An appropriate title for the story of East Carolina’s football recruiting Class of 2019 would be “A Tale of Two Coaches & Their Staffs.”
The last three players in the class were signed to a national letter of intent February 6th, bringing the final total to 21. A core group of 17 signees were the result of a strong starting effort by the previous staff under coach Scottie Montgomery before he was dismissed in November.
Recruiting classes have been known to disintegrate after a coaching change. But when Mike Houston arrived from James Madison in early December, he not only picked up the recruiting ball, he ran with it. Houston and his staff dealt with a few defections and parted ways with other recruits, but managed to hold onto the core while also making some key additions.
The result is one of the highest rated classes since East Carolina joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014, according to the 247Sports.com network. Their composite team ratings had the Pirates fourth among AAC schools – their highest finish ever in the 247Sports AAC ratings – and 73rd nationally as of Feb. 12, 2019. The latter matches ECU’s best placement since the Class of 2014. You have to go back to the Pirates final season in Conference USA (2013) to find a recruiting class rated as highly as the class of 2019.
The most immediate help from the class may come on defense, where a highly regarded group of linemen, secondary players and stud linebacker Traveon Freshwater are headliners.
But before we evaluate the defensive signees, here’s our annual position-by-position grades for the offensive recruits. We’ll speculate on how each player fits into the ECU program, provide the best organizational profile that we can, and look ahead to what the Pirates may need as they begin pursuing the recruiting Class of 2020. We’ll break down the defensive signees in an upcoming article.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates began 2018 with three underclassmen quarterbacks on scholarship in Reid Herring, Holton Ahlers and Kingsley Ifedi. Their youth made signing one quarterback in the 2019 class seem like an appropriate number. But Ifedi’s decision to transfer to N.C. A&T in December quickly changed that priority to two.
WHO SIGNED: Two under-the-radar quarterbacks committed early in the recruiting cycle to Montgomery’s staff.
First came Bryan Gagg (6-3, 200) from Bradenton, FL, who made his pledge last March. ECU had become the first program to offer Gagg a month before and he committed 24 hours after making an unofficial visit to Greenville. ECU running back great Ernest Byner, who is a Gagg family friend, helped pique Gagg’s interest in the Pirates. His only other offer came from Football Championship Subdivision program Northern Iowa. Gagg, rated the nation’s No. 48 pro-style quarterback by 247Sports.com, completed 270 of 415 passes for 4,472 yards and 49 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Braden River High after starting his first two prep years at Sarasota.
Alex Flinn (6-1, 210), from Asheville, NC, had no FBS offers when the previous staff jumped on board last May. Flinn came out of nowhere as a junior to put big numbers under the tutelage of former NFL and college coach John Shoop, who was serving as an assistant at A.C. Reynolds High. He joined the ECU class on June 23rd. Flinn is rated the nation’s No. 77 pro-style quarterback by 247Sports.com. He completed 534 of 829 passing attempts during his high school career for 7,431 yards and 76 scores. Flinn also rushed for 1,088 yards and 24 more touchdowns.
Also joining the Pirates next fall as a preferred walk-on will be two-year Greenville Rose High starter Grant Charles Jarman. The 6-4, 180-pounder passed for more than 4,600 yards and 49 touchdowns over his final two high school seasons.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: First and foremost, the Pirates added much-needed depth at the quarterback position.
Because Gagg is already enrolled at ECU, he’ll have a head start on competing for the third-string job on the depth chart behind Herring and Ahlers this spring. Gagg is known for his strong arm and ability to absorb an extensive playbook quickly. He doesn’t do much running, but has quick feet to move the pocket or maneuver away from the rush. Those abilities should gain him quick favor with the ECU staff and, in time, hasten his ascent up the quarterback depth chart.
Flinn is more of a project. He’s extremely athletic, is a very accurate passer and is like a sponge when it comes to learning and accepting advice from coaches. But Flinn needs time to grow physically and mentally before he’s ready to step under center at ECU. With Ahlers and Herring already holding down the top two spots on the depth chart, there should be plenty of time to allow Flinn to develop.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Although he wasn’t really being pursued as a quarterback by ECU, Malik Richardson from Sumter, SC, was considered a major recruiting coup when he made a verbal commitment to the Pirates in July 2018. A dual-threat quarterback who passed and ran for more than 900 yards as a senior, Richardson began to have second thoughts about his decision as Montgomery’s future became more uncertain and his desire to play quarterback increased. He eventually decommitted from ECU in early November and wound up signing with FCS Western Carolina, where he’ll get to play quarterback.
WHO’S BACK: Holton Ahlers lived up to the recruiting hype surrounding his arrival at ECU after taking over the starting job from Herring in the seventh game of the 2018 season. Ahlers completed 127 of 263 passes for 1,785 yards and 12 touchdowns during his rookie campaign, while also leading the Pirates in rushing (119 carries for 592 yards, six scores). You have to go back to 1998 and Pirate great David Garrard to find a true freshman who led the team in passing. Ahlers wound up starting five of the last six games and will enter the 2019 season as ECU’s clear QB1.
Herring had his moments, too, while starting seven contests last season. He completed 154 of 288 passes for 1,607 yards and six touchdowns, but 10 interceptions hurt his efficiency rating. The experience Herring gained as a sophomore makes him a valuable backup or capable starter in 2019 if something happens to Ahlers.
Walk-on Caiden Norman played in the final two games last season, completing one of two passes for four yards. Norman and redshirt freshman walk-on Zach Gwynn from Wilmington, DE, round out the returning quarterback contingent.
WHO’S GONE: Although a wonderful athlete, Ifedi never really blossomed as a quarterback at ECU. During his limited playing time in five games last year, he only managed to complete three of nine passes for 21 yards and threw two interceptions. Facing third-string duties again next fall behind Ahlers and Herring, Ifedi opted to transfer to FCS power N.C. A&T where he’ll be eligible immediately.
NEEDS FOR 2020: The general rule of thumb is to sign one quarterback in every class. But the youth in the ECU quarterback room doesn’t make this one of the higher priorities for the Class of 2020. Still, with Herring completing his eligibility after the ’20 season, getting that one is still a necessity.
The Pirates have already targeted Mason Garcia from Carolina Forest High in Myrtle Beach, SC, to fill that spot. Garcia, a 6-4, 205-pounder, sparked Carolina Forest to the second round of the state Class AAAAA playoffs in his first year as starter. He received a scholarship offer from ECU last June and took an unofficial visit to campus in September. Coastal Carolina and Kent State have already offered Garcia scholarships as well.
Projected Pre-Spring Quarterback Depth Chart
Holton Ahlers, Sophomore
Reid Herring, Junior
*Caiden Norman, Sophomore
Bryan Gagg, Freshman
Alex Flinn, Freshman
*Zach Gwynn, RS Freshman
*Grant Charles Jarman, Freshman
RUNNING BACK C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates had one back completing his eligibility in 2018 and another is set to depart after the ’19 campaign. Throw in Nate Harvey’s move from running back to defensive end, and that leaves only two scholarship rushers on the roster for 2020. So securing at least two was a must for the Class of 2019.
WHO SIGNED: One of Houston’s biggest successes after arriving at ECU was signing Demetrius Mauney (pronounced Moon-ey), a 6-foot, 195-pounder from Forest City, NC. Mauney was headed to play in the Big Ten Conference for Purdue after making a verbal commitment to the fast-improving Boilermakers last June. But Mauney soon realized the long distance between home and West Lafayette, IN, would hinder his family’s ability to see him play on a regular basis. That prompted a decision to re-open his recruitment in August and Houston quickly became one of his suitors while still at James Madison. When Houston took over at ECU in early December he convinced Mauney to follow him to Greenville.
A two-way star at running back and linebacker for East Rutherford High School, Mauney racked up 4,427 career yards and 54 touchdowns rushing, while also making 265 tackles and 43.5 tackles for loss. His versatility led 247Sports.com to rank him No. 67 nationally in the athlete category.
But it’s as a running back that Mauney was selected to play for the North Carolina squad in the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game in December. He wound up with offers from Appalachian State, Campbell, Charlotte, Colorado State, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Southern, James Madison, Old Dominion, Purdue, Temple and Wofford.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Mauney runs with a blend of power and speed. A strong lower body allows him to run through tackles and he has a second gear when he breaks into the open field. Mauney could provide some immediate help next fall as a kick returner, but don’t be surprised if his versatility lands him a spot on the running back depth chart for the 2019 season opener.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Houston’s staff cut ties with two prep rushers who had been committed to the previous staff – Shemar Thompson from Burlington, NC, and Taron Beauford of Durham, NC. Thompson wound up committing to N.C. A&T, while Beauford remains unsigned.
But the biggest backfield recruiting loss for ECU was Michael Dukes from Charleston, SC. The 5-10, 190-pounder produced 8,762 rushing yards and scored 117 touchdowns during five-year varsity career at First Baptist School while also starring in basketball. He was recruited by several programs in both sports.
The Pirates were hot on Dukes’ trail and even had him on campus during September for an official visit. But when eventual national champion Clemson came calling the handwriting was on the wall. Dukes cast his lot with the Tigers on Feb. 2 and signed last Wednesday.
Missing on a second running back in the 2019 class dragged the final grade at this position down.
WHO’S BACK: Three runners who saw extensive playing time in 2018 are scheduled to return. Senior Hussein Howe was ECU’s third-leading rusher a year ago with 70 carries for 236 yards. Howe played in all 12 games and started three of the last five. Right behind Howe in the rushing stats with 56 carries for 223 yards and three touchdowns was Darius Pinnix, now a junior, who started three of 10 games in which he appeared before missing the last two with a foot injury. Sophomore Trace Christian also appeared in 10 games, rushing 38 times for 162 yards and a score.
Tay Williams, a recruited rusher who came to ECU as a “blueshirt” last fall, will try to make his mark on the ECU backfield as a redshirt freshman.
WHO’S GONE: After sitting out the 2017 season with academic issues, Anthony Scott returned to become the Pirates’ second-leading rusher last year behind Ahlers. He started eight of 12 games, contributing 405 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 103 carries.
Walk-on Cam Coleman also appeared in one game and logged a single rush for zero yards.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Howe completes his eligibility next fall, leaving ECU with three and possibly four scholarship backs after the 2019 season, if Williams is awarded a grant. The way backs are rotated in the up-tempo style of offense played today at the college level you need at least three or four ready to play. One injury in its current situation could create a serious depth issue for the Pirates. So securing at least two running backs will be vital for the Class of 2019. More than a half dozen offers reportedly out already to running back prospects seem to verify this as a priority.
A trio of backs to follow are Rahjai Harris (5-11, 185) from Duncan, SC, Keaton Mitchell (5-9, 170) of McDonough, GA, and Marlowe Wax (6-0, 219) from Baltimore, MD. All three have received offers from ECU.
Harris is an all-purpose back who produced 662 yards rushing and 235 receiving as a junior at Byrnes High, while Mitchell’s forte is his speed (10.8 seconds in the 100-meter dash). Wax is a bigger back who pounded out 1,046 yards rushing for Mount Saint Joseph High.
Projected Pre-Spring Running Back Depth Chart
Hussein Howe, Senior
Darius Pinnix, Junior
Trace Christian, Sophomore
*Tay Williams, Redshirt Freshman
Demarius Mauney, Freshman
WIDE RECEIVER C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: This area looked like a big need last February due to the anticipated departure of two receivers after the 2018 season and a third on schedule to leave after 2019. But ECU’s ability to develop talent in this area from the walk-on pool lessened the need for higher numbers. Still, two or three new additions to the receiving corps seemed sensible.
WHO SIGNED: ECU was able to keep at home one of the state’s most prolific receivers in C.J. Johnson from D.H. Conley High in Greenville. The 6-2, 220-pounder finished his prep career ranked among the state’s top 10 in career receiving yards (5,198) and touchdowns (79) on 239 receptions. The two-time all-state selection, who played his first three varsity season with current ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers, made an early commitment to the Pirates in May 2018 over offers from Duke, N.C. State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Oddly, Johnson didn’t get a lot of love from recruiting analysts. He was rated just 211th among the nation’s receiver prospects by 247Sports.com.
The Pirates also picked up Jsi Hatfield (5-9, 175), who was as a dual-threat quarterback for Southern Alamance High in Graham, NC. Hatfield amassed more than 5,300 yards of total offense and accounted for 46 touchdowns during his prep career, which also included being a double-figure scorer in basketball and top sprinter for the track team. Ranked No. 81 as an athlete nationally by 247Sports.com, Hatfield considered more than a dozen scholarship offers from schools such as Appalachian State, Campbell, Charlotte, Georgia State, James Madison, Marshall, Miami Ohio and Old Dominion. He committed to ECU on June 24 and enrolled for the spring semester in January.
A third signee who could fit into the receiver corps is Juan Powell (5-11, 170) from Atlanta, Ga. We think Powell is headed for a position in the secondary at ECU, but he certainly has the skills to be an excellent receiver as well at the college level. He rushed for nearly 4,000 yards as a running back for Douglass High. If Powell winds up as a receiver, then the grade here improves to B-.
Two others coming aboard the Pirate ship as preferred walk-ons are Terrance Copper, Jr., from North Lenoir High in LaGrange, NC, and Ford Moser of Page High in Greensboro, NC. Copper is the son of former ECU and NFL receiver Terrance Copper, Sr. Moser finished his high school career with 154 receptions for 2,359 yards and 22 touchdowns.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Johnson is simply a naturally gifted athlete, with exceptional, large hands. But when you add to those physical talents his toughness and work ethic, you have a player who could be the next great ECU pass catcher. The Pirates enter spring practice with at least nine or 10 players vying for spots on the receiver depth chart. But expect Johnson to quickly be in that mix when he arrives on campus next fall.
Hatfield has been timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, so he’ll add some needed speed to the ECU receiver corps. It helps that he’s already enrolled for the spring semester, but his inexperience playing receiver means he may need some time to develop before he’s ready for game action. However, his speed could make him a contributor sooner in the return game.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: West Charlotte’s Devontez Walker made a pledge to ECU in June 2018, but backed off that when Montgomery and his staff were dismissed in November. The 6-3, 175-pounder wound up signing to play for FCS East Tennessee State.
The Pirates did swing and miss at three of the state’s top receivers in Emery Simmons from Fayetteville, Jordan Waters from Fairmont and Havelock’s Welton Spottsville. Simmons and Spottsville signed with North Carolina, while ECU was a runner-up to Duke in the battle for Waters. Simmons is the son of former Pirate running back Dale Simmons.
WHO’S BACK: Five players who made starts and and seven who caught passes in 2018 are scheduled to be back for the Pirates, headed by senior Deondre Farrior.
Injuries have limited Farrior’s production the last two seasons. But he still managed to finish second behind Trevon Brown in receptions last year with 30 catches for 372 yards and two scores while making five starts in seven games. A healthy Farrior will be a strong candidate for All-American Athletic Conference honors in 2019.
Junior Tahj Deans (18 catches, 187 yards, TD in 11 games, including 3 starts), sophomore Leroy Henley (20-232-0/12 games-3 starts), sophomore Blake Proehl (29-329-1/10 games-4 starts) and junior Mydreon Vines (12-168-1/12 games-no starts) all saw significant action last season and form the core of the group along with Farrior.
The breakout star of the 2018 season, however, was walk-on Tyler Snead. A 5-7, 166-pounder from Raleigh, NC, Snead didn’t see action until the eight game of the season against Memphis. Over the next four games, he made 15 catches for 236 yards and four touchdowns before being shut down for the season finale against N.C. State to preserve his redshirt status. Under the new NCAA rules freshmen can appear in up to four games without losing that season of eligibility so Snead will be a redshirt freshman in 2019.
Redshirt freshman Juwon Moody (two games), redshirt freshman walk-on Maceo Donald (four games), sophomore walk-on Duce Fuller (four games) and junior walk-on Jonathan Johnson (four games) also played last season. Johnson was the only one in that quartet to record a catch, making one for four yards.
Redshirt freshman walk-on D’Wayne Crawford is the remaining returnee.
WHO’S GONE: Trevon Brown had more than his share of ups downs at ECU. But in the end Brown departed as one of the school’s greatest receivers, finishing fourth on the all-time list for receptions (189) and receiving yards (2,952), and second in touchdown receptions (24).
Terrell Green enjoyed his best season at ECU as a senior, making 26 catches for 285 yards. Green started eight and appeared in all 12 games.
Although he’s not gone from the program, Xavier Smith is expected to shift back to linebacker in 2019. But when injuries started to pile up last season, Montgomery moved Smith to receiver where he made seven catches for 81 yards.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Farrior will be the only significant graduation loss in the receiving corps after the 2018 season, but since the Pirates came up a little short on numbers with the 2019 class signing at least two here seems a necessity for 2020.
Houston’s staff has issued scholarship offers to a number of receiver prospects in just the past month. Among those are KeAndre Lambert (6-1, 167) from Norfolk, VA, Jalen Coit (5-11, 163) of Cheraw, SC, Corey Dyches (6-1, 190) from Oxon Hill, MD, and Ja’Cyais Credle (6-4, 195) of Columbus, GA.
The Pirates have also been in pursuit of Asheville, NC’s Jhari Patterson since Houston’s arrival in November. The 6-1, 190-pounder is coming off a huge junior season at A.C. Reynolds High where he made 67 catches for 1,192 yards and 10 touchdowns. The performance has led to early offers from other FBS schools such as Charlotte, N.C. State, South Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest.
Projected Pre-Spring Wide Receiver Depth Chart
Deondre Farrier, Senior
Tyler Snead, Redshirt Freshman
Leroy Henley, Sophomore
*Duce Fuller, Sophomore
*Maceo Donald, Redshirt Freshman
*D’Wayne Crawford, Redshirt freshman
Tahj Deans, Junior
Blake Proehl, Sophomore
Mydreon Vines, Junior
Juwon Moody, Redshirt Freshman
*Jonathan Johnson, Junior
C.J. Johnson, Freshman
Jsi Hatfield, Freshman
*Terrance Copper Jr., Freshman
*Ford Moser, Freshman
TIGHT END/H-BACK A-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The game changed in ECU’s tight end/H-back priorities when Houston took over the program. Montgomery used the position almost exclusively to block, but under Houston it’s expected to become a more important element in the passing game. So signing one or two with skills as a pass catcher in a small, two-month window became essential.
WHO SIGNED: Zech Byrd hasn’t played a lot of football the last couple of years, but at 6-7, 265-pounds he’s the big target quarterbacks love to find in the red zone. Byrd is from Millbrook, AL, and was originally a Florida commit out of Stanhope Elmore High School. But he instead wound up at Garden City Community College, where he missed all of the 2017 season with a broken foot. As a redshirt freshman in 2018, he made two receptions for 20 yards in 11 games. Despite his limited output, Byrd was offered scholarships by Auburn, Louisville and Utah before settling on ECU just before the second signing day on Feb. 6. He’s ranked the No. 7 junior college tight end prospect by 247Sports.com.
It came as a bit of surprise during the December signing period when Greenville area product Jeremy Lewis (6-3, 215) was listed as a tight end on the ECU press release. The previous staff recruited Lewis as a defensive end, where he enjoyed great success at South Central High. But Lewis was also a productive receiver at South Central with 108 career receptions for 2,071 yards and 29 touchdowns. So even though ranked the nation’s No. 77 strongside defensive end prospect by 247Sports.com, Lewis suddenly became a tight end under Houston’s new regime. Although North Carolina made some overtures late, Lewis stuck to the commitment he made to ECU last June. The Tar Heels, Charlotte, Duke, Georgia State, Old Dominion, Tennessee, Virginia and Wake Forest were his other offers.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: As mentioned above, Byrd will be a nice target for Ahlers when the Pirates get near the end zone and he’s big enough to move some bodies as a blocker. He should contend immediately for playing time.
Lewis, too, has potential to play early. While most people rave about his athletic ability, Lewis is also one of those players who has a sixth sense about the game. He picks up plays and analyzes situations quickly, which should help him adjust quickly to the college game.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU got in the game early with 6-5, 240-pound Kam Walker from Pisgah High in Canton, NC. The future Shrine Bowl all-star received an offer from the Pirates while in Greenville for a Junior Day function last May. But it was N.C. State that pulled in Walker’s commitment last June. He’ll enroll at N.C. State first as a “blue shirt” recruit.
WHO’S BACK: Seniors Anthony Watley and Jaray Sampson, plus sophomores Johnny Bogle and D’Angelo McKinnie all saw game action at tight end or as an H-back last season. Whatley, who appeared in five games, was the top pass catcher in the group with five receptions for 77 yards. Bogle had one catch for two yards in eight games, including three starts. McKinnie, who was originally recruited as a defensive end, appeared in nine games and made one start. Sampson is a walk-on who played in four games.
Redshirt freshman Andre Pegues and sophomore walk-on Nate Clark are other tight ends on the roster.
WHO’S GONE: Dalton Montgomery split time between blocking duties as a tight end and offensive tackle last season in 12 games. Although Montgomery had another year of eligibility, he opted not to return for a fifth year.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Whatley is the only scholarship tight end on schedule to leave the program after 2019, but with the added importance of the position in the Mike Houston era signing one will be an annual focus.
The Pirates have already popped on scholarship offers to 6-5, 225-pound Ezemdi Udoh from Terry Sanford High in Fayetteville, NC, and 6-5, 230-pound Joshua Rawlings from Woodland Hills High in Pittsburgh. Udoh has also been offered by Appalachian State, Tennessee and Virginia, while Rawlings has Akron, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Toledo, Ohio and Temple among others on his list.
Projected Pre-Spring Tight End Depth Chart
Zech Byrd, Sophomore
Johnny Bogle, Sophomore
Anthony Whatley, Senior
D’Angelo McKinnie, Sophomore
*Jaray Sampson, Senior
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Two of the three players who manned the center position for the Pirates a year ago will be juniors in 2019, although only one is on scholarship at this point. The third center will be a sophomore next fall, so the need wasn’t immediate for the ’19 class. But signing one to maintain depth and start the process of replacing the soon-to-be-departed was the right move.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates beat out the likes of Pittsburgh and West Virginia for the services of Latrobe, PA, center Trent Holler. Pitt had offered Holler as a defensive tackle at their summer camp, but a family vacation trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina allowed time for a side visit to ECU. The experience sold Holler on becoming a Pirate and he committed last June.
The 6-2, 285-pounder started four seasons at center for Greater Latrobe High and earned All-Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League 5A 2 All-Conference honors every year. Holler is rated the nation’s No. 20 center prospect by 247Sports.com.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Holler is a pure center who has already refined his snapping abilities. He also has the athleticism to pull or get downfield to make blocks after the snap. Due to the presence of several veteran centers in the program, Holler shouldn’t be forced into action early which will allow him time to adjust to the pace of the college game. But make no mistake, Holler is a future starter for the Pirates.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU was among the first to offer 6-2, 290-pound Vincent Murphy from St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, FL, just after his sophomore season. But four months later Murphy’s stock suddenly shot up, leading to a flurry of offers from schools such as South Carolina, Michigan State, Virginia Tech and Tennessee among others. He finally settled on South Carolina in February 2018 and signed with the Gamecocks in December.
WHO’S BACK: Junior John Spellacy was forced into a starting role at center as a true freshman in 2017 and continued that through the first six games of 2018 before concussion issues sent him to the sideline for the remainder of the year. The hope is Spellacy will be able to return to action next season, and that would be a major boost to the offensive line corps.
When Spellacy went out, true freshman Peyton Winstead moved into the starting role at center. Winstead appeared in nine games and started the final six with walk-on Jaison Fournet serving as his backup. Fournet saw action in five games.
WHO’S GONE: None of the players who worked at center in 2018 have departed, although Garrett McGhinn made four starts there during the ’17 campaign. But McGhinn spent his final season as a Pirate manning the right tackle position.
NEEDS FOR 2020: A lot depends on Spellacy’s status moving forward. If he can’t return, then securing a center in the 2020 class moves up the priority list and signing two would be the number. A return to form by Spellacy, however, would make one enough.
The Pirates have already reached out with an offer to 6-3, 300-pound Jestus Johnson from Gonzaga High in Washington, DC. A two-time, second-team All-Capital Conference pick, Johnson has also drawn early offers from Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Rutgers, Virginia and West Virginia.
Projected Pre-Spring Center Depth Chart
Peyton Winstead, Sophomore
John Spellacy, Junior
*Jaison Fournet, Junior
Trent Holler, Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Although officially losing just one graduating senior at the guard positions when the 2018 season ended, the need here was among the most pressing for a second straight year. The Pirates finished the 2018 with a walk-on starting at one of the guard spots. Getting two or three capable of playing guard was needed to increase the program depth and provide some immediate help.
WHO SIGNED: Nishad Strother is a 6-3, 290-pounder from North Carolina prep powerhouse Havelock High. He first made his pledge to ECU in June 2018 after receiving an offer during an impressive performance at the Pirates’ camp. But by September he began listening to overtures from Charlotte and eventually backed off his commitment to ECU to join the 49ers recruiting class last October. But Houston convinced Strother to come back to ECU’s campus for an official visit in December, and two days later he was back with the Pirates.
Rated the nation’s No. 149 guard prospect by 247Sports.com, Strother also had offers from Georgia State, N.C. Central and Western Carolina.
The Pirates also added Robert Mervin, a 6-3, 336-pounder from Hutchinson Community College to the roster. Mervin will come to ECU as a “blue shirt” recruit next fall and will be eligible, but he’ll be counted toward the 2020 recruiting class. Mervin, from Woodbridge, VA, was rated the No. 43 offensive tackle in the junior college ranks by 247Sports, even though he played guard and center at Hutchinson. He also had scholarship offers from Austin Peay, Stephen F. Austin, Texas-El Paso and Youngstown State.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Strother is an agile big man who is getting stronger by the minute. His prep coach compared him favorably to former South Carolina and NFL offensive lineman Corey Robinson. But Strother will need time to develop and doesn’t meet the immediate need ECU had at the guard.
Mervin is a versatile player who can fill in at guard or center.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: By the time the new coaching staff got in place most of the guard prospects had been picked clean and the previous staff had struck out with the 10 or so players they’d offered at the position. A guy ECU targeted early in the cycle was Jacob Monk from Corinth Holders High in Wendell, NC. The Pirates offered Monk back in April 2017. He took an unofficial visit to campus and camped at ECU that summer. But Duke jumped into the mix in June that year and gradually won Monk over.
WHO’S BACK: Senior Cortez Herrin started all 12 games at left guard last season and now has 17 career starts to his credit. Senior walk-on Fernando Frye wound up starting four of the last five games at the right guard spot due to injuries, while sophomore junior college transfer Jordan Johnson logged one start there. All three of those players return for the 2019 season along with junior Sean Bailey, who was Herrin’s backup at left guard, and redshirt freshman walk-on Nick Bernhard.
But the real bonus here for the Pirates is the return of Brandon Pena, who earlier this month was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Injuries have derailed Pena’s ECU career to date, limiting him to five games in two years. But if the 6-2, 286-pounder is recovered from the leg injury that limited him to four starts last season, he will give ECU a tremendous boost at right guard.
WHO’S GONE: After arriving from the junior college ranks in 2017, Dqmarcus Shaw made an immediate impact as a reserve lineman and blocker on special teams. He played in all 12 games as a junior and made two starts at right guard, but was limited to five games and two starts in 2018.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Three of most prominent players at the guard positions will complete their eligibility in 2019 – Herrin, Pena and Frye. So this position will be impossible to ignore in the 2020 recruiting cycle. Grabbing three or even four would be the minimum number to sign in order to replenish the talent at the guard spots.
Two potential targets ECU already has offers out to include Bryan Felter, a 6-3, 300-pounder from Bergen Catholic High in Oradell, NJ, and Anthony Carter Jr. of Butler High in Matthews, NC. Felter received his offer from the new staff on Jan. 29.
Projecte Pre-Spring Depth Chart At Offensive Guard
Cortez Herrin, Senior
Sean Bailey, Junior
*Nick Bernhard, Redshirt Freshman
Nishad Strother, Freshman
Brandon Pena, Senior
Fernando Frye, Senior
Jordan Johnson, Sophomore
WHAT THEY NEEDED: One impact tackle that was in the senior class is gone, but with another senior scheduled to check out following the 2019 season securing at least two replacements was the goal.
WHO SIGNED: Houston was able to lure junior college transfer Bailey Malovic back to the ECU class after he backed off a verbal commitment to the Pirates.
Malovic (6-6, 260) is originally from Irmo, SC, where he played for legendary coach Tom Knotts at Dutch Fork High School. He spent the last two seasons at Highland Community College, where he appeared in 14 games. The previous coaching staff received Malovic’s commitment Nov. 20, just days before Montgomery was dismissed. The change prompted Malovic to rethink is decision for about a week before Houston brought him back into the fold on Dec. 15. He signed his letter of intent in December and is enrolled at ECU for the spring semester.
No. 11 among junior college offensive tackles, according to 247Sports.com, Malovic also entertained offers from Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Coastal Carolina, Florida Atlantic, New Mexico State, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and UAB among others.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The Pirates are hoping they signed a player in Malovic who can either step right into a starting job or provide some major relief help. Because he’s enrolled already, Malovic will get a head start on learning the playbook and gain some much needed benefit from the team’s training table. Adding some weight will be a key to how much Malovic can contribute next fall.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Omari Cooper from San Diego Mesa junior college made an official visit to East Carolina in mid-November. The 6-5, 300-pounder seemed to have real interest in the Pirates until the coaching change occurred. He ended up signing with Rutgers.
Another tackle prospect, 6-6, 260-pound Jeff Woods from Fayetteville, NC, had given a verbal commitment to the Pirates last summer. But the new coaching staff wanted Woods to come aboard as a “blue shirt” prospect, which didn’t fit into his plans. Woods re-opened his recruitment and eventually signed with another American Athletic Conference school in Connecticut.
WHO’S BACK: Along with graduated Garrett McGhinn, senior D’Ante Smith has been one of the few mainstays along the ECU offensive front the last two seasons. Smith made five starts as a sophomore in 2017 and manned the left tackle spot for all 12 games in 2018. Expect him to contend for All-AAC honors next fall.
Sophomore Matt Morgan, who played in eight games as a backup and junior Jack Doyle (2 games in 2018) are the only other experienced returnees. But redshirt freshmen Noah Henderson and Donovan Noel, along with walk-on redshirt freshman Yaizer Ray will also be seeking to make an impact at tackle this spring.
WHO’S GONE: Team leader and versatile Garrett McGhinn completed his eligibility in 2018 after earning starts at every position on the offensive front during his career. McGhinn spent all of last season holding down the right tackle position.
Also gone is Dalton Montgomery, who was used as a blocker at tight end, guard and tackle.
NEEDS FOR 2020: The Pirates lose a major piece of their offensive line when Smith finishes up in 2019. But otherwise, the tackle spots shouldn’t need a lot of replenishing. Still, signing one or two is always the right thing at positions where injuries always seem to occur.
ECU has already jumped into deep water with a half-dozen highly touted tackle prospects, including 6-5, 315-pound Mitchell Mays from Leesville Road High in Raleigh, NC. Mays has already been awarded four-star status by 247Sports.com and has secured more than 18 scholarship offers. The Pirates pulled the trigger on an offer to Mays on Jan. 30.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart At Offensive Tackle
D’Ante Smith, Senior
Noah Henderson, Redshirt Freshman
Donovan Noel, Redshirt Freshman
Matt Morgan, Sophomore
Jack Doyle, Junior
Bailey Malovic, Junior
*Kaizer Ray, Redshirt Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Caleb Pratt completed his eligibility after handling kickoffs last season, while starting placekicker Jake Verity will be a senior in 2019. Those situations made landing a kicker more of a focus than in recent years for ECU.
WHO SIGNED: A left-footed kicker who has been known to knock down field goals from 60 yards out in practice is Patrick Nations from Tamasse, SC. Nations was named the Class 4A Specialist of the Year as a senior at Walhalla High by the South Carolina Football Coaches Association and was rated the No. 1 kicker nationally by ProKicker.com.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The Pirates secured the heir apparent to Verity and landed a guy who can take over immediately handling kickoffs because of his leg strength, if needed.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Doesn’t apply here since the Pirates got their main target in Nations.
WHO’S BACK: Verity should contend for All-AAC honors next season. He’s led the Pirates in scoring the last two years, including 2018 when he converted 19 of 21 field-goal tries and 27 of 28 PATs for 84 points. If that wasn’t enough, Verity also stepped in as a punter at times, averaging 36.0 on 12 attempts.
WHO’S GONE: Pratt handled ECU’s kickoff duties the last three seasons and filled in at placekicker. He averaged 64.4 yards per kickoff last year and sent 44 into the end zone for touchbacks.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Signing Nations ruled out the need for another kicker in the 2020 class, unless they can find a quality walk-on candidate.
The offensive class lacks the “Wow!” factor of the defensive prospects, but it is a solid group. Missing out on some immediate impact players and to help for the depth at guard really brought the final grade down.
East Carolina signed some big-time defensive talent that will add to the team’s athleticism on that side of the ball and provide some immediate impact, especially along the front line. The Pirates could have used another linebacker or two to improve the grade, but otherwise an above average effort.
According to the ratings, this is the best class ECU has signed since joining the AAC. I’d concur with that on the defensive side where the Pirates have added some future stars. This is strong class without considering it was signed in the midst of a coaching change. Throw in that factor and it’s an even more impressive effort.