The traditional National Signing Day for college football was anticlimactic for the East Carolina Pirates, especially for the offense. But that shouldn’t dampen the enthusiasm Pirate fans should have for 10 offensive prospects who officially cast their lot with ECU during the early December signing period.
While some schools were adding another prospect or two February 5 when the final signing period began, the Pirates were still relishing a December haul that 247Sports.com ranked third-best in the American Athletic Conference. A large percentage of the 26 signees — 15 — are projected as defensive players and one other is a punter.
But even though the number of offensive recruits is smaller, the quality is significant. It features the highest-rated recruit ever to sign with East Carolina, a pair of explosive, big-play running backs and much needed depth for the blocking corps.
So without further ado, here’s Bonesville’s annual position-by-position grades for ECU’s Class of 2020 offensive recruits. We’ll also speculate on how each player fits into the Pirate program, project the best organizational profile we can, and look ahead to what the program may need as the coaching staff pursues the recruiting Class of 2021 and beyond.
We’ll break down the defensive signees in an upcoming article.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Originally adding just one quarterback was the objective for the Pirates. But when Reid Herring decided to enter the transfer portal in late September it left ECU with nothing but inexperienced players behind starter Holton Ahlers. The staff had to regroup and alter its recruiting goals to secure at least two quarterbacks in the 2020 class.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates secured two quarterback commitments by mid-summer, then flipped a third from another Football Bowl Division program just before the early signing period in December.
Coach Mike Houston’s staff completed the job started by former coach Scottie Montgomery in securing Mason Garcia’s pledge last July 5th. The Pirates began courting the 6-foot-4, 218-pounder after a sophomore season in which he passed for more than 1,600 yards and accounted for 27 touchdowns for Carolina Forest High School in in Myrtle Beach, SC. He attended camp in Greenville that spring and received an offer on the last day of the school year. A year later, Garcia gave his verbal commitment to Houston before the start of his senior season.
Rated the No. 14 pro-style quarterback nationally by 247Sports.com, Garcia chose ECU over offers from Akron, Appalachian State, Bowling Green, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Kent State, Missouri, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. He was elevated to four-star status by the final rankings by 247Sports.com in January, making him the highest rated recruit to sign with ECU since those began being compiled in 1999. Rivals.com also rates him as a four-star prospect.
Garcia completed his prep career at Carolina Forest with more than 5,800 passing yards and 61 touchdowns, while adding another 1,900 yards rushing. He played for the South Carolina squad in the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game.
Next, ECU picked up a verbal from Taji Hudson (6-4, 218) of Cedartown (GA) High School on July 22. A receiver and safety as a freshman and sophomore, Hudson had a breakout junior season at quarterback that would ultimately draw scholarship offers from Air Force, Akron, Army, Coastal Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech.
Unfortunately, Hudson’s senior year lasted less than a game. One month after making his pledge to the Pirates, Hudson took a hit to the ribs in the season opener against Rockmart that resulted in cuts on his liver and spleen, and a bruised kidney. He would miss the entire 2019 season recovering from surgery, but should be healthy and ready to go when he reports to ECU this summer.
Just when it seemed like the Pirates were done with quarterbacks in the 2020 class, they dipped into the Houston, Texas metro area that had previously produced record-settting Shane Carden to add Ryan Stubblefield (5-10, 190) just days before the early December signing period. Stubblefield had previously been verbally committed to Kent State, but backed off that decision in November. ECU had been impressed by Stubblefield in its summer camp, but didn’t pull the trigger on an offer until October.
Stubblefield was one of the top performers in the Houston-metro area at Foster High School. Over his final two seasons, he completed 371 of 635 passes for 5,936 yards and 65 touchdowns. Stubblefield was a finalist for Houston Area High School Offensive Player of the Year honors as as senior.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Depth, football IQ, athleticism, talent … you name it, the Pirates got it with these three quarterbacks.
Garcia was the marquee catch at this position and in this class. He has prototypical size for a major college quarterback, but isn’t just a sit-in-the-pocket and sling-it-down-field guy. Garcia has wheels and isn’t afraid to pull the ball down to move the pocket or run for a first down. When he does look to pass, he has a compact motion and excellent arm strength. Watching him throw tight spirals on deep balls is really a thing of beauty.
Depending on how redshirt freshmen Bryan Gagg and Alex Flinn develop, Garcia could redshirt in 2020 or he could be the backup to Holton Ahlers. Either way, he’s a prime contender to replace Ahlers after his eligibility ends in 2021.
Hudson began his career at Cedartown High playing receiver and safety, and he could wind up returning to one of those positions at East Carolina. But a big junior season for Cedartown under center was what attracted the Pirates to Hudson, an elusive athlete who regularly turned sure losses into big gains. Hudson also earned a reputation for strong leadership and work ethic in high school.
Those latter two attributes will make Hudson an asset for the Pirates regardless of where he winds up playing. Even though he’s expected to be cleared for football when he arrives in Greenville, it won’t be shocking if he’s redshirted as a precaution and to give the coaching staff time to determine where he can best helped the program.
One of the most intriguing players in the 2020 class is Stubblefield. It’s hard not to think Russell Wilson when you watch Stubblefield on film, and not just because, like Wilson, he’s an inch or two shorter than the prototypical college or NFL quarterback. Stubblefield has that rare ability to escape pressure — in many times in spectacular fashion — before delivering a strike down field with his huge arm. The fact he was a finalist for the top player in the tough Houston-metro area means Stubblefield has already competed successfully at a high level. All those factors lead me to call Stubblefield my “sleeper” pick in the Class of 2020.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Truthfully, none. ECU even got an additional talent at quarterback in Stubblefield that it wasn’t anticipating at the start of the recruiting cycle. The Pirates reportedly only offered scholarships to two other quarterbacks than the ones they signed. Garcia’s Myrtle Beach rival Luke Doty got an offer in January 2018, but was sold on playing for South Carolina early in the process. Garner’s Nolan McLean was also on ECU’s radar for baseball and football. McLean ultimately decided on a dual-sport offer from Oklahoma State in December.
WHO’S BACK: Doesn’t it seem like Holton Ahlers was just a freshman? Well, the homegrown lefty will enter his junior campaign in 2020 as one of the nation’s most experienced and productive quarterbacks in Football Bowl Subdivision football.
Ahlers has taken practically every snap for the Pirates since becoming the starter in the eighth game of his freshman year. He’s played in 22 career games with 17 starts, amassed more than 6,000 yards of total offense and accounted for 45 touchdowns. From the beginning, Ahlers has also been a natural leader on the field for his team and off the field for the program.
Redshirt freshman Bryan Gagg (6-3, 210) served as Ahlers’ backup down the stretch in 2019, but only made on appearance against South Florida when he completed his lone pass for five yards and a touchdown. By playing in just one game, Gagg was able to save his redshirt year. He’s a smart, strong-armed athlete who should give the staff flexibility to rest Ahlers more in 2020.
Another redshirt freshman, Alex Flinn (6-1, 217), will get a chance to prove himself this spring after spending 2019 running the third-team offense. Like Gagg, Flinn has a high football IQ and was an extremely accurate passer in high school.
A fourth contributor in the quarterback room is junior walk-on Caiden Norman (6-1, 197). Norman has seen action in three games over the last two seasons, completing one of four passes for four yards. He’s proven to be a valuable asset to the program, whether its running the scout team in practice or serving as the animated game-day sideline signal distributor.
WHO’S GONE: With Ahlers receiving the majority of playing time, Reid Herring announced four games into the 2019 season he was going to enter the transfer portal. Herring spent four years fighting to become ECU’s starter, and got his chances. He opened 2018 as the starter for seven games that season before Ahlers began to emerge. Beaten out again in the 2019 preseason camp by Ahlers, Herring played in three games, completing five of eight passes for 74 yards before deciding to find a new home for his final season of college eligibility. In January, Herring announced via a Twitter post that his next destination will be to Football Championship Subdivision North Alabama.
Two other walk-on quarterbacks have also left the program. Greenville Rose grad Grant Jarman has transferred to UNC-Greensboro to pursue a career in baseball, while redshirt freshman Zach Gwynn, from Wilmington, Delaware, entered his name in the transfer portal in December. Gwynn spent most of last season as ECU’s No. 3 quarterback after Herring’s departure, but didn’t see any action. He reportedly has landed back home at the University of Delaware.
NEEDS FOR 2021: Outside of Ahlers, this is going to be a young ECU quarterback room, where five of the six on scholarship are redshirt or true freshmen. So the need to sign a quarterback in the Class of 2021 won’t be urgent.
Still, the Pirates have already extended at least one scholarship offer at the position to Billy Edwards (6-3, 195) from Lake Braddock High School in Burke, VA. Edwards completed 150 of 256 passes for 2,677 yards and 31 touchdowns for a 10-3 squad as a junior. In addition to ECU, he’s also received FBS offers from Akron, Buffalo, Florida International and Kent State.
Projected Pre-Spring Quarterback Depth Chart
- Holton Ahlers, Junior
- Bryan Gagg, Redshirt freshman
- Alex Flinn, Redshirt freshman
- *Caiden Norman, Junior
- Mason Garcia, Freshman
- Ryan Stubblefield, Freshman
- Taji Hudson, Freshman
RUNNING BACK A+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: When the recruiting cycle for 2020 began, the Pirates had three players in their backfield stable scheduled to complete their eligibility after the ’21 season. One of those entered the transfer portal in September, causing a more serious need to pick up at least one running back in the 2020 class.
It also became apparent as the 2019 season unfolded that East Carolina was lacking a consistent big-play threat in its running back corps. The Pirates generated just six rushing plays of 25 or more yards last season and two of those were by quarterback Holton Ahlers. So securing one or more backs with breakaway skills who could make an immediate impact was an offensive priority.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates landed arguably the best running back prospect in South Carolina when Rahjai Harris (5-10, 205) from state power Byrnes High in Duncan gave his verbal commitment last September. Harris had been a mainstay in the Byrnes backfield since a freshman season highlighted by a 182-yard rushing effort against rival Dorman.
Byrnes won 32 games over a four-year span with Harris contributing 3,562 yards rushing on 516 carries (6.9 yards per carry) and 46 touchdowns. As a senior, he racked up 1,445 yards and 21 scores to earn a spot on the South Carolina squad for the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game. Competing against the best prep seniors in North and South Carolina, Harris ran 14 times for 99 yards and scored on a 20-yard run that sealed a 28-17 win for his home state.
Appalachian State, Central Florida, Connecticut, Charlotte, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Memphis, Tennessee and West Virginia are some of the other schools that pursued Harris. He received a three-star rating from both 247Sports.com and Rivals.com.
Just about a month after Harris’s pledge to ECU, Keaton Mitchell (5-9, 170) from Eagles Landing Christian School in McDonough, GA, cast his lot with the Pirates. The son of former NFL safety and Super Bowl champion Anthony Mitchell, Keaton was part of a prep program that won four straight Georgia Class A Private state championships. He enjoyed a breakout junior season in 2018 during which he produced 2,509 rushing yards and the second-highest, single-season touchdown rushing total in state history with 49.
Mitchell followed up with 1,838 yards and 39 scores on 192 carries as a senior to earn Class A Region 5 Player of the Year honors from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. A consensus three-star prospect, he also received scholarship offers from Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Southern, Miami Ohio, Middle Tennessee State, Nebraska, South Florida, Temple, Troy and West Virginia.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Both Harris and Mitchell are true home-run threats.
Harris looks like a bull at times because of his broad shoulders and thick lower body, and he’s not shy about running over a defender, if necessary. But looks are bit deceiving in this case. Harris has excellent quickness, the ability to fake defenders out of their shoes, and breakaway speed.
By enrolling in January, Harris will get the chance to compete for playing time this spring. Depending on how the returning veterans develop, Harris could quickly work himself into the backfield rotation by next fall.
Raw speed is Mitchell’s chief asset. He’s been timed at 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 10.99 seconds in the 100 meters and 22.42 in the 200. Mitchell goes from 0-to-100 when he takes a handoff and turns upfield. He shoots through the hole in a blink of an eye, and when facing off with a defender can change direction on a dime.
How quickly Mitchell can adjust to the more physical nature of college football will determine how soon he receives playing time. But we expect that to happen sooner rather than later.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina courted quite a few running backs early in the 2020 cycle. But snaring primary targets in Harris and Mitchell early in the process meant the Pirates really didn’t miss on a significant running back recruit.
They did show early interest in Kobe Pryor from Cedartown, GA, D.J. Jones from Fayetteville and Marlowe Wax from Baltimore, MD. Jones received a May 2019 offer from the Pirates and took an unofficial visit to campus in June, but ultimately signed with North Carolina. Wax attended a Junior Day event in Greenville before choosing Syracuse and Pryor ultimately picked Clemson. But the bonus with Pryor is that while checking in on him, ECU discovered quarterback signee Taji Hudson.
WHO’S BACK: Experience should be abundant in the ECU backfield for 2020. Four players who saw significant playing time in 2019 are expected to return, led by leading rusher Demetrius Mauney.
The departure of Hussein Howe in September and an injury that sidelined Darius Pinnix during the middle of the season opened the door for the 6-foot, 194-pound freshman Mauney to log a team-high 125 carries for 446 yards and a touchdown over 12 games. He made four starts before Pinnix returned for the final two games of the regular season.
Pinnix (6-0, 234), a junior, is by far the most experienced of the ECU running backs, having appeared in 26 career games with 13 starts. He’s logged 203 carries for 746 yards, but had his 2019 campaign interrupted by a neck injury. When Pinnix returned after missing eight games, he ran a career-high 27 times for 103 yards and two scores in a victory against Connecticut. A healthy Pinnix will be the No. 1 contender to earn the starting nod at running back next fall, but he’ll face plenty of competition from the incoming freshmen, Mauney and returnees Trace Christian and Tay Williams.
Christian (6-0, 213), a junior, played in seven games and started two times last season while contributing 269 yards rushing on 64 carries. A 14-carry, 91-yard effort against William & Mary earned him starts against Old Dominion and Temple, but after managing just 46 yards on 18 carries in those games he went back to a reserve role.
The 5-10, 192-pound Williams has the most big-play ability among ECU’s returning backs. He led the backs with the best yards-per-carry average (4.8) after appearing in the final nine games of the year in 2019. Williams rushed 34 times for 186 yards in reserve role.
Walk-on redshirt freshman Asa Barnes (5-9, 207) didn’t see action last season, but is also part of the running back brigade.
WHO’S GONE: Hussein Howe was a significant contributor at ECU for three seasons, first as a special teams performer, then as a running back in 2017 and 2018. But four games into the 2019 season, Howe decided to enter himself in the NCAA transfer portal. The decision cost the Pirates a veteran runner who had played in 40 career games and gained 730 yards rushing. Howe has yet to announce his transfer destination.
NEEDS FOR 2021: There’s not a senior in the ECU running back corps, and the signing of Harris and Mitchell more than makes up for the loss of Howe. But every recruiting class needs at least one running back prospect.
To find that player, the Pirates have already extended scholarships to more than a half dozen prep running backs.
One of those is Myles Montgomery (5-10, 195), from Neptune Beach, FL, who was named offensive player of the year after rolling up the third-highest rushing total (2,124 yards) in the Jacksonville metro area in the last decade. He received an offer from ECU in December to go along with others from Boston College, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Maryland, Southern Miss, UAB and Western Kentucky.
Colby McDonald (5-11, 200), from St. John’s High in Washington, DC, is another running back target offered Dec. 9. McDonald is also being courted by Boston College, Buffalo, Kansas, Louisville, Maryland, Syracuse and Tennessee.
The Pirates have also jumped into the crowded fray for in-state stud Trevion Cooley from Knightdale. Cooley (5-10, 200) is a speed merchant who has been timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He’s already accumulated double-digit offers from the likes of Georgia Tech, Louisville, Maryland, N.C. State, Tennessee and others. ECU joined that group in late January, but likely faces an uphill battle to land Cooley.
Projected Pre-Spring Running Back Depth Chart
- Darius Pinnix, Junior
- Demetrius Mauney, Sophomore
- Trace Christian, Junior
- Tay Williams, Sophomore
- Rahjai Harris, Freshman
- *Asa Barnes, Redshirt freshman
- Keaton Mitchell, Freshman
*Denotes walk-on player
WIDE RECEIVER C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Only Deondre Farrior completed his eligibility after the 2019 season. But with two more scholarship seniors scheduled to finish up at the end of 2020 in Mydreon Vines and Audi Omotosho, signing at least two to begin filling those voids was a reasonable objective.
WHO SIGNED: Tyler Savage (6-3, 190) was a multi-purpose athlete who spent a good portion of his four-year varsity career at John Champe High in Aldie, VA, playing quarterback. But as a junior he started to attract college recruiters at receiver (40 catches, 521 yards, eight touchdowns on the year). Savage seemed set to significantly increase those receiving stats as a senior after he caught eight passes for 115 yards and three scores in the 2019 opener. But a broken collarbone abruptly cut short his year.
Savage still drew a lengthy list of college suitors before committing to ECU in July 2019, including Appalachian State, Kent State and Temple among others.
The Pirates have also added three walk-on receivers in Greenville product Cole Burgess (6-1, 184), Terrance Copper Jr. (5-11, 175), the son of the former Pirate and NFL receiver, and Mark Lewis II, an NCAA Division II transfer from Clarion.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Savage has the tall frame and long strides that remind us of former ECU receiver Trevon Brown. He can be physical, which helps him get separation from defensive backs, or to break tackles after making a catch. But using his combo of strength, speed and length, Savage has the potential to be a big-threat for the Pirates down the road when he gains more experience as a receiver.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina was early on the scene with three-star Ger-Cari Caldwell from Northwestern High in Rock Hill, SC, offering a scholarship last June. The 6-4, 195-pounder came to campus for an unofficial visit later that month and promptly made a verbal commitment to the Pirates on Aug. 1. But when the younger brother of NFL receiver Anthony Johnson started receiving attention from home-state South Carolina in late November, he re-opened his recruitment. Although Caldwell did continue to consider the Pirates, he wound up signing with the Gamecocks in December.
WHO’S BACK: Four of the top five pass catchers from a year ago are expected back for the Pirates in 2020, and five others who saw game action return.
Headlining the contingent are sophomore Tyler Snead (5-7, 167), sophomore C.J. Johnson (6-2, 229) and junior Blake Proehl (6-1, 186). Barring injuries, that trio should handle the starting duties when the 2020 season opens.
Snead is a former walk-on whose exploits in the final four games of 2018 — 15 catches for 236 yards and four touchdowns — made him an immediate fan favorite at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. To prove that was no fluke, Snead recorded 66 receptions for 759 yards and five touchdowns while making six starts at an inside receiver spot last season. He also served as ECU’s chief return man.
Ahler’s former high school partner-in-crime, Johnson, established himself as a future all-star candidate by grabbing 54 catches for 908 yards and four scores as a freshman. Johnson appeared in all 12 games, starting five of the final seven. Over the last four games of the season, Johnson made 22 catches for 509 yards and two scores.
Proehl is ECU’s Mr. Reliable. Throw it in his vicinity and he’s going to catch it. He started 11 of the 12 games last year between the X and Z outside receiver positions, making 54 catches for 670 yards and four touchdowns.
UCLA grad transfer Audi Omotosho (6-2, 180) showed flashes late last season that he can be a valuable asset after becoming more familiar with the ECU offense. He made five catches for 114 yards and a touchdown with four of those receptions coming in a narrow loss against nationally-ranked Southern Methodist.
Sophomore Jsi Hatfield (5-9, 174) was fifth in team receiving with 16 catches for 260 yards and two touchdowns, while senior Mydreon Vines (5-52-0) and junior Leroy Henley (4-32-0) were also contributors. Sophomore Andre Pegues didn’t make a catch last season, but finished the year on the depth chart at outside receiver. Walk-ons Johnathan Johnson (11 games) and Maceo Donald (4) also saw game action.
Junior Cam Burnette and redshirt freshman Ford Moser, both walk-ons, round out the returning receivers.
WHO’S GONE: Deondre Farrior was expected to be an all-star candidate as a senior in 2019, but never really seemed to get going. He finished with 22 catches for 309 yards in 12 games (5 starts). Farrior finished his ECU career having played in 39 games while making 97 receptions for 1,197 and six touchdowns.
NEEDS FOR 2021: Omotosho and Vines are are track to finish their careers at the end of 2020, then Henley and Proehl followed in 2021. Signing two receivers is the minimum needed, but getting three or even four, if really good ones are available, would be a good goal.
The Pirates extended a number of recent offers to receiver prospects in January and early February. They include O’Mega Blake (6-2, 188) from South Pointe High in Rock Hill, SC, Ahmari Huggins (6-0, 163) from Dillon, SC, and Marcus Burke (6-3, 180) from Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, FL.
An intriguing receiver prospect ECU has entered the hunt for is Breon Pass from in-state Reidsville High. The 6-foot, 160-pounder is a two-sport star, who has also been receiving major scholarship offers in basketball. The Pirates’ previous coaching staff originally offered him a football grant back in 2018, prompting Pass to visit campus. The current staff jumped back in to renew his offer in January.
Pass, who caught 42 passes for 752 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior, has also received offers from Appalachian State, Duke, N.C. State (football and basketball), North Carolina, South Carolina, Tenneseee, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
Projected Pre-Spring Wide Receiver Depth Chart
X Outside Receiver
- C.J. Johnson, Sophomore
- Audi Omotosho, Graduate
- *Johnathan Johnson, Senior
- *Cam Burnette, Junior
- Tyler Savage, Freshman
Z Outside Receiver
- Blake Proehl, Junior
- Andre Pegues, Sophomore
- Leroy Henley, Junior
- Mydreon Vines, Senior
- *Cole Burgess, Redshirt freshman
- Tyler Snead, Sophomore
- Jsi Hatfield, Sophomore
- *Maceo Donald, Sophomore
- *Ford Moser, Redshirt freshman
- *Mark Lewis II, Sophomore
- *Terrance Copper Jr., Freshman
*Denotes walk-on player
TIGHT END/H-BACK B-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: With its new status in ECU’s offensive scheme, landing one tight end/H-back each year is going to be the norm. But this time around the staff actually needed to replace a prominent player at the position who completed his eligibility in 2019, so the need was even more pronounced.
WHO SIGNED: Shane Calhoun (6-2, 230) from Creekside High in St. Augustine, FL, received scholarship offers form Air Force, Appalachian State, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Connecticut, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Kent State, Middle Tennessee State, Navy, Ohio, Rutgers, Toledo, Tulane, UAB, South Florida and Western Kentucky before settling on the Pirates in April 2019.
As a senior, he caught 30 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns to earn a spot on the Florida Coaches Association’s All-District 6 squad. Calhoun was also selected to participate in the 65th annual North-South All-Star Classic.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Calhoun is the perfect athlete for what ECU likes to do with this position. He can line up as a blocker at fullback or tight end, or move outside as a receiver where his hands are an asset. But Calhoun’s real forte is blocking, which could make him a instant contributor in certain offensive packages and on special teams.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: One of the “sleeper” prospects from the in-state Class of 2020 was Fayetteville tight end Ezemdi Udoh, an athletic 6-5, 242-pounder whose older brother Oli was selected in the 2019 NFL draft as an offensive lineman. ECU extended an offer to Ezemdi, who played at Terry Sanford High, in February 2019 and had him on campus for an unofficial visit in April. But an offer from N.C. State in June led to a commitment to the Wolfpack a week later.
WHO’S BACK: Two players at the top of the depth chart are back in junior Zech Byrd and sophomore Jeremy Lewis along with another experienced player in sophomore Damir Faison.
Byrd (6-7, 265) played in all 12 games last season, making four starts at tight end and one at the inside receiver position. He was an effective receiving target in the red zone, grabbing three touchdown passes among his 11 receptions (130 yards).
The Pirates are excited about the potential as a receiving threat for the 6-3, 225-pound Lewis, who played in 11 games and caught four passes for 32 yards last season. He’s athletic, can run and has big-play ability. Lewis merely needs to work on his consistency in other phases of the game to become a prime-time player for the Pirates.
Faison (6-2, 258) is a walk-on who began his ECU on defense before moving to tight end last October. He actually made one start against Connecticut last season as one of his five appearances.
WHO’S GONE: Anthony Whatley was part of the tight end depth chart for four straight years. He played in 34 games and made seven starts during that span, including six last season when he caught four passes for 45 yards and two scores. Whatley finished his career with 14 receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
Also exiting the program at tight end is walk-on Jaray Sampson, who appeared in four games in 2018, but didn’t see in action in his final season.
NEEDS FOR 2021: The Pirates don’t lose any of their current tight end/H-back players until after the 2021 season, but the need to add one or two new prospects to the stable is high.
The Pirates have gone out aggressively, extending at least nine scholarship offers at the position so far in the Class of 2021. Some of the most recent offers have gone out to 6-3, 235-pound Bryce Butler from St. John’s High in Washington, DC, Charlie Browder, a 6-7, 235-pound from The Christ School in Asheville, NC, Mattheus Carroll (6-3, 220) from the Gilman School in Baltimore, MD, and Lawson Albright (6-5, 225) from Grimsley High in Greensboro, NC.
Albright was a major force on offense for Grimsley’s 12-2 squad last season, making 29 catches for 425 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s already picked up offers from Appalachian State, Boston College, Duke, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Louisville, N.C. State and Virginia Tech.
Browder is another interesting prospect, who made 20 catches for 222 yards and three scores as a junior. He’s drawing interest from Appalachian State, Charlotte, Iowa State and Central Florida along with the Pirates.
Projected Pre-Spring Tight End/H-Back Depth Chart
- Zech Byrd, Junior
- Jeremy Lewis, Sophomore
- *Damir Faison, Sophomore
- Shane Calhoun, Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Two vital pieces to East Carolina’s center position have departed, one expected and one unexpected.
Brandon Pena completed his eligibility last season, while rising senior John Spellacy has been removed from the roster due to medical issues. Between the two, they’ve logged 26 starts at the center position over the last three years. Replacing at least one of those was imperative for the Pirates.
WHO SIGNED: East Carolina got a steal in 6-4, 305-pound Jaquaez Powell from Southwest Edgecombe High in nearby Pinetops. He collected 66 pancake blocks over three prep seasons and was named first-team All-State by The Associated Press as a senior.
Listed as the nation’s 12th-best center prospect by ESPN.com, Powell committed to ECU in April 2019 just after attending a Junior Day function in Greenville. He only had offers from Charlotte and Georgia Southern before pulling the trigger on the Pirates.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Powell is one of the more athletic centers you’ll find. He’s been timed at 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is agile enough that he played fullback as an underclassman. Spellacy’s departure could open the door for Powell to see some playing time as a true freshman.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Three-star center prospect Jestus Johnson from Gonzaga High in Washington, DC, was the only other center the Pirates pursued. They offered the 6-3, 324-pounder in January 2019, but never seemed to be on his recruiting radar. Johnson gave Virginia an early pledge in March and signed with the Cavaliers in December.
WHO’S BACK: The saving grace for ECU may be the return of Peyton Winstead (6-3, 276). Winstead was pressed into action at center as a true freshman in 2018, appearing in nine games and starting the final six. But with Pena and Spellacy in the fold for 2019, and Winstead bouncing back from shoulder surgeries, the Pirates decided to redshirt him. Winstead returns as a sophomore with the inside track on the starting job.
Redshirt freshman Trent Holler finished 2019 as the backup center and appeared in two games. Sophomore Nick Bernhard and redshirt freshman Zack Yaggi, both walk-ons, round out the center group.
WHO’S GONE: Brandon Pena completed his eligibility as the Pirates’ No. 1 center after starting eight of 12 games last season. Pena also logged one start at right guard. Knee injuries prevented Pena from reaching his full potential at ECU, but he enjoyed a strong finish.
Spellacy played a major role in the Pirate blocking corps with 14 starts at center between 2017 and 2018 before concussion issues began to hinder his play. He bounced back last year to play in nine contests and start four, but decided returning for a final season wasn’t in his best interests.
NEEDS FOR 2021: With three scholarship centers between the sophomore and freshman classes, the position won’t be a priority for the Pirates in the 2021 class. But that doesn’t mean ECU shouldn’t bring at least one aboard for the future.
That guy could be 6-3, 278-pound Bryson Estes, who last season helped pave the way for ECU running back signee Keaton Mitchell at Eagles Landing Christian in McDonough, GA. Estes has corraled 11 offers so far from the likes of Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Michigan State and even Penn State.
Projected Pre-Spring Center Depth Chart
- Peyton Winstead, Sophomore
- Trent Holler, Redshirt Freshman
- *Nick Bernhard, Sophomore
- *Zack Yaggi, Redshirt Freshman
- Jaquaez Pwell, Freshman
*Denotes walk-on player
OFFENSIVE GUARD C-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Projected graduation losses at the guard spots made signing at least three players essential for the 2020 class. But while some of those losses have been delayed by a year, player suspensions and other departures, kept the priority for multiple signees high. The grade here is a result of falling short of those numbers.
WHO SIGNED: Isaiah Foote (6-4, 285) was a three-year, two-way starter at Calvert High in Prince Frederick, MD. He received first-team All-Southern Maryland Football Coaches Association and All-Calvert County honors for a state playoff club as a senior.
East Carolina began pursuing the three-star prospect in December 2018, then wound up offering a scholarship in February 2019 while on campus for an unofficial visit. He gave his verbal commitment to the Pirates on June 11 over offers from Buffalo, Kent State, Marshall and Temple.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Foote is such a a good athlete that he often lined up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation at Calvert High. That speed allows him to be out front of the point of attack, or to get down field to throw blocks. His combination of speed and lower body strength makes Foote an excellent candidate for become a contributor at ECU very early in his career.
The problem is the Pirates needed three just like him in this class.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Two guard prospects who were on campus together for a Junior Day gathering in March 2019 eventually received offers from East Carolina were Isaiah Brooks from West Forsyth High in Clemmons, NC, and Demond Arter from St. John’s High in Washington, DC.
The 6-5, 305-pound Brooks decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, Steve, and sign with N.C. A&T. Steve Brooks is a former Aggie offensive lineman.
Arter (6-4, 308) was an all-conference performer as a senior at St. John’s who opted for life in the Mid-American Conference with Ohio University.
WHO’S BACK: The Pirates received a big break earlier this month when graduate student Fernando Frye (6-3, 289) was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The former walk-on transfer from NCAA Division II Mercyhurst University is capable of playing center also, but has seen all his action so far at guard.
Frye appeared in all 12 games last season, starting seven at left guard and the season finale at right guard. He also made five starts at right guard in 2018. Frye could move over to center in the spring, depending on Winstead’s health. But more than likely he’ll top the depth chart at left guard.
Of course, that position, and where Frye winds up playing, could depend on what happens to senior Cortez Herrin (6-3, 342). One of ECU’s best and most experienced blockers has been in limbo since January following his arrest on marijuana charges. Coach Mike Houston suspended Herrin indefinitely from all football activities while the case runs its course in court.
Herrin began the 2019 season as the starter at left guard and an all-star candidate. He had started 16 straight games at the position before a knee injury sent him to the sidelines. Herrin was limited to six games, including five starts.
If Herrin is allowed to return, he’ll no doubt have to work himself back into the good graces of the coaching staff. But the NFL draft prospect should eventually reclaim his starting job at left guard, allowing Frye to move to right guard or to center, if needed.
Returning at right guard is senior Sean Bailey (6-6, 339), who started the first eight games last season before an injury forced him to miss three of the final four contests.
Versatile senior Jaison Fournet (6-1, 311) has played both center and guard at ECU after joining the program as a walk-on. He played in just three games last season, but is capable of stepping in as a starter, if needed.
Redshirt freshman Nishad Strother (6-3, 318) played in two games last season and finished the year at No. 2 on the depth chart at right guard.
Two other redshirt freshmen walk-ons, Grayson Lewis (6-3, 315) and John Ross Edwards (6-2, 299) are other guard candidates.
WHO’S GONE: Jack Doyle, who finished the 2019 season as the backup at left guard, had a year of eligibility remaining. But after seeing action in just six games over a four-year stay at ECU he decided not to return for a fifth season.
NEEDS FOR 2021: Guard should be a major point of emphasis in the 2021 class considering the Pirates lose Frye, Herrin, Bailey and Fournet from this group after next season. Bringing in two or three at minimum is essential for depth purposes.
Early guard targets for the Pirates are 6-4, 280-pound Michael Gonzalez from Sun Valley High in Monroe, NC, and 6-3, 290-pound Jacob Smith from Buford, GA.
Gonzalez has already earned three-star status after being named all-league and second-team all-state as a junior. He has offers from the likes of Florida, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, North Carolina, Ohio State and Virginia Tech along with ECU.
Smith was selected to Georgia’s All-Region 8-5A team as a junior for the powerhouse Buford program. The Pirates extended an offer to him in January to go along with a previous one from Maryland.
Projected Pre-Spring Guard Depth Chart
- Sean Bailey, Senior
- Nishad Strother, Redshirt freshman
- *Grayson Lewis, Redshirt freshman
- Fernando Frye, Senior
- Jaison Fournet, Senior
- Isaiah Foote, Freshman
- *John Ross Edwards, Redshirt freshman
OFFENSIVE TACKLE B-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: There were no graduation losses at tackle, but the Pirates were thin at the position even when healthy last season. So signing two to enhance the depth and future at tackle was a reasonable goal.
WHO SIGNED: East Carolina ventured into rural Virginia to land 6-6, 310-pound Walt Stribling from Fluvanna High School. A three-year varsity starter, Stribling was named All-Jefferson District, All-Region 3A and All-Central Virginia as a senior during his prep career.
Listed as a three-star prospect by 247Sports.com, Stribling’s only FBS offer was from the Pirates. He committed to ECU about two weeks after receiving his offer in March 2019.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Stribling may need some time to develop as a pass blocker because he played in a run-oriented Wing-T offense in high school. But he has the length, long arms and power to become a future tackle starter for the Pirates. By enrolling in January, Stribling will get an early start that should accelerate his development and could earn him a spot on the depth chart next fall.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: The Pirates received an official visit on January 17 from the nation’s No. 22 junior college offensive tackle prospect Amelio Moran from Lackawanna Community College. An ECU offer in December became one of 18 for Moran to consider before he narrowed the list to the Pirates, Maryland and Florida International. He made official visits to all three in January before signing with the Terrapins.
WHO’S BACK: Honorable mention All-American Athletic Conference pick D’Ante Smith (6-4, 289) returns for a third straight season as the starter at left tackle. He’s made 24 consecutive starts there, making him the only ECU blocker to play in every game the last two seasons.
Sophomore Noah Henderson (6-5, 315) played in 11 games and made the final four starts at right tackle in 2019, while junior Bailey Malovic (6-6, 273) appeared in four games as Smith’s backup at left tackle.
WHO’S GONE: Matt Morgan would have been the projected starter at right guard entering 2020. The rising redshirt junior opened the first eight games there in 2019 before moving off to help out at guard. But Morgan unexpectedly left the football program in January, even though he remained enrolled in school.
NEEDS FOR 2021: Like the guard position, tackle should be a point of emphasis in the 2021 class for the Pirates. The program already lacks depth at the position and will be losing its best tackle Smith after the 2020 campaign. Adding two or three next signing period would be a big boost to the position group.
More than a dozen offers are already out for offensive tackle prospects. A major target for ECU and others is 6-7, 295-pound Colby Smith from Reidsville, NC, and Rockingham County High School. Smith already has more than a dozen offers from the likes of Illinois, Tennessee, Louisville, South Carolina, Virginia, UNC and N.C. State. But the Pirates jumped in with a Jan. 29 offer in hopes of swaying Smith to Greenville.
Projected Pre-Spring Offensive Tackle Depth Chart
- D’Ante Smith, Senior
- Bailey Malovic, Junior
- Noah Henderson, Sophomore
- Walt Stribling, Freshman
- *Hampton Engle, Redshirt Freshman
*Denotes walk-on player
PLACEKICKER No grade
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The signing of Patrick Nations in the 2019 class really took care of the placement needs for at least another three seasons. So there was no real need to bring on another kicker in the 2020 class.
WHO SIGNED: No one.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: The Pirates did actually offer three-star kicker Mitch Jeter from Concord, NC, and he actually made an unofficial visit to Greenville in November. But South Carolina gained his commitment and signed him in December.
WHO’S BACK: One of the nation’s best in senior Jake Verity. Verity was a second-team All-AAC pick last season when he led the league in field goals (24), field goals made per game (2.00) and kick scoring (105 points). He was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award given annually to the nation’s top placekicker.
Verity’s heir apparent, Nations, saw action in the final game last season but didn’t attempt a kick. Sophomore walk-ons Michael Tilley and Steve Arquiette are other placekickers on the 2020 roster.
WHO’S GONE: No one.
NEEDS FOR 2021: With Nations ready to assume Verity’s spot in 2021, there is no real need to sign another kicker during this cycle.
Projected Pre-Spring Placekicker Depth Chart
Jake Verity, Senior
Patrick Nations, Redshirt Freshman
*Michael Tilley, Sophomore
*Steve Arquiette, Sophomore
*Denotes walk-on player
OVERALL OFFENSIVE GRADE B+
There are some immediate impact athletes in this offensive class, including both running backs and perhaps an offensive lineman. But this group is really about the future. Most can hopefully develop without being rushed into action in 2019. But either way, this is a class low in numbers but high in quality.