GREENVILLE — The biggest December signee for East Carolina wasn’t on the list of incoming players released Wednesday.
The biggest signee of the month is new coach Mike Houston.
Some of the factors that influenced Houston to board a foundering Pirate ship allowed the incoming regime to maintain a solid class primarily assembled under the direction of former coach Scottie Montgomery.
“Several of the parents, particularly, asked me, ‘Why did you choose ECU,’ ” Houston said. “The first reason is a personal one and that’s being from the state of North Carolina, a chance to be back in the home state and a lot of people we know was something that was important to Amanda (wife) and I.
“Beyond that, you start looking at ECU in general. I just know this — East Carolina University is a tremendous institution. It is a football school. It has a passionate fan base. It is a place where you have had a winning tradition. You’ve just had so many great memories in the sport of football, so many great games in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. That’s something that the passionate fan base is hungry to see back in action.
“Jon Gilbert (athletic director) coming on board and his support of our football program and his commitment to help me get it back where it needs to be is a big factor with that. Having the opportunity here with all of those factors at hand, that’s why you take this job and that’s why a lot of these recruits are signing here. They have the same dream that I do.”
Sharing the dream
Rivals rates the incoming ECU class No. 68 nationally. There were 16 high school seniors among the 18 players. There are 11 future Pirates from North Carolina, including five who hail from East of I-95.
ECU locked down defensive tackle Keziah Everett from Farmville, as well as wide receiver C.J. Johnson of D.H. Conley and tight end Jeremy Lewis from South Central in the immediate area.
Defensive end Traveon Freshwater of Elizabeth City was also recruited by Duke, Michigan State, N.C. State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
Offensive lineman Nishad Strother of Havelock should help bolster a position group beset by injuries during a 3-9 season in 2018.
There are two quarterbacks among the nine offensive signees, Alex Flinn from the Asheville area and Bryan Gagg from Bradenton, FL.
Gagg is among eight players who will enroll in January. That group also includes defensive back Alex Angus of Greensboro Page, junior college defensive tackle Hozey Haji-Badri, wide receiver Jsi Hatfield of Southern Alamance, junior college offensive lineman Bailey Malovic, defensive back Ja’Quan McMillian of West Forsyth, kicker Patrick Nations of Walhalla (SC) High School and athlete Juan Powell of Atlanta.
There are two signees from Georgia, two from South Carolina, one from Florida, one from Pennsylvania and one from Virginia.
“That will be our recruiting footprint,” Houston said of the geographic distribution.
Defensive back Malik Fleming is from Fairburn, GA. Offensive lineman Trent Holler comes in from Latrobe, PA.
The in-state haul also includes recent signee Demetrius Mauney of East Rutherford, who initially committed to Purdue, and linebacker Chad Stephens of Eastern 3-AA champion Southeast Guilford.
Houston indicated that ECU will address specific needs in continued recruiting efforts for his first incoming class. He said the Pirates will seek a defensive lineman, a defensive position player and an offensive skill player before the traditional February signing date.
Houston has a track record of improving programs at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison in his eight seasons as a head coach. He has an 80-25 record in that span.
“The timing of when I took this job is similar to the timing with signing day looming that I took the JMU job and The Citadel job,” Houston said. “Both of those I took a couple of weeks out from the February signing date. They didn’t have the early signing date back then. That experience did help me with this because I knew immediately what the important things were that I had to get handled and what could go on the back burner until signing day was through.
“You look at where the program is here at ECU and I think it’s probably very similar to where it was at The Citadel when I took the job there. It’s very similar to where Lenoir-Rhyne University was when our staff took the job there. I’ve been through this building process a couple of times. I think when you look at the passionate fan base and the commitment to football, I think that is very similar to all three institutions and probably most similar to JMU — because of what game day at Dowdy-Ficklen is supposed to be like and is like with 55,000 passionate, screaming and yelling and supporting the Pirates.”
Houston has brought defensive coordinator Bob Trott and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick with him from JMU.
How similar will ECU be system-wise to what the Dukes did?
“There’s obviously personnel considerations this year, because the roster is what it is, with our thumbprint on the recruiting class,” Houston said. “But, that being said, I think the roster fits pretty well what we’re going to do schematically in all three phases. We’ll be very multiple on offense, but we’re going to run the football. We’re going to throw off of that. We’re going to be a spread set, but we’re going to be very, very aggressive. We’re going to be very, very physical.
“Defensively, … we’re going to be very multiple there. Three-man front, four-man front. We’re going to play a variety of coverages. We’re going to be very aggressive with our style of play and we’re going to play with a lot of energy and passion. … On special teams, I think whatever your identity is on offense and defense, your special teams are going to be reflective of that. We’re going to be an aggressive, attacking special teams unit.
“Those are the things, just in general, that you’re going to see from our ball club.”
ECU will have seven starters returning on both sides of the ball from a team that went 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference, but no positions will be assured when spring practice gets underway on March 14.
“There is no starting lineup anywhere,” Houston said. “That will be established this spring and then established in fall camp. It’s a body of work deal that will establish the depth chart coming out of the spring and establishing the depth chart for game one.”
ECU is scheduled to open the 2019 season at N.C. State on Aug. 31.
History with walk-ons
Houston has had some productive walk-ons and did not preclude the possibility that some scholarships could be awarded to players who had joined the Pirates program via that route.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that you reward players that achieve and you hold everyone accountable to their role on the team,” Houston said. “I’ve got a litany of former walk-ons that have become great players. I’ve got a couple of All-Americans who were former walk-ons.
“You never underestimate the value of somebody that’s got a heart and a desire to compete.”
Run game emphasis, turnover factor
ECU was 111th among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing in 2018 with 1,556 yards. The Pirates were tied for 126th in turnover margin at minus-14.
“I believe to win championships, you’ve got to run the football and you’ve got to stop the run,” Houston said. “That being said, we’ve thrown for over 3,000 yards multiple times in the past several years. We’ve always been effective throwing the ball, but when it comes down to it, you better be able to run the football in tight ball games and you better be able to stop the run to win ball games at the end of the game. That’s going to be a characteristic of us.
“Turnovers are critical, no matter what your style of play is. You’ve got to have great ball security on offense. You’ve got to create turnovers on defense. When you win the turnover margin, week in, week out, usually that’s an indicator of whether you win the game or not.”
A blocked punt early in the game helped set the tone in James Madison’s 28-14 victory over Youngstown State for the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision title.
“We’re going to be aggressive in the special teams area,” Houston said. “Each of the last three seasons, we’ve returned multiple punts for touchdowns. We’ve blocked multiple punts and kicks. We’ve been very aggressive in every phase. You’ve got to make big plays to win ball games. You make big plays by doing what you’re supposed to do.
“If you’re a fundamentally-sound, hard-nosed football team that’s focused on having some discipline and doing their job and playing with a lot of passion and fire, those plays happen when guys just do what they’re coached to do. It’s usually not something spectacular that they do. It’s usually just a guy doing his job and taking advantage of a mistake by the opponent.”
Houston moved into the awareness of Pirate Nation with a 34-14 win at East Carolina to open the 2017 season.
“We firmly expected to win that ball game when we came in here in ’17,” Houston said. “You look at how we won it. I think we ran for 300-and-some yards (410) on the night that night. I think we held our opponent to under 100 yards (70) rushing. I thought our guys just were the more physical football team overall on the night and made the plays on special teams.
“That’s the style of play that is our goal to make sure that our program here at ECU plays with starting with that game one in Raleigh.”
Breather for house hunting
After meeting with media Wednesday, Houston planned to go house hunting with his wife.
Maybe there is a nice home waiting for the Houstons at the current break on the recruiting trail.
“There’s always unusual situations (in recruiting),” Houston said. “There’s all kinds. Experience helps you navigate those and you’ve always got to kind of be on your toes. You never know what you’re going to run into when you’re in the recruiting business. It’s always a fluid situation.
“I’m excited that we were able to successfully navigate that and end up today with 18 signees.”