GREENVILLE — East Carolina announced a recruiting class of 25 players on Wednesday. The incoming group is heavy on defensive linemen with seven and defensive backs with five.
The newcomers include 23 freshman and two junior college defensive ends, Henry Garrison and Elijah Robinson, who will be enrolling in January along with eight freshmen.
Several signees had escaped the notice of recruiting services, including 27-year old Australian punter Luke Larsen, who came to the attention of coach Mike Houston and staff through their contacts at James Madison.
The Pirates are bringing in three quarterbacks.
“It’s a group that our coaching staff has been working on since we first took this job,” Houston said.
The class was ranked third among American Athletic Conference programs and 60th nationally by 247 Sports.
Second step of rebuild
The Pirates were reeling from three straight 3-9 seasons when Houston was hired from JMU, which he coached to the Football Championship Subdivision title in 2016.
“When you look back to where the program was on Dec. 3, 2018, and where we sit here today, certainly, I think. there has been tremendous improvement in a lot of areas,” Houston said on National Signing Day on Wednesday. “I think the roster is in a much better place today than it was a year ago. The culture of the program is at a much more upward direction than it was this time a year ago. I think our level of play is improved over where it was this time a year ago.
“At the same time, 4-8 (2019 record) is not what we want. We expect better. We plan on playing at a high level next year. We plan on continuing to push and improve each year as we work to build this program. I think that 2019 was a first step. I think today was probably a significant second step.”
Evaluation in progress
The Pirates finished 2019 with a 49-24 home loss to Tulsa. Houston said the program would be subjected to a self-evaluation after the season finale.
“After the Tulsa game, we all left the very next day to head out recruiting, so we haven’t been together a whole lot,” Houston said. “We’ve been on the road virtually every day since then. We have begun that process this week. We’ve watched the Tulsa game multiple times.
“As we get into the winter and the January month, a complete evaluation of everything in the program that we did in 2019 will be done. There are already things that I have identified and made notes of that I want to adjust moving forward, some of those schematically. Some of those with how we operate. You always have to evolve. If you’re not evolving in this industry, you’ll get passed by. We’re still on the front end of that process.”
Season impacted signees
ECU went 1-7 in the AAC in 2019. The strength of the league reinforced the recruiting focus.
“There’s no doubt that the experiences here and the game environment impacted what those players thought of us,” Houston said. “I think that going through this league certainly impacted some of the emphasis that we put on this class. I think on both ends 2019 impacted what we did today.
“The roster that we inherited last year really was put together with a different philosophy and a different scheme. I think we’ve adjusted some things and developed the players that we had here to fit us a little bit better. This class was recruited to fit what we are going to do moving forward.
“You see the size and the speed of the linemen on both sides of the football is one thing that stands out first. Big bodies that can move are what you have to have to be competitive in this league. Then you look at the dynamic playmaking ability of the skill players on both sides of the ball. You can never have enough good football players. Having guys with the kind of playmaking ability that we signed in this class are going to benefit the program moving forward.”
Defensive tackle J’Vian McCray can dunk a basketball at 6 feet, 1 inch and 285 pounds. He is on the North Carolina Shrine Bowl squad for this Saturday’s game at Wofford. Houston said he advised McCray to take it easy on South Carolina quarterback Mason Garcia, also an ECU signee.
Defensive tackle Suirad Ware (6-0, 280) of Richmond (VA) Highland Springs was a late addition to the class. Commitments from defensive tackles D’Anta Johnson and Xavier McIver had been publicized before they signed on Wednesday. ECU loses Alex Turner and Jalen Price from the interior on the defensive front.
Houston said C.J. Crump may be the fastest of the fleet group of incoming defensive backs, having some eye-opening 40-yard times. The new DBs also include Nasir Clerk, David Laney, Sean Tucker and Teagan Wilk.
Eric Doctor and Teylor Jackson will bolster the linebacking corps.
End Jason Romero of Scotland County will join classmates Doctor, Jackson, McCray and Wilk as an early enrollee from the defensive side.
The Pirates maintained early commitments from offensive linemen Isaiah Foote, Jaquez Powell and Walt Stribling.
Joining Garcia among new quarterbacks will be Taji Hudson, a dual threat, and Ryan Stubblefield. Houston said Stubblefield’s family drove from Texas to bring him to camp in June, where he was impressive with his passing ability.
Wide receiver Tyler Savage (6-3, 190) has good size. Shane Calhoun joins the tight ends. ECU has added Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell to a young group of running backs.
Harris and Stribling will be joining the program in January.
Pleased with staff
Houston indicated that he is pleased with his coaching staff, the bulk of which came with him from JMU.
“That’s one of those things that I learned a long time ago you just never know,” Houston said when asked if his staff would remain intact. “You never know. I’m happy with this coaching staff. I think they’re very dedicated to being here. They all want to be here. I don’t foresee any major changes there, but at the same time everybody is evaluating their situation.”
There will be a much greater familiarity with personnel and the returning players will have a year of experience in the current schemes when spring practice starts on March 16.
“The kids understand how we’re going to practice,” Houston said. “They understand what we want to achieve and our schemes a lot better. You’ve got 10 brand new ones though and, certainly, we’ve got to improve in all facets moving forward in order to play at a high level this fall. The good thing is this year instead of having to worry so much about teaching them how to be on time, how to run onto the field, how to conduct themselves appropriately, you’re focused more on football. I’ve already told the team that. Now you can worry about becoming a better football team.”
James Madison has won 13 straight since a season-opening 20-13 loss at West Virginia and hosts Weber State (11-3) in the FCS semifinals on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU). The ECU coach is following his former program.
“Absolutely,” Houston said. “That’s the roster that I recruited and built. I spent a lot of time putting together that team. When you leave, you want to continue to see them having success. I think, fortunately, we’ve been able to leave programs in really good shape moving forward. Certainly, they’re having the kind of year that I thought they had the opportunity to have. I told Coach (Curt) Cignetti that team had a chance to compete for a national championship and that’s what they’re doing.”
Now that the recruiting class is solidified, Houston will have some time with his family over the holidays.
“We’re going to spend some time together,” Houston said. “That’s been tough this fall and during recruiting. With the boys being the age that they are, you’re missing out on so many experiences there. So Amanda and I are going to spend a lot of time with Owen and Reid. We’re going to go see Mom, go see Amanda’s family, but just spend a lot of time together, the four of us.”