It’s fun to take a puzzle out of the box and start assembling it, but it’s exhilarating when you fit in the final few pieces. The new East Carolina football staff, celebrating National Recruiting Day with hundreds of Pirate fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Wednesday, got to enjoy that feeling of standing back and admiring their finished product.
At the 2019 Signing Day Celebration, fans were invited to get the scoop on the class of 21 Pirate newcomers — three of whom were inked in the final days of the signing period. Tight end Zech Byrd, a transfer from Garden City (KS) Community College and freshmen defensive linemen Rick D’Abreu and Immanuel Hickman represented the final, and coveted pieces of the 2019 recruiting class puzzle.
“I feel amazing about this class,” said ECU recruiting coordinator Fontel Mines. “I think, one, we addressed our needs on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. I think the three we hit on today were right on. I think those are the guys we wanted, and those are the guys we targeted along the way, and those are the guys we got.”
Pirate coaches like Mines arrived on campus late in 2018 and hit the ground running, courting new recruits and cementing commitments gathered by the previous staff. The party atmosphere on the stadium’s club level represented the Pirate Nation’s hope for future gridiron success and also a chance to formally welcome the new football staff, finally in Greenville for a while after a frenetic period of travel.
The first 18 signees, announced on December 19, included two junior college transfers and six freshmen who enrolled early and are already on campus now working out with strength and conditioning coach John Williams and his staff. With the addition of the final three players, the class is composed of 10 offensive players, 10 defensive players and one specialist.
In his remarks to the gathered fans, new head coach Mike Houston spoke of the strength the newcomers will bring to a Pirate program engaged in a thorough reconstruction after finishing 3-9 in 2018.
“We made a bond and a commitment, in our first meeting, that we were going to get East Carolina University football back to where it’s supposed to be, and that’s winning football games on Saturdays in the fall, winning championships and going to bowl games,” Houston said.
Byrd and the other two juco additions, defensive lineman Hozey Haji-Badri and offensive lineman Bailey Malovic, are expected to break into the lineup immediately, Mines said. Byrd, who is already enrolled at ECU, has three years of eligibility remaining, and Haji-Badri and Malovic each have two. It was the perfect ending to the first recruiting campaign for Mines, who also coaches the tight ends and inside receivers.
Losing attractive recruits is part of the process, Mines said, but the past few weeks, while tense, featured the happy ending of yielding three key new Pirates. They fill pressing needs on the defensive line and at the hard-to-recruit tight end position, and they were at the top of plenty of wish lists.
Here’s a closer look at ECU’s three final signees:
- Tight end Zech Byrd: Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick saw the Pirate quarterbacks’ eyes light up at the prospect of a 6-foot-7 tight end target, a four-star prospect who committed to Florida out of high school in Millbrook, FL, then took a detour to Garden City to shore up his academic standing. “We developed a relationship over the past few weeks, and I told him I’m not recruiting him to sit the bench,” Mines said of the player Houston called the highest-rated prospect in the 2019 class. “Our expectations are high.”
“He’s a big 6-7 guy with an unbelievable catch radius, and all weekend we were just falling all over ourselves thinking about the possibilities,” offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “I think we’ll put some weight on him, get him a little meaner, and I think a lot of people will know his name here before long.”
- Defensive lineman Rick D’Abreu: The 6-2, 240-pound D’Abreu, a product of Thomas Dale High School in Chester, VA, contributed to the staff’s commitment to strengthening the fronts on both sides of the ball. Houston called him “one of the top players in the state of Virginia.”
- Defensive lineman Immanuel Hickman. Hickman, a 6-3, 260-pound force from Matoaca High School in Chesterfield, VA, had committed to Cincinnati in the early signing period, but he was unsettled enough by that decision that he kept his options open and discovered the right fit in Greenville.