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Bullseye: ECU Pirates

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As the second half of the season continues, USF travels to Greenville to take on ECU, who is under new leadership under Mike Houston.

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

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As the second half of the year rolls on, USF will be forced to travel to ECU to resume conference play and had UConn not been historically bad last season, the Pirates would have been the prime bottom dweller for the conference.

ECU Pirates

Narrative

The Mike Houston era begins this season at ECU after the experiment of Scottie Montgomery failed, leaving Pirate fans to wonder why the hell did they fire Ruffin McNeill?

While Ruffin moved on to being the linebackers coach at Oklahoma, Montgomery struggled to a 9-26 overall record in the conference. Wins for ECU the last three seasons are as follows:

  • Three wins over UConn
  • Miracle wins over Cincinnati, BYU, UNC, and NC State
  • Wins over Western Carolina and Old Dominion

Montgomery’s teams could never quite put it together and that can be summarized in 2018 when his Pirates faced North Carolina A&T of the MEAC. The Pirates had the ball for the final drive and the offense made a dire mistake and well...just watch for yourself.

As the world famous Josh Appel so eloquently put “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this”.

So after another disappointing three-win season, the David Cutcliffe disciple Montgomery was relieved of his duties and in comes Mike Houston from James Madison University.

Houston brought his entire staff from the Dukes to the Pirates, hoping to re-spark some magic and capture national attention again. He coached James Madison for three seasons, winning an FCS National Championship in 2016, a repeat appearance in 2017 (losing to powerhouse North Dakota State) and a mild 9-4 season in 2018.

Houston and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick will have a tall task at hand with the Pirate offense: ECU failed to score 20 or more points seven times last season.

Personnel

For Houston, his offense does return seven starters from last season, including both quarterbacks who split playing time: Holton Ahlers and Reid Herring.

Early indications are that Ahlers is leading the race but time will tell which QB will emerge to lead the offense. Ahlers had a serviceable freshmen campaign last season in which he threw for 1,700 yards and 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Herring on the other hand threw for 1,600 yards for six touchdowns but also had 10 interceptions. Ahlers was able to separate himself last season by putting in the leg work (literally) on the ground, as he was also the Pirates leading rusher with 592 yards and six touchdowns rushing the ball.

Both QBs battled injuries last year, with Reid Herring injuring his ankle and received a concussion and Ahlers injuring his throwing hand and then knee later in the season.

In front of the quarterback will be a game-experienced offensive line, with seven players returning that started at least one game for the Pirates last season. There are enough seniors and transfers that if the offensive line can find a solid unit and stay healthy, ECU will be able to improve their rushing attack.

I emphasize will be because it’s going to be very difficult for them to be as bad as they were last year. As an offense, the Pirates were 125th in rushing S&P+ last season.

Running back Anthony Scott (405 yards, 3 TDs) has graduated, but Darrius Pennix (222 yards, 3 TDs) and Hussein Howe (236 yards) showed flashes of brilliance last year, so there can be some optimism about the ground game this upcoming season.

For the QBs, the wide receiver core they are throwing to got plenty of catches and playing timein 2018. The bad news is they lost leading receiver Trevon Brown (74 catches for 1,123 yards and 9 TDs). The good news is that they are returning six players who had at least 10 catches last year. Leading the receivers in 2019 should be Deondre Farrier, but notable names we should hear a lot are Blake Proehl, Leroy Henley, Tahj Deans and Mydreon Vines.

At the tight end position, Senior Anthony Watley will provide plenty of blocking and occasionally dump off passes for their QB, but behind him is a huge JUCO transfer in Zech Byrd from Garden City C.C. Byrd should be able to crack the starting line up and prove himself suitable at ECU. With a 6’7 frame, he’s got the size already.

Flipping over to the defensive side of the ball, ECU has to replace former AAC Defensive Player of the Year DE Nate Harvey, who is now with the New York Giants. Harvey was a monster for ECU, getting into the backfield consistently and wreaking havoc by getting 24.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.

Havoc was the name of the game for ECU’s front seven last year, who ranked 125th in rushing marginal explosiveness (very bad) but was 10th in marginal rushing efficiency (very good). Luckily for new defensive coordinator Bob Trott, he is returning 6 of the 7 starters in the front seven from last year. The two deep of the front seven consists of three of fourteen seniors, so while they can provide leadership, the defense has plenty of time to grow after this season.

The defensive line should be a strong one again for ECU, with Alex Turner, Jalen Price taking the starting DT spot, and Kendall Futrell and Chance Purvice at the DE positions. Behind them at linebacker, Aaron Ramseur and Bruce Bivens will look to build upon a season that saw them combine for 14 tackles for loss.

The secondary was very weak for the Pirates last season and worse off, they are losing their two most productive DBs in Devon Sutton (82 tackles) and Corey Seargent (1 INT and 8 pass breakups to lead the team). They’ll look to rely on Michael Witherspoon and Colby Gore for senior leadership, and Davondre Robinson to build upon his sophomore season that saw him as the second leading tackler for ECU.

The strongest unit for ECU does return, with kicker Jake Verity and punter Jonn Young coming back for special teams. Verity went 90% on field goals last year and a perfect 13-for-13 within 40 yards. Young averaged 40.5 yards a punt, and was able to flip the field a few times for the stalling Pirate offense.

Outlook

As mentioned, had UConn not been laughably and historically bad last year, we would be pegging ECU as the bottom dweller of the conference. A once proud Conference-USA champion under Skip Holtz transitioned decently into the AAC in 2014, but slipped into obscurity thereafter.

The expectations this season for ECU should be improvement, but nothing earth shattering, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will football programs. Mike Houston’s history of success could lead ECU back into a winning team in the future, but with AAC east teams like Temple, Cincinnati, UCF, and USF all taking massive leaps in their program, ECU will need to start with baby steps to lead them to success.

With another light schedule this season, they should be able to surpass last year’s win total, Old Dominion, William & Mary, Gardner-Webb and NC State make up their non-conference slate. There’s a chance Pirate nation will want to show out in force against USF, as one of the most consistent fanbases in college football always has a shows a good crowd showing (I mean, what else is there to do in Greenville anyways?).

As for USF, this is the final time they will leave the state of Florida during the regular season. Heading into a rugged month of November, it will be imperative for the Bulls to handle their business on the road against a rebuilding Pirate program.