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College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates

College Football News logo College Football News 8/29/2020 Pete Fiutak
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College Football News Preview 2020: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the East Carolina Pirates season with what you need to know.

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– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense

Top Players | Key Players, Games, Stats

What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction

Schedule Analysis

– East Carolina Previews 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

2019 Record: 4-8 overall, 1-7 in AAC

Head Coach: Mike Houston, 2nd year, 4-8

2019 CFN Final Opinion Ranking: 113

2019 CFN Final Season Formula Ranking: 108

2019 CFN Preview Ranking: 114

5. College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Offense 3 Things To Know

It all started to kick in. The East Carolina offense finished the season 46th in the nation in yards and 78th in scoring, but in Year One of the Mike Houston era, the O took things to a whole other level right after Halloween with the passing game explosion and the points coming in bunches. Now it’s time to do it on a regular basis.


The Pirate attack all starts with the QB Holton Ahlers and the passing game that has the potential to rip apart anyone on the schedule if it’s all clicking. Ahlers was hardly perfect, but he’s a big bomber who’ll scare defenses deep, and he can run, too. With Reid Herring transferring, though, the hope is for redshirt freshman Bryan Gagg or star recruit Mason Garcia to be ready right away.

The receiving corps was young and needed the work, and now five of the top six pass catchers are back, starting with the trio of sophomores CJ Johnson and Tyler Snead, and junior Blake Proehl. These three combined for 174 catches and 13 touchdowns, and now … watch out. They should be ready to blow up.

But …

The offensive line has to do a little something for the running game. The pass protection was terrific, but the line allowed too many plays behind the line and didn’t do enough for a ground attack that averages 141 yards per game. Three starters are back around all-star left tackle D’Ante Smith, and North Carolina transfer Avery Jones and NC State transfer Justin Chase are coming in to add more talent.

And now they all have to pave the way for the deep backfield.

Ahlers will run, but he shouldn’t be the team’s second-best rushing option. Speedy sophomore Demetrius Mauney – who led the team with 446 yards and a score – joins 234-pounder Darius Pinnix and Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden to give the Pirates a dangerous group to take the heat off the passing game.

NEXT: College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Defense 3 Things To Know

4. College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Defense 3 Things To Know

– Blake Harrell comes in from Kennesaw State to try getting something out of the nation’s 119th-best defense. The pass defense was bad, the run defense worse, and overall the D allowed 469 yards and 34 points per game. It all starts with getting more out of the defensive front.

The big problem is the size – there isn’t much.

This isn’t a bulky front four, but there weren’t enough plays in the backfield or activity against the run. Top pass rusher Kendall Futrell is gone, and now Pirates have to find more of a threat on the outside.

There’s going to be a rotation on the inside, but the tackles are around 270ish pounds – there isn’t a 320-pound Coke machine to gum things up.

The linebacking corps went young, and now the sophomores of last season should grow into bigger producers. At least that’s the hope with the entire two-deep expected back.

There might not be size on the line, but 244-pound junior Xavier Smith brings some thump on the inside of the linebacking corps. He led the team with 81 stops, and corner-sized Gerard Stringer is a hitter on the outside. On the way is former Oklahoma super-recruit Ryan Jones, but he’s not eligible quite yet.

– The pass defense has to be a whole lot better. The offensive side came up with the big yards, and the ECU secondary was too quick to give them right back – at least at times – giving up over 400 yards three times and a total of 20 touchdown passes in the last six games.

Almost everyone is back, starting with rising star true sophomore Ja’Quan McMillian at one corner, and with Alabama’s Nigel Knott a monster get for the other side – if he can stay healthy. The hope is for Duke transfer Isaiah Kemp to be a factor.

71-tackle Davondre Robinson is back at one safety job, but sixth-leading tackler Daniel Charles is in the transfer portal. Redshirt freshman Juan Powell has the upside to be a statistical star.

NEXT: College Football News Preview 2020: Top East Carolina Pirates Players

College Football News Preview 2020: Top East Carolina Pirates Players

Best East Carolina Pirates Offensive Player

QB Holton Ahlers, Jr.

He wasn’t always perfect, and he threw ten picks and didn’t complete 60% of his passes, but when he was on, East Carolina looked and played like a thing.

He’s not just 6-3 and 235 pounds, he’s that big, can move, and he has the big arm to push things deep. He connected on over 300 yards through the air in each of the last four games – with a 535-yard day against Cincinnati, followed up by six touchdown passes against SMU – and there’s more of that coming.

2. WR Tyler Snead, Soph.

3. WR CJ Johnson, Soph.

4. OT D’Ante Smith, Sr.

5. RB Chase Hayden, Jr.

Best East Carolina Pirates Defensive Player

CB Ja’Quan McMillian, Soph.

While he’s not all that big, he’s a baller who should grow into one of the best corners in the American Athletic Conference. He’s just 5-9 and 177 pounds, but he was able to come up with 38 its with three picks and nine broken up passes. With Alabama transfer Nigel Knott coming in, now ECU might have a strength at corner.

2. CB Nigel Knott, Jr.

3. LB Xavier Smith, Jr.

4. S Davondre Robinson, Sr.

5. LB Gerard Stringer, Jr.

NEXT: College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Keys To The Season

College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Keys To The Season

Biggest Key To The East Carolina Pirates Offense

Start using the ground game. This is going to be a pass-happy offense with Holton Ahlers to go along with the good receiving corps, but there’s a nice group of backs to work around, too.

The Pirates weren’t miserable on the ground – they finished with close to 1,700 yards with 12 touchdowns – but they only averaged 3.8 yards per carry and never got over 170 yards against any FBS team.

Of those 12 scores, five came against Gardner-Webb, three came against a pathetic UConn D, and two – stunningly – game against UCF. There were just two rushing scores in the other nine games.

2014 was the last time the program hit the 2,000-yard rushing mark. There’s no real excuse not to get there this year.

Biggest Key To The East Carolina Pirates Defense

It’s nice when the offense is rolling, but it doesn’t do much if the other side of the ball is getting steamrolled over.

Yeah, ECU’s passing game was fantastic over the second half of the season, but the run defense got hammered for 300 rushing yards or more in three of the last five games, and SMU ran for 222 yards.

The team won four games – all against miserable teams – but the run D allowed fewer than 130 yards in all four, and was 0-8 when allowing more.

Since shocking North Carolina early in 2018, ECU is 0-15 when allowing more than 130 rushing yards.

Key East Carolina Pirates Player To A Successful Season

DE Immanuel Hickman, RFr.

And throw in Hozey Hadri-Badri, too. The defensive tackles have to become factors right out of the gate. Last year’s group was okay at times, but there were too many problems when steadily pounded on.

Hadri-Badri is only around 275 pounds, and the 266-pound Hickman doesn’t bring a whole lot of bulk, but these two are quick. The Pirates need a star on the inside, and after getting a few reps under his belt, it would be huge if it’s Hickman.

Key Game To The East Carolina Pirates Season

UCF, Sept. 19

There were supposed to be a few warm-ups before the Pirates jumped into the AAC life, but the global pandemic decided to make a comment about it. Now the opener is against UCF, but at least it’s at home. Want to make a massive statement, East Carolina? Want to get out to a big start? Beat a fantastic UCF team to kick things off.

East Carolina Pirates Schedule

2019 East Carolina Fun Stats

– Field Goals: East Carolina 24-of-29 – Opponents 10-of-11

– 4th Down Conversions: Opponents 13-of-23 – East Carolina 3-of-7

– Penalties: Opponents 101 for 889 yards – East Carolina 71 for 615 yards

NEXT: College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Win Total Prediction, What Will Happen

1. College Football News Preview 2020: East Carolina Pirates Win Total Prediction, What Will Happen

How quickly can the program get there?

There are two ways to look at the first season under head coach Mike Houston.

1) It was a year of transition and the offense started to look the part as the campaign went on. The Pirates pushed Cincinnati and SMU hard, and hung around on the road against UCF. Or …

2) Whatever. They were 4-8 with two of the wins over FCS teams, one against an Old Dominion team that finished with one win – it was over an FCS team – and one against a UConn team that beat an FCS team and UMass, whose only victory on the year was against Akron, who was the only winless FBS team.

Got all of that? Basically, East Carolina didn’t do jack squat in terms of actual results.

However, that offense did look spunky, and the coaching staff got a whole lot of young players some time to lead to a potentially huge few seasons after this one.

But now it’s time for the program that should be an American Athletic Conference powerhouse to start winning again.

The last winning season was in 2014, and the last season with more than four wins was 2015, so (with a whole lot of games potentially being put together) …

Set The East Carolina Pirates Regular Season Win Total At … 3.5

Bet on East Carolina at BetMGM

The team is experienced enough to start winning some of those close shootouts.

It can beat Georgia State on the road. It can beat Tulsa, Tulane, and USF. It won’t – at least, it won’t win all of them – but it can win a few to make this a stepping-stone season.

Pull off an upset over an SMU or a Navy, and ECU can get to five wins and make a huge step forward. Don’t be shocked if this all starts to kick in and the Pirates go bowling.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense

Top Players | Key Players, Games, Stats

Schedule Analysis


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