Upgrading talent and bolstering depth on the front and back ends of the defense were priorities when East Carolina began pursuing the recruiting Class of 2019.
The Pirates wound up exceeding those goals by signing 10 players of exceptional potential, five of whom are projected as defensive linemen and four pegged for the secondary. Headlining the group is one of the most heavily recruited and decorated players from the state of North Carolina in end Traveon Freshwater.
Combined with the 14 scholarships awarded to defenders in the previous recruiting class, East Carolina now has a solid foundation of young, talented players for new defensive coordinator Bob Trott to build around.
So let’s take a close look at how each of those players may impact the program with our annual position-by-position grades for the defensive recruits. We’ll speculate on how each recruit 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.
DEFENSIVE END A+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: For insurance purposes, the Pirates wanted to bring at least two or three defensive ends aboard in the Class of 2019. That’s because three players in their defensive end corps were scheduled to finish their eligibility after the 2018 season. All three of those, however, have applied for waivers to gain an extra season of eligibility and are awaiting word on their status from the NCAA. But that didn’t diminish the need here at all.
WHO SIGNED: As mentioned above, Freshwater was a major recruiting coup for ECU’s previous coaching staff to whom he made a verbal commitment in August 2018. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder entertained offers from Power 5 conference programs such as Duke, Michigan State, N.C. State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest before deciding to become a Pirate.
The nation’s No. 47 inside linebacker prospect, according to 247Sports.com, Freshwater was a three-time all-state selection by The Associated Press during a four-year varsity career at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. He sparked Northeastern to a four-year record of 49-8 while collecting 482 career tackles and 80 quarterback sacks. As further evidence of his athleticism, Freshwater produced 4,727 career yards rushing and 61 touchdowns.
Two additions to the ECU class on the February signing date were Virginians Immanuel “Manny” Hickman and Rick D’Abreu.
Hickman, from Chesterfield, VA, made a pledge first to AAC rival Cincinnati last June over an offer from ECU, Air Force, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Temple and Central Florida. But Hickman had a change of heart in early December and backed off the commitment. New ECU coach Mike Houston, who had recruited Hickman at James Madison, quickly renewed his pursuit for the Pirates and finally landed the 6-3, 260-pounder on Feb. 6th.
A three-time all-region pick at Matoaca High, Hickman earned all-state honors as a senior. He is rated the nation’s No. 121 strongside defensive end by 247Sports.com.
D’Abreu had already chosen to play for Houston at James Madison last August, and actually remained committed to the Dukes after Houston’s departure for ECU. But following an official recruiting visit to Greenville in mid-January, D’Abreu became focused on the Pirates. Like Hickman, he wound up signing a letter of intent with ECU on Feb. 6th.
The 6-2, 240-pounder from Thomas Dale High in Chester, VA, picked the Pirates over offers from JMU, Air Force, Army, Buffalo, Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Navy and Richmond among others. Although limited to just three games as a senior due to an injury, D’Abreu compiled 141 career tackles, 28 tackles for loss and 15 sacks.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Freshwater reminds me of a high school version of Julius Peppers. Both were intimidating and amazing running with the football in high school because of their rare combination of size and speed. Freshwater isn’t quite as tall as Peppers, but comes off the edge with similar speed and purpose. He has clearly been recruited by the Pirates as the heir apparent to Nate Harvey and has the potential to challenge Harvey’s tackles for loss and sack records, although he may have to wait a year to begin that pursuit if the NCAA grants Harvey an extra year of eligibility.
Hickman was used a lot as a standup end/outside linebacker in high school. He has the speed to make plays from sideline-to-sideline, or run down ballcarriers from the back side. Hickman does a great job using his hands to fight off blockers, which will come in handy at ECU where he’ll probably play with his hand on the ground.
D’Abreu is lightning quick and an impressive physical specimen. He displays a real burst off the edge that routinely left prep blockers grasping for air. If D’Abreu has recovered from the leg injury that derailed his senior high school year, he could be a factor on special teams, or more, as a true freshman for the Pirates.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Darius “JuJu” Williams (6-3, 225) was a two-sport start from Hemingway, SC, who was recruited by the previous ECU staff as an edge rusher. Coming off a junior season in which he made 110 tackles, Williams committed to the Pirates last June two weeks after attending camp in Greenville. But by October, Williams decided to re-open his recruitment without stating a reason for pulling out on his ECU pledge. At the time he was the second-highest ranked recruit in the class, so his departure was considered a major blow.
WHO’S BACK: Five, and possibly six players who saw action a year ago and a promising redshirt freshman make up the returning defensive end contingent for ECU.
Senior Kendall Futrell (6-2, 230) started 11 of 12 games in 2018, making 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Futrell also led the Pirates in quarterback hurries with 11. Sophomore Chandon Hickerson (6-3, 231) ended the season as Futrell’s backup and appeared in six games overall (12 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss).
Junior Chance Purvis (6-4, 232) played in 10 games and logged one start as the backup at the other end spot (17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss).
Redshirt freshmen Damir Faison (6-2, 246) and Dorian Hardy (6-4, 246) both saw game action last season as well, although Faison’s three-game stint came at H-back on offense late in the year when injuries forced the Pirates to move him to help fill the void. Hardy is the former Penn State commit who was regarded as the biggest coup for ECU in the 2018 recruiting class. He appeared in two games late in the year, but didn’t record a tackle. A third redshirt freshman who didn’t play last season is Trey Love (6-3, 246).
The wild card at end is 2018 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Nate Harvey, who set the school and league record with 25.5 tackles for loss and ranked third nationally with 14.5 sacks. Harvey achieved all that after being moved to end from fullback in preseason practice. Because of injuries that curtailed Harvey early in his college career, ECU has asked the NCAA for a waiver so he can return for a sixth year in 2019. If granted, the Pirates will return one of the nation’s very best pass rushers.
ECU has also requested similar waivers on defensive end Michael Swift (6-3, 246), who made five tackles in five games last season.
WHO’S GONE: Tony Baird still had a year of eligibility remaining, but chose to finish his college career at the end of the 2018 season. Baird played in eight games last year, mainly on special teams and didn’t record a tackle.
Harvey and Swift could also be moving on, but as of this moment both are still in NCAA limbo.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Even though the Pirates are well-stocked with young talent at defensive end, they’ll lose Harvey, Swift and Futrell for sure after the 2019 season, then Hickerson and Chance Purvis depart in 2020. Sign two this time around to start plugging those holes on the depth chart.
Houston’s staff has been aggressive in pursuit of defensive end prospects over the last two months, extending at least a half-dozen scholarships at the positions since early January. Two of the most recent offers went out to a pair of Georgia players – 6-4, 252-pound Simeon Barrow from Grovetown and 6-3, 230-pound Bradyn Swinson of Douglassville.
Barrow was an All-Area pick by the Augusta Chronicle as a junior when he made 31 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. He has already received offers from the likes of Cincinnati, Michigan State, Missouri and Virginia.
Swinson racked up 25 tackles for loss and eight sacks last season at Chapel Hill High. Air Force, Georgia Southern, Troy and Wake Forest have already joined ECU in pursuit of Swinson.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart at Defensive End
Kendall Futrell, Senior
Chandon Hickerson, Junior
Dorian Hardy, Redshirt Freshman
Trey Love, Redshirt Freshman
Immanuel Hickman, Freshman
#Nate Harvey, Senior
Chance Purvis, Junior
Damir Faison, Redshirt Freshman
#Michael Swift, Senior
Traveon Freshwater, Freshman
Rick D’Abreu, Freshman
#Waiting on NCAA waiver request
DEFENSIVE TACKLE A-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates graduated one scholarship tackle after the 2018 season and could possibly be losing two depending on the NCAA’s ruling on Brandon Henderson. Two more are set to complete their eligibility next fall, which means signing two or three in the ’19 class was a reasonable target.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates hit a home run in their backyard by landing Farmville Central High tackle Keziah Everett during the early signing period in December. Everett earned All-Pitt County honors three times and was selected to represent North Carolina in the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game last December against South Carolina.
The 6-1, 325-pounder made 81 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a senior while pulling down a No. 133 ranking nationally among defensive tackle prospects from 247Sports.com. Appalachian State, Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia also offered Everett, who received some serious late attention from the Tar Heels before signing with ECU in December.
Hozey Haji-Badry (6-3, 270) is one of the more interesting prospects in the Class of 2019. He accepted a scholarship offer to play for Temple as a senior at Chantilly High in Virginia in 2015, but in May that year he re-opened his recruitment and reclassified to spend another year maturing physically and improving academically at the Virginia Prep Sports Academy.
At Virginia Prep, Haji-Badri was recruited as a preferred walk-on at West Virginia, an offer he accepted in January 2017. But coming up short on the SAT score canceled that option just weeks before Haji-Badri was scheduled to report with the Mountaineers. He wound up attending ASA College, a junior college program in Brooklyn, NY, where he resurrected his status as a major-college prospect.
Haji-Badri played in five games as a freshman for the Avengers, then posted 16 tackles, a team-best 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks as a sophomore. The performance netted him offers from Buffalo, Georgia State, New Mexico, Old Dominion, UAB and Western Kentucky before he committed to ECU last November. He signed in December and enrolled at ECU for the spring semester. The 247Sports.com network ranked Haji-Badri the No. 19 junior college prospect at the strongside defensive end position.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Haji-Badri is a highly motivated player athlete who is determined to make the best of a second chance he’s getting with the Pirates. He has defensive end-like length so he knocks down a lot of passes rushing up the middle. Despite his height, he plays low and consistently gets a good push out of his stance. Because of his JUCO experience and spring enrollment at ECU, Haji-Badri has an excellent chance to become part of the defensive tackle rotation next fall.
Everett is one of the most athletic jumbo athletes I’ve seen in some time. He’s been clocked at 4.91 in the 40-yard dash, has a 31-inch vertical leap and a best of 415 pounds on the bench press. Watching him make yards after the catch playing tight end in high school is truly an amazing sight. The potential is there for Everett to become one of those rare disruptive forces as a defensive interior lineman. There will be a learning curve for Everett, and because the Pirates have a veteran presence at tackle he may not be needed next fall. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if he, too, was part of the tackle rotation when preseason camp breaks next September.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU extended scholarship offers to a bevy of highly ranked defensive tackle prospects, including in-state standouts Joshua Harris from Roxboro Person High, C.J. Clark of North Stanly and Gio Paez from Cornelius Hough. But few of those showed much interest in the Pirates, which was OK because Everett was their main tackle target anyway.
The previous coaching staff did extend an offer to former Penn State signee Corey Bolds, who was Haji-Badri’s teammate at ASA College. But that interest didn’t seem to transfer to the new staff and Bolds remains unsigned.
WHO’S BACK: Seniors Jalen Price (6-2, 297) and Alex Turner (6-2, 293) manned the tackle spots throughout the 2018 season. Price has 19 career starts under his belt and has played in 33 games as a Pirate, making him one of the defense’s most experience players. He made 34 tackles, five tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks a year ago. Turner enjoyed a breakout performance in ’18 with 47 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, and he should be a candidate for All-AAC honors next fall.
Junior Raequan Purvis (12 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss) played seven games and started one in mostly a backup role last season. Purvis will join redshirt freshman Chandler Medeiros and walk-on redshirt freshman Zach Barco competing for playing time at tackle behind the starters.
The Pirates have applied for a waiver to get 6-5, 272-pound Brandon Henderson an extra year of eligibility. Henderson, a former JUCO transfer, was limited to one game his first season at ECU due to injury, then made four tackles in nine games last season. If he’s cleared by the NCAA, Henderson could provide some valuable depth and length at the tackle position.
WHO’S GONE: Shaun James saw playing time as a reserve at both end and tackle during his ECU career. He was an effective backup last season, making 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks in six games.
Walk-on Bennett Boateng appeared in 12 games a year ago, mainly on special teams, and didn’t record a tackle.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Unless the Pirates intend to transition some of their ends to tackle in the near future, this looms as a major priority for the recruiting Class of 2020. Both starters complete their eligibility after the ’19 campaign, then Purvis and Haji-Badri are on schedule to finish up the following year. Signing three is a number that would ensure the proper depth in the program, but two may be more realistic since interior tackles are so in demand these days.
Two tackles already getting serious attention from ECU are 6-3, 290-pound Alonzo Ford from Varina High in Richmond, VA, and 6-2, 260-pound Xavier McIver from Cheraw, SC. Ford, a second-team All-Virginia High School League 5-A pick as a junior, is also being courted by Army, Boston College and James Madison. McIver made 37 tackles, six tackles for loss and nine sacks as a junior at Cheraw, where ECU has also targeted his wide receiver teammate Jalen Colt. Coastal Carolina, Liberty, South Carolina and Tulane have also offered McIver.
Projected Pre-Spring Defensive Tackle Depth Chart
Jalen Price, Senior
Raequan Purvis, Junior
Hozey Haji-Badri, Junior
#Brandon Henderson, Senior
Alex Turner, Senior
Chandler Medeiros, Redshirt Freshman
Keziah Everett, Freshman
*Zach Barco, Redshirt Freshman
#Awaiting NCAA waiver decision
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Two to replace graduating seniors Cannon Gibbs and Ray Tillman was the number needed here, but three would have given the Pirates a head start on filling voids expected after the 2020 season.
WHO SIGNED: One of the “sleeper” prospects in the 2019 class for ECU is Chad Stephens, a 6-foot, 225-pounder from Southeast Guilford High near Greensboro, NC. Stephens, a prep teammate of current Pirate defensive end Trey Love, spent much of his career at Southeast playing running back where he rushed for more than 1,100 career yards.
But he gave his verbal commitment to the Pirates in June 2018 as a linebacker over offers from Air Force, Army, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Navy and others. Stephens was rated the No. 147 outside linebacker prospect nationally by 247Sports.com.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Stephens is a physical athlete with excellent football instincts. He has the ability to read the field and put himself in position to make plays. Speedy enough to make plays from sideline to sideline, Stephens also has the versatility to play either the MIKE or SAM linebacker positions at ECU. But his lack of experience playing linebacker will require some patience by the Pirate staff and discipline by Stephens before he’s ready to see game action.
Stephens’ inexperience at the position and the need for at least one other signee resulted in an average grade for the linebacker position.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: The Pirates extended plenty of offers to linebacker prospects, but received serious interest from only a handful of those besides Stephens.
Appalachian State signee Jourdan Heilig, who produced almost 200 tackles as a senior at Concord (NC) High, attended a Junior Day last March in Greenville and received his offer in May from the Pirates. But Heilig never made a return visit to ECU.
Jaylen Hudson from Cape Fear High in Fayetteville, NC, actually attended camp at ECU where he received an offer last June. But Hudson wound up signing with Wake Forest.
WHO’S BACK: The main starters from a year ago at the MIKE and WILL positions are expected back in 2020 along with four others who saw action.
Junior Aaron Ramseur (6-1, 206) is coming off a second straight year as one of ECU’s top tacklers, finishing third in 2018 with 66 hits, had 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Ramseur now has 123 total tackles in two seasons with the Pirates and is projected to again man the WILL position where he started 10 out of 11 games in which he played last year. He should be a strong candidate for All-AAC honors next fall.
Junior Bruce Bivens (6-0, 230) made seven starts and played in all 12 games alongside Ramseur at the MIKE. He ranked fifth among ECU tacklers with 61 total, was fifth in tackles for loss (8.5) and registered two sacks.
Providing experienced depth behind that veteran duo will be sophomores Xavier Smith, Delvonte Harris and Gerard Stringer along with redshirt freshman Jireh Wilson. Smith (6-0, 239) saw most of his action in 11 appearances last season on special teams and filling in at receiver on offense. But he’s expected to return to defense this spring to challenge Bivens at the MIKE position. Harris (6-0, 221) and Stringer (6-2, 188) are both WILL backers who played in eight games each last season. Stringer was very active in his limited playing time, making 16 tackles. Finally, Wilson (6-3, 190) benefitted from the new NCAA rule allowing freshmen to participate up to three games and still maintain their redshirt status when he played in the final three games of 2018.
Walk-on Heath Parker is a returning redshirt freshman at the MIKE.
WHO’S GONE: Cannon Gibbs was only around for two seasons after transferring to ECU from the JUCO ranks, but it was a productive two years. Gibbs played in all 24 games during that span and made 11 starts, racking up 101 career tackles. A year ago he also ranked fourth in team tackles for loss with nine while playing both the MIKE and WILL positions.
Ray Tillman was another veteran who played in 40 games during a five-year run with the Pirates. In nine games a year ago, Tillman had 40 tackles, six tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks working mainly at the WILL behind Ramseur.
NEEDS FOR 2020: The linebacker corps is relatively young, but not especially deep at ECU. So even though the Pirates aren’t scheduled to graduate anyone in the group until 2020, adding two will enhance the depth at linebacker and on special teams.
Recent offers extended by Mike Houston’s staff have gone out to 6-2, 200-pound Jaylen Parker from Westside High in Macon, GA, Isaiah Ratcliff (6-1, 205) from Cedar Grove High in Ellenwood, GA, Solomon DeShields (6-0, 205) from Millville, NJ, and Mitchell Melton (6-4, 225) from Good Counsel High in Olney, MD. All four have multiple FBS offers, led by Melton whose list includes Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Texas A&M.
Projected Pre-Spring Linebacker Depth Chart
Bruce Bivens, Junior
Xavier Smith, Sophomore
*Heath Parker, Sophomore
Chad Stephens, Freshman
Aaron Ramseur, Junior
Gerard Stringer, Sophomore
Delvontae Harris, Sophomore
Jireh Wilson, Redshirt Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Like many FBS programs these days, the Pirates have used what amounts to three safeties in their base defensive alignment. The top backup at one of those spots was dismissed from the program around the midway point of the 2018 season and starters at the other two positions completed their eligibility at the end of the year. Just to replenish the roster from those losses required a three-man safety class.
WHO SIGNED: ECU again tapped into the rich recruiting pool around Greensboro, NC, to sign Alex Angus from Page High School. Appalachian State’s early offer led Angus to make a verbal commitment to the Mountaineers in February 2018. But sometime in late October the 6-2, 190-pound Angus put in a call to then-ECU defensive backs coach Brandon Lynch, inquiring if the Pirates still had any interest in him.
Lynch immediately set up an unofficial visit for Angus on Nov. 3 that resulted in a verbal commitment to the Pirates four days later. A three-time all-league pick, Angus made 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss and had eight sacks to earn all-area honors and a spot on the North Carolina squad in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game as a senior. Appalachian State, Charlotte and Old Dominion also made offers to the No. 153 safety prospect nationally.
ECU also picked up Immanuel Hickman’s Matoaca High teammate Jonathan Coleman (6-2, 205) as a preferred walk-on at safety.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: When healthy in high school, Angus displayed the ability to dominate games defensively. He made a lot of big plays – six interceptions as a junior – and was the guy the Page coaching staff tried to match up against the opposition’s best player. Angus is an exceptional tackler in space, which could make him a valuable asset right away for ECU on special teams. Since he’s already enrolled in school, Angus could also challenge for a spot on the depth chart at strong safety or nickelback if the new staff continues with the same defensive setup.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Three-star safety prospects Jeremiah Gray from Charlotte, NC, and Myles Farmer of Atlanta, GA, attended Junior Day activities at ECU in the spring of 2018, but their interest seemed to fade soon after those visits. Gray wound up signing with Wake Forest and Farmer with Nebraska.
Maybe the biggest miss for the Pirates was Anthony Harris, who played for one of the state’s top programs at Havelock, NC. The school has produced a number of former ECU players, including Harris’s former teammate Khalil Barrett. The Pirates made their bid in the form of a scholarship offer to Harris, but he eventually focused on Tennessee. He committed there last October, but has yet to sign a letter of intent with the Volunteers.
WHO’S BACK: Along with defensive end Nate Harvey, Davondre Robinson was one of the breakout stars defensively for ECU last season at free safety. Robinson (6-0, 201) ranked second only to Devon Sutton in tackles with 77, broke up three passes and made 1.5 sacks. He started 10 of 12 games as a sophomore and now has 13 career starts to his credit in two seasons.
Nolan Johnson (6-2, 196) also impressed as a true freshman working as Robinson’s backup. Johnson made 22 tackles in 12 games, which included two starts. Sophomores Daniel Charles (6-1, 180) and Da’Andre Beverly (5-11, 186) worked on special teams and in reserve at strong safety, with walk-on Charles contributing 34 tackles and an interception in 12 games.
Sophomore Myles Berry (6-1, 213) is a nickelback who saw time in 12 games, while redshirt freshman Jaren Rainey (6-2, 195) and walk-on senior Rowe Mellot (6-0, 212) are other safeties receiving playing time in 2018.
Redshirt freshman Khalil Barrett (5-11, 200) is an athletic performer who could challenge for playing time this spring at the nickel position. Walk-on redshirt freshman Garren Elliott (6-1, 165) rounds out the returning safety group.
WHO’S GONE: Devon Sutton went from recruited walk-on freshman to three-year letterman and team tackle leader. Manning the nickel position for all 12 games last season, Sutton racked up 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Also missing is strong safety starter Marcus Holton (42 tackles/11 starts) and once-promising safety Tim Irvin, who was dismissed from the program last October after appearing in eight games over the last two years.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Nine of the current safeties on the ECU roster are in the sophomore class or lower. Robinson is the only upperclassman in the group and he should be around another two seasons. So safety isn’t likely to be a big priority in the 2020 class, although you can expect the Pirates to still sign one or two anyway.
Projected Pre-Spring Safety Depth Chart
*Daniel Charles, Sophomore
*Da’Andre Beverly, Sophomore
Jaren Rainey, Redshirt Freshman
*Ross Mellot, Senior
Davondre Robinson, Junior
Nolan Johnson, Sophomore
*Garren Elliott, Redshirt Freshman
*Crawford Chandler, Redshirt Freshman
Myles Berry, Sophomore
Khalil Barrett, Redshirt Freshman
Alex Angus, Freshman
*Jonathan Coleman, Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates anticipated losing two from their cornerback roster after the 2018 season, although one of those wound up playing safety. Still, signing two replacements was the target.
WHO SIGNED: Rated the No. 117 cornerback prospect in the nation by 247Sports.com, Ja’Quan McMillian (5-9, 165) was a four-year varsity starter at West Forsyth High near Winston-Salem, NC. He was four times selected as an all-conference performer and named to the Winston-Salem Journal’s All-Northwest squad on three occasions. McMillian made 22 career interceptions, including seven as a freshman. He also pulled in scholarship offers from Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, South Carolina, Syracuse, Tennessee, Wake Forest and West Virginia before signing with the Pirates in December.
Juan Powell will report to ECU as an “athlete,” and could wind up at another position. But we expect him to start his college career at cornerback. The 5-11, 170-pound Powell was known more for his offensive exploits at Douglass High in Atlanta, GA, where he rushed for almost 4,000 career yards. The Pirates, however, need some new blood at corner where Powell is rated No. 130 nationally by 247Sports.com.
The coaching change prompted some hesitation for Powell, who had made a verbal commitment to the previous staff in March 2018. But when Scottie Montgomery was dismissed at the end of November, Powell began to re-evaluate his options, which included scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State, Massachusetts, Syracuse, Troy, Tulane and South Florida. But new coach Mike Houston successful coaxed Powell back into the ECU fold and signed him to a letter of intent in December.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: In McMillian and Powell, the Pirates added two lightning-quick playmakers to their cornerback unit. They’ll both probably need some time to develop physically before being ready for full-time duty. But because they’re already enrolled for the spring semester they could find their way onto the depth chart by next fall. Powell could also find himself work as a freshman in ECU’s return game.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina has enjoyed great success overall attracting some of the best talent in the Eastern part of the state to Greenville. But Isaiah Kemp from Hoggard High in Wilmington, NC, and Shyheim Battle from Rocky Mount were two regional cornerbacks who received offers from the Pirates early in the recruiting process. But Kemp eventually went for a chance to play at Duke and Battle signed with N.C. State.
WHO’S BACK: The Pirates have experience returning, but little depth at cornerback. Seniors Coby Gore and Michael Witherspoon, and junior Warren Saba should form the core of the cornerback unit along with redshirt freshman Damel Hickman in 2019.
Gore (5-11, 173) started 11 games at the boundary corner as a junior, sitting out one game following the infamous collision with UNC’s Antonio Williams. He bounced back from that to record 39 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups on the season.
Witherspoon (6-l, 194) made one start each at the boundary and field corners, but played in all 12 games in his first year after joining the Pirates as a junior college transfer. He made 35 tackles, two tackles for loss and broke up five passes. Witherspoon could wind up battling fellow JUCO transfer Warren Saba (5-10, 186) for the vacant field cornerback spot. Saba appeared in 12 games in ’18 (26 tackles/3 PBUs).
Hickman got his feet wet as a true freshman by playing in four games and should settle in as Gore’s backup this time around.
WHO’S GONE: Corey Seargent started 11 of 12 games at the boundary corner last season, producing 32 tackles, two interceptions and a team-best eight pass breakups. Seargent finished his ECU career as a four-year letter-winner who appeared in 37 games and made 22 starts.
NEEDS FOR 2020: Critical is the best way to describe ECU’s recruiting needs at cornerback. Gore and Witherspoon exit the program after the 2019 season and Saba goes a year later, so we think signing anywhere from three to five couldn’t be too many. Based on the number of offers extended by the Pirates over the last two months, those projections aren’t far off base.
Two of the more intriguing offers have gone out to two cornerbacks from the same prep secondary – Sean Tucker and Teylor Jackson from Woodson High in Washington, DC. Tucker (6-0, 170) was tagged by 247Sports.com as one of the top 10 D.C. area prospects for 2020 and has offers from Massachusetts, Temple, Toledo, West Virginia and Wisconsin in addition to ECU. Jackson (5-10, 197) has fielded offers from Boston College, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Morgan State, Temple, Toledo and West Virginia.
Projected Pre-Spring Cornerback Depth Chart
Colby Gore, Senior
Damel Hickman, Redshirt Freshman
Ja’Quel McMcMillian, Freshman
Michael Witherspoon, Senior
Warren Saba, Junior
Juan Powell, Freshman
OVERALL DEFENSIVE GRADE B
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.
OVERALL OFFENSIVE GRADE C+
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.
OVERALL CLASS GRADE B-
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.
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