With the addition of three February signees, including a former four-star prospect who once committed to Florida, Mike Houston added 21 new players to the ECU football roster in his abbreviated first recruiting cycle as the Pirates’ coach.
It’s a class that ranks fifth in the 12-team American Athletic Conference according to 247Sports.com, ahead of league heavyweights South Florida, Houston and Temple, with no fewer than 18 three-star talents.
That’s an impressive haul for a coach that was hired just 15 days before the start of the early signing period in December.
But while Houston and his staff should be commended for their good work, it should also be noted that the new coach couldn’t have done what he did without the help of his predecessor Scottie Montgomery.
Of the 18 players that signed early, all but one committed to the previous staff. That’s on top of a 2018 class that included star quarterback Holton Ahlers and several others that have already begun making an impact on the field.
Though it will undoubtedly be overshadowed by three straight 3-9 seasons that led to his ultimate demise, as it should, Montgomery’s ability to deepen the Pirates’ talent pool will go down as his most positive contribution to the program.
And yet, while it was Montgomery that assembled the majority of this year’s signees, it was Houston that had to re-recruit them and close the deal once he came aboard from James Madison on Dec. 5.
He did such a good job of selling his vision for the future of the program that he was able to convince three players that had decided to decommit during the course of last season — junior college offensive lineman Bailey Malovic, three-star defensive back Juan Powell and two-star offensive lineman Nishad Strother of Havelock — to come back into the fold and sign with ECU.
Houston was also able to flip three-star running back Demetrius Mauney from Purdue in December while inking three more players on the traditional February signing day last week. They are junior college tight end Zech Byrd, the aforementioned former Florida commit who will have three years of eligibility remaining, and a pair of three-star defensive linemen from Virginia, Rick D’Abreu and Immanuel Hickman.
Their addition brings the Pirates’ Class of 2019 to 21 players, 18 true freshmen and three junior college transfers. Of that group, eight are already enrolled in school and are eligible to participate in spring practice, giving them a better chance at contributing right away.
“I think top to bottom, it’s a very solid class,” Houston said after announcing his final three signees last Wednesday. “This place is a place you can recruit to in the aggressive manner that we went after them.”
So now that all the letters of intent have been signed and the fax machines are finally quiet, it’s time to take stock in the newest additions to the ECU football family and assess how Houston and his staff fared in their go-round in purple and gold.
The first thing that jumps from the raw list of names, other than the depth of talent and the abundance of homegrown North Carolina prospects, is the attention that was paid to the two greatest needs of the program.
That is getting bigger, stronger and better at the point of attack on both sides of the ball.
Particular attention was paid to the defensive line, a unit that showed vast improvement in 2018 but may or may not be in line for a major overhaul depending on whether record-setting sackmeister Nate Harvey is granted another year of eligibility.
With or without Harvey, the Pirates will have many more options in their attempt to rush the passer and — of more immediate importance — stop the run with the addition of five new players.
The offensive line, meanwhile, has been bolstered with three incoming freshmen — one of which, Malovic, will have the head start in his preparation by already being on campus.
Houston and his staff also addressed a suspect pass defense by picking up four defensive backs, restocked the tight end position that has been essentially neglected since the graduation of Bryce Williams in 2015, added depth and insurance at the quarterback position while also bringing in an heir apparent to all-AAC placekicker Jake Verity.
How many of those players are able to make contributions this fall will go a long way toward determining whether the Pirates can finally break their current three-win rut, perhaps even finish over .500 and get back to the postseason for the first time in five years.
Their 2019 schedule, which was also released last week, figures to help in that effort.
It begins with a rematch at N.C. State against a Wolfpack team breaking in a completely new set of offensive skill players, followed by a group of four winnable games that includes FCS opponents Gardner-Webb and William & Mary, at Old Dominion and at a Navy team that went 3-10 last year.
After a difficult stretch of AAC games against Temple, Central Florida, South Florida and Cincinnati, ECU will finish with a manageable three-game stretch against Southern Methodist, Connecticut and Tulsa, all of which are coming off losing seasons.
Of course, scheduling is only a small part of the equation when it comes to winning games and going to bowls. It’s much more important to have talented players to put on the field regardless of who you play.
Thanks to the combined efforts of Montgomery and Houston, ECU has a lot more of those talented players on its roster today than it did two months ago.