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Getting to know the ECU Pirates

The Pirates return plenty of experience of their own.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

To better get an idea of just what NC State is up against this weekend, I sent some questions to our resident house divided, PirateWolf. Here’s what he had to say.

1) Last season saw ECU make a long-overdue return to respectability, so how do you think the Pirates will build from that? Do you see them finishing higher than sixth in the AAC (where they were picked preseason)?

In short, ECU will build with experience and increased talent. Yes, I see them finishing higher than sixth in the AAC this year.

Last year was a fantastic step forward for the ECU program under Mike Houston, a step forward that has felt long overdue. Not necessarily because Houston has taken too long to take that step, but because the rebuild needed to be that extensive. In a lot of respects, the rebuild that Houston has undertaken with ECU is a lot like the one that Doeren undertook with NC State - except that Houston was gifted one heck of a QB to work with. ECU’s 7-5 record last year isn’t impressive on the surface, but there were only two teams that outplayed ECU last year: a 10-4 App State team in the opener and a 13-1 CFP-participant Cincinnati squad. Even though App was the better team that day, two horrendous calls cost the Pirates 14 points in a game in which that was the final margin. The Pirates went 4-3 in one-possession games, so it wasn’t necessarily flukish luck either that got them their wins. They were three plays away from being 10-2 (but, yeah, also two plays away from being 5-7). That’s reason for excitement.

On the defensive side, like NC State, the hype is built on a lot of returning experience from a group that performed above expectations last year. On the offensive side, there’s also a lot of experience returning, plus some explosive players, highlighted by RB Keaton Mitchell. But the real reason for optimism on the offense is the return of QB Holton Ahlers. He’s a hard-nosed, tough kid who wants to win more than anything. He doesn’t have the skills of Devin Leary, but he has that same level of drive to be great, a do-whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality, all from a level, poised, leadership mindset. Those are the type of players you need to move your program forward.

2) What are some of the things you want to see the Pirates improve on in 2022? Were there some consistent issues that plagued the team most weeks?

Maybe it’s the fact that ECU showed so much development last year that I’m having a hard time answering this one. Having been beaten down mentally and emotionally by horrible football for half a decade will do that to you. ECU improved so well across the board last year that it’s hard to be too upset with just one area... but I’m going to point one area out anyways.

The offensive line. If ECU’s offense is going to hum, it’s going to need much much much better and more consistent effort from the O-line. That unit last year was horrendous, both at protecting Ahlers and at opening up running lanes. If not for RB Keaton Mitchell (6.5 ypc last year) being just absurdly good at avoiding and then working through contact, the running game would have sputtered and the season would not have gone as well as it did.

Overall, the team’s rushing performance dropped from 4.3 ypc in 2020 to 4.1 ypc in 2021 - and that’s with Mitchell’s numbers. That unit also ranked 114th nationally allowing 3.1 sacks/game. There’s hope with returning so much experience, including getting back OT Bailey Malovic who tore his ACL in last season’s opener, plus a trio of potential impact O-line transfers in Parker Moorer (West Virginia), Ben Johnson (Marist), and Justin Redd (Norfolk State).

3) Somewhat related to that question, what reasons are there to feel optimistic that ECU’s defense can be more effective?

Like NC State, ECU returns a boatload of defensive talent and experience. The Pirates lose just six members of the defensive Two Deep. Add to that some potential impact transfers in CB Aapri Washington (Buffalo), LB Mike Edwards III (Georgia Southern), and DL Shaundre Mims (Charleston Southern), and the basis is there to form a unit that will be the Pirates’ best since at least 2015. The biggest loss on defense is CB Ja’Quan McMillan (PFF’s top rated FBS coverage corner in 2021), but the hope is that better play across the board will help stem the loss.

4) Holton Ahlers aside, who are some ECU players you think could give NC State matchup problems?

Mitchell, obviously. The guy really is as fast and explosive as any back that State will face this year. I feared he was going to transfer to a P5 program after last year, but thankfully he stuck it out in Greenville. The other player is WR C.J. Johnson. He’s a big bodied receiver (6’2, 222 lbs) who has good hands, uses his body well to create separation, and has deceptive speed for his size. He’ll line up all over the field, potentially creating issues. One other guy who came on huge down the stretch last year and could provide mismatch issues for State is TE Ryan Jones, a transfer from Oklahoma where he was a defensive lineman.

5) How will the game have to play out if ECU is to pull the upset on Saturday? Is there any early indicator in particular you’ll be watching that might suggest “uh oh, ECU is doomed” or “hey, ECU may have a shot here”?

For ECU to pull the upset, the offensive line is going to have to protect Ahlers and give him some time to work. If he’s constantly being flushed from the pocket, then the plays aren’t going to have time to develop. And if the passing game isn’t working, then State’s going to be able to crowd the box to stop Mitchell and the running game.

The “ECU is doomed” indicator will be if the OL is swiss cheese early on, because the first drive should have enough scripted plays to where the OL can hold up and have some level of success. If State’s blowing up stuff from the start, that’s not going to be good for the Pirates.

The “ECU may have a shot” indicator will be if the Pirates defense can shut down the Pack’s second drive of the game. I fully expect State to come out and move the ball on the opening drive, but it’s really that second drive where the adjustments are made that will be the most telling.

6) Finally, go ahead and give us your prediction for the final score.

NC State 30, East Carolina 20