I got together with PirateWolf this week to talk about the Pirates. Those swashbucklin’ East Carolina PIrates! (They had best keep the swashbuckling under control this weekend lest I be forced to alert the authorities.) Below are his answers to a handful of my questions.
1.) I think Wolfpack fans would agree that Mike Houston is a good coach--it’s difficult to argue otherwise after his 37-6 run at James Madison--but how much is he going to be able to do for East Carolina this season? Would a bowl trip constitute a minor miracle or is he good enough to make that happen right away?
ECU fans are extremely optimistic about Mike Houston, but two things are bringing about patience with the fan base. 1) Winning just three games in each of the last three seasons says a lot about the state of things when Houston walked in the door, and 2) The program has been down this road before following the John Thompson years, so the fans know that it’s going to take a bit to rebuild. The one thing Scottie Montgomery did well is recruit, so the cupboard isn’t bare for Houston and crew - although it’s also not deep. Given that there is talent on-hand and Houston’s track record, a bowl game is a realistically attainable goal (not an expectation), but asking for anything more in Year 1 is too much.
2.) How do you expect the Pirates’ offense to differ from what we saw in December? What about the defense?
The offense should look completely different. Sophomore QB Holton Ahlers didn’t play in the State-ECU game last year, and neither did RB Darius Pinnix, WR Deondre Farrier, WR Blake Proehl, or WR Tyler Snead. Aside from the personnel, the playcalling should be completely different, too. The offense under former coach Scottie Montgomery was forced to just chuck it up all the time while playing from behind. Plus, the depleted offense in that December game was running a very basic, “let’s get the hell out of here” offense in the game. On defense, I don’t think we’ll see anything dramatic in terms of a blitz-happy group, but I would expect to see much better effort and tackling.
3.) And what would you consider ECU’s bigest weaknesses on both sides of the ball?
On offense, it’s the right side of the offensive line. The left side has a lot of experience returning and the center position is the deepest position along the line, but the right side will be incredibly young and green. The issue, too, is that the tight end position was an area of weakness last year, so helping out with a TE over there might not be all that beneficial. On defense, it’s the defensive backs, specifically the corners. Just to show you how bad of a state the DB group is for ECU, on the first preseason depth chart released in mid-July, five freshman made it on that list. And now one of the more promising of those freshman, Juan Powell, is suspended. Not good when a weakness gets weaker.
4.) Give me a couple of guys who didn’t have much of a role last season who you expect to be significant contributors for ECU in 2019.
Junior RB Darius Pinnix is a guy on offense to look out for. He’s flashed potential over his first two years, but never could seem to get the trust of the previous coaching staff to give him a full run as the #1 back. A big dude at 6’0, 234 lbs with better than you’d expect speed, Pinnix was the team’s fourth leading rusher last year (3rd among RBs) with 222 yards, but should be the #1 back this year. Sophomore LB Xavier Smith is a selfless player who moved to TE last year as a true freshman because of depth issues at the position. He’s back at LB and has really taken off under the new coaching staff. Smith is slated as a starter and a key part of the middle of the defense this year for the Pirates.
5.) It’s a fair bet that ECU will be Week 1’s angriest team after the way last season ended for the Pirates. Dave Doeren rubbed in the embarrassment by letting an offensive lineman score a TD and had some barbs to offer after the game as well. How much of a factor is ECU’s collective blind rage going to be? Is this a case where ECU can turn the outcome by playing pissed off the whole time, or is the talent gap to large for it to really matter?
Well, one thing’s for sure: in this game, ECU won’t lay down like they did last year. ’The Chip’ is something that ECU has historically always carried and the most successful teams have leveraged in the biggest games. I’m sure this game will be nothing different, especially for the players that were on the team last year. As for the how much the coaching staff tries to play up the anger/revenge angle, I doubt they’ll push it too terribly much. Putting too much pressure and emphasis on Game 1 can backfire if you don’t win. This is a rebuild process and I think Houston is smarter than to wager too much emotional capital on instant results.