 329 yards, 1 TD). FR C.J. Johnson was a big-time signee and figures to factor into the offense, as does rFR Tyler Snead (15 rec, 236 yards, 4 TD).

The offensive line returns strength along the left side (JR LT D’Ante Smith, SR LG Cortez Herrin) and at center (rSR Branden Pena), but will be breaking in inexperienced players to Ahlers’ blindside in rJR RG Sean Bailey and rFR RT Noah Henderson.

Defensively, ECU will run out of a base 4-3 that’s really more similar to the 4-2-5 that NC State runs, with the “Bandit” Outside Linebacker being more of a Nickel role than a true linebacker.

The Pirates defensive line will be stout in the starting four, but like last year, will need to find depth. A trio of senior starters return in DTs Alex Turner (44 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and Jalen Price (34 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks), and DE Kendall Futrell (33 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 5 PD). The DL is talented, but there are only three players on the DL two-deep who weigh over 260 lbs, and nobody over 280. Finding quality depth to create a steady rotation will be key for the Pirates this year.

Linebacker should be an area of strength for this team with JR Bruce Bivens (62 tackles, 9.5 TFL,3.5 sacks) and SO Xavier Smith manning the starting spots, while rJR Aaron Ramseur (66 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks) brings loads of experience and has flashed great potential in the past. Sophomore “Bandit”/Nickel Gerald Stringer has shown promise under the new coaching staff.

The defensive backfield is a serious area of concern for the Pirates. As a team, the Pirates only picked off four passes all of last year, and they weren’t exactly good at stopping other teams from moving the ball through the air on them. Junior FS Tank Robinson (77 tackles, 1.5 TFL) is a very good player and hard-hitter, but too often had to clean up messes last year rather than being able to ballhawk. At the other safety spot, SO SS Daniel Charles shined in his opportunities a year ago and looks to take on a more prominent role as a starter this year.

The kicking game is a definite strength. Redshirt-Junior PK Jake Verity was 19-of-21 last year on FGs, and JR P John Young averaged 40.5 yards/punt. The team will be breaking in new kickoff and punt returners, though; Snead is expected to handle both of those duties.

The one thing Montgomery didn’t do for his successor was fully utilize redshirts for the sake of building the program, but that often happens with coaches feeling the pressure to win immediately. WR Mydreon Vines, TE Anthony Watley, LG Cortez Herrin, DE Kendall Futrell, DT Alex Turner, and LB Bruce Bivens are all listed starters for this game who played sparingly as true freshmen, burning their redshirts. Add to that RB Hussein Howe (2nd team) and recently graduated 2018 AAC Defensive POY Nate Harvey, and the program could be in much better shape than it is.

It’s not hard to argue that ECU made the best head coaching hire of any in-state program during the off-season by bringing in Mike Houston. There’s also talent in the program, and a lot of young talent at that - the Pirates are tied for the 13th youngest team in the country with 46.7% of the roster being constituted of freshman (true or redshirt). Twenty players on the two-deep for the Pirates are either Freshman, Sophomores, or first-year transfers.

Sometimes it takes bottoming out to get the proper pieces in place to build to something bigger than before. It took Skip Holtz four years to win a conference title during the last rebuild... Can Mike Houston do it even quicker?