East Carolina put together strong efforts against nationally-ranked Cincinnati and Southern Methodist when the Pirates still had a shot at bowl eligibility in 2019, but the disappointment of the near-misses has its silver lining.
Had ECU gotten a bowl bid, the coaching staff would have had to juggle its time and energy to prepare for a postseason matchup as well as nail down its first complete recruiting class.That would have been a nice problem to have but as it is the Pirate coaches have been putting the finishing touches on a solid group of incoming players.
ECU’s class is currently ranked second in the American Athletic Conference behind Cincinnati by 247 Sports going into Signing Day on Wednesday. Last year, the Pirates inherited the bulk of recruits from the previous coaching staff with a few significant tweaks and were ranked sixth in the AAC.
Last year’s class was ranked 78th nationally. This year’s commitments are ranked 55th.
Those are nice bumps for first-year coach Mike Houston’s staff, which was on the road to secure the newcomers shortly after a season-ending 49-24 home loss to Tulsa on Nov. 30.
There are five defensive linemen committed to ECU where there will be some significant senior losses on the front, including captain Alex Turner, Jalen Price and Kendall Futrell. Five defensive backs are projected to sign with the Pirates as well.
No doubt the program would have preferred to be getting ready for a bowl trip and extra practices would have served as a means of development for the huge volume of underclassmen, but preventing leakage from the well-regarded collection of future Pirates has value as well.
It will take some time to see how good this year’s class will be on the college level, but there are indications that there is already some bonding taking place on social media.
ECU is well ahead of where it was last year as the new staff was putting names with faces and evaluating returnees on film. The personnel has game experience in the systems they are playing and that bodes well for the future, too.
Thundering Herd in opener
The Pirates will play Marshall at home on Sept. 5 in the 2020 season opener. The teams haven’t played since 2013 when the Thundering Herd won 59-28 at home to conclude the 2013 regular season when both teams were in Conference USA. ECU leads the series, 10-5, and is 7-0 at home against Marshall.
The Herd is 8-4 this season and is a decided underdog against Central Florida (9-3) in the Gasparilla Bowl on Monday, Dec. 23 (ESPN), at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The venue, South Florida’s home, and the opponent will be familiar to the Pirates. The matchup will give ECU some preliminary indications of how they will stack up in their first game of Houston’s second season in Greenville.
UCF topped the Pirates, 41-28, in Orlando on Oct. 19. After trailing 35-6 at halftime, a blocked punt by Leroy Henley on the first possession in the third quarter sparked an ECU comeback.
Marshall and the Pirates had a pair of common opponents during the 2019 regular season. The Herd fell 52-14 at home to Cincinnati on Sept. 28 while the Bearcats used a game-ending 32-yard field goal by Sam Crosa for a 46-43 win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Nov. 2. Marshall downed Old Dominion, 31-17, in Huntington on Oct. 12 while ECU topped the Monarchs, 24-21, in Norfolk on Sept. 28.
Most impressive among the Herd’s four losses was a 14-7 setback at Mountain West champion Boise State (12-1) on Sept. 6.
Marshall’s leading rusher is sophomore Brenden Knox, who has run for 1,284 yards and 11 touchdowns. Herd quarterback Isaiah Green, who has thrown for 2,215 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions, is also a sophomore. Top receiver Armani Levias, who has 43 catches for 486 yards with three scores, is a senior.
Marshall and East Carolina have some significant history. The tragic Marshall football plane crash that took 75 lives in 1970 occurred on a return flight from a game in Greenville.
Mike Hamrick, who is in his 11th year as athletic director at Marshall, served in that capacity at ECU from 1995 to 2003. Herd football coach Doc Holliday was a candidate for the ECU job after Hamrick dismissed Steve Logan following the 2002 season. This is Holliday’s 10th season at Marshall.
Gamecocks for game two in 2020
The Pirates are scheduled to play at South Carolina on Sept. 12 next season. The Gamecocks are coming off a 4-8 season, the highlight of which was a 20-17 win in double overtime at then-No. 5 Georgia on Oct. 12.
Houston coached The Citadel to a 23-22 win at South Carolina in 2015.
ECU will host Norfolk State on Sept. 19. The Spartans were 5-7 this year with one common opponent with the Pirates, ODU. NSU took a 24-21 road loss to the Monarchs in the season opener on Aug. 31. That was ODU’s only win in a 1-11 campaign. One of those Monarch losses came courtesy of ECU, which ended a 10-game road losing streak with a 24-21 victory.
After an open date, ECU will visit Georgia State in Atlanta on Oct. 3. The Panthers sent shockwaves throughout college football with a 38-30 win at Tennessee to start their 2019 season. Pirate Nation can get a look at Georgia State (7-5) as they take on Wyoming (7-5) in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 31 at 4:30 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network.
Upcoming AAC opponents
The Pirates will play American Athletic Conference games at home against Navy, Southern Methodist, Central Florida and Tulane next season. There will be league games on the road against Cincinnati, Temple, Tulsa and South Florida.
With the departure of Connecticut from the AAC, the league will cease division play and the conference championship game will match the top two teams in the 11-member standings.
All four of the AAC teams ECU faces at home next season are involved in bowls.
No. 23 Navy (9-2) meets Kansas State (8-4) in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 at 3:45 p.m. on ESPN. The Midshipmen face Army on Saturday at 3 p.m. (CBS) in Philadelphia.
SMU (10-2) goes against Florida Atlantic (10-3) in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. (ABC).
Tulane (6-6) takes on former C-USA foe Southern Miss (7-5) in the Armed Forces Bowl on Jan 4 at 11:30 a.m. (ESPN).
No. 21 Cincinnati (10-3) goes to the Birmingham Bowl to play Boston College (6-6) on Jan. 2 at 3 p.m. (ESPN).
ECU fans can get another look at Temple (8-4) when it meets North Carolina (6-6) in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 at noon (ESPN).
ECU will lose two players from the starting lineup on offense from the last game of the season, left guard Fernando Frye and center Branden Pena. Four starters will be leaving from the defensive unit — tackles Turner and Price, Futrell at an end and corner Colby Gore.
Gore’s interception sealed a 31-24 win at Connecticut and gave the Pirates one more win than each of the previous three 3-9 seasons.
The Pirates had two road wins for the first time since 2015.
Leading rusher Demetrius Mauney (446 yards) was a true freshman. Quarterback Holton Ahlers threw for 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore. Darius Pinnix Jr., a sophomore, averaged 72.2 yards rushing in four games. Freshman Tay Williams and sophomore Trace Christian each averaged over four yards per carry.
Receiver C.J. Johnson, a true freshman, had 54 catches for 908 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. Redshirt freshman Tyler Snead had 66 receptions for 759 yards and five scores. Soph Blake Proehl had 54 catches for 670 yards and four TDs.
Kicker Jake Verity totaled 105 points during his junior season.
ECU’s top three tacklers were sophomore linebacker Xavier Smith, junior safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson and sophomore linebacker Gerard Stringer.
Spring game set
This year’s spring practice figures to feature less teaching and more reps. The Purple-Gold game is scheduled for Saturday, April 18.
Season tickets go on sale on Signing Day.