When it comes to defense, East Carolina’s recruiting Class of 2020 has it covered front and back.
Coach Mike Houston and his staff continued to upgrade their defensive talent for a second straight cycle, signing 15 players on that side of the ball. The group includes seven defensive line prospects and six secondary players. Seven of those defenders have already enrolled at ECU and will start competing for playing time during spring practice. Two are among three junior college transfers who’ll be expected to make immediate contributions for a defense that obviously needs some help.
The Pirates surrendered 41 or more points six times in 12 games last season to rank 110th nationally out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense (33.70). They were equally vulnerable to the rush, giving up an average of 207.8 yards per game to rank 113th nationally, and the pass where they were 108th with 261.6 yards an outing.
But combined with the 10 quality defenders signed in 2019, this class provides a strong foundation for new coordinator Blake Harrell to build an improved unit. Harrell will be ECU’s third defensive coordinator in three years, so hopefully he can restore some needed consistency in that area.
Here’s our in-depth look at how each of those prospects may impact the Pirates in our annual position-by-position report card for the defensive recruits. We’ll speculate on how each player fits into the ECU program, speculate on the organizational depth chart, and look ahead to the Pirates’ needs as they begin pursuing the recruiting Class of 2021.
First up, the defensive ends.
DEFENSIVE END B+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: With two ends graduating after the 2019 season, including sack leader Kendall Futrell, and two more scheduled to leave at the completion of the 2020 campaign, the Pirates already needed to secure two or three to start plugging those holes.
ECU also took some hits at the position as the ’19 season unfolded. First, heralded freshman Traveon Freshwater was forced to sit out as an academic redshirt due to an NCAA ruling. He was allowed to practice, but wasn’t able to play in games.
Then, during preseason drills, another prized recruit, redshirt freshman Dorian Hardy, went down with a knee injury.
Those situations increased the need to sign not only defensive end prospects, but also players who could make an immediate impact.
WHO SIGNED: Junior college transfers in Henry Garrison from Nassau Community College and Elijah Robinson from Louisburg, along with highly regarded prep end Jason Romero from Scotland High School in Laurinburg, NC.
Garrison (6-6, 265), from Palisades, NY, was a quarterback and defensive lineman at Tappan Zee High School, then played tight end in an injury shortened season at Hudson Valley Community College before transferring to Nassau. He appeared in 13 games over two seasons with the Lions, making 27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 quarterback sacks.
With their needs at defensive end rising, the Pirates reached out to Garrison late in the recruiting cycle. One day after making three tackles in Nassau’s loss against Iowa Central in the Graphic Edge Bowl in early December, Garrison received a scholarship offer from ECU. He quickly set up official visits to Greenville and to American Athletic Conference member Tulsa before choosing the Pirates on Dec. 18.
The 6-4, 250-pound Robinson starred as a linebacker at Ashley High School in Wilmington, NC, where he was also an all-league performer in basketball and lacrosse. Lacking any significant recruiting attention for football, Robinson enrolled at Louisburg where he was redshirted as a freshman in 2018. Adding almost 50 pounds to his frame from his senior year in high school to his sophomore season at Louisburg, Robinson emerged as a major college prospect. Injuries limited his time as a sophomore at Louisburg, but he still made 11 tackles and a sack.
Realizing Robinson’s untapped potential, Louisburg coach Chris Tolbert reached out to ECU’s coaching staff, who invited Robinson to their summer camp. An impressive showing there earned Robinson a scholarship offer on June 22 and he committed after another visit to campus later that month.
Landing Romero was a recruiting coup for the Pirates. He played for one of North Carolina’s top prep programs at Scotland, and best head coaches in Richard Bailey. The 6-4, 235-pounder was regarded as one of the top 50 college prospects in the state and drew scholarship offers from Duke, Coastal Carolina, Florida International, Massachusetts, Old Dominion, Temple and Wake Forest. He actually made a verbal commitment to Duke in September 2018, but withdrew that pledge in December.
The decision opened the door for ECU’s Houston and his new staff to make a run at Romero. They got him to campus for a Junior Day function in March and by late June had earned a verbal commitment.
Romero was a member of the All-Sandhills 4-A Conference team as a senior at Scotland when he made 79 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five sacks.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Garrison and Robinson are raw talents, who are still learning the defensive end position. Both have only played there on a full-time basis for about two years, but ECU’s need for immediate help may force them to do some on-the-job training next fall.
Garrison is a bit of a self-made player. After receiving little or not recruiting attention coming out of high school, he dedicated himself to the weight room and built himself into a major college prospect. But Garrison has some excellent natural attributes to complement his work ethic. He has great length and good quickness that could eventually make him a disruptive force for the Pirates. Because he’s already enrolled at ECU, his technique and power should improve rapidly, making him a candidate for playing time next fall.
I previously compared Robinson to a taller version of former ECU pass-rushing great Nate Harvey. Like Harvey, Robinson is super quick and plays every down likes it’s his last. And similar to Garrison, he arrives in Greenville with the reputation as a hard worker who’ll do whatever it takes to succeed. Another early enrollee, Robinson could also figure into the defensive end picture next fall due to the numerous offseason departures at the positions.
Next to quarterback Mason Garcia, Romero may be the biggest prize in this class. His prep coach, who has had more than 20 players earn FBS scholarships, compares him to former Appalachian State great and ex-NFL player Marques Murrell. Romero is taller than Murrell, but is similar in his explosiveness off the edge and high motor.
The opportunity to enroll in January and participate in spring practice may benefit Romero more than any other player. It’ll give him a chance to adjust to the speed of the college game, add some size and power, and compete for playing time at a position lacking depth.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Former UNC player Jordan Riley, from Durham, NC, raised hopes he might transfer from Garden City Community College to East Carolina when he dropped in for an official visit Dec. 13. The 6-5, 330-pounder had been recruited by the Pirates out of Riverside High in Durham and spent two seasons with the Tar Heels before leaving. He would have been an immediate contributor for the Pirates, but instead will spend his final two college seasons at Nebraska.
WHO’S BACK: Senior Chance Purvis (6-4, 233) emerged as a disruptive force on ECU’s defensive front last season when he ranked second behind Kendall Futrell in team tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (4). The Meridian, MS, product started all 12 games at one end spot and recorded at least one tackle for loss in nine of those outings.
But Purvis faces an uncertain future with the Pirates following his arrest Feb. 18 on felony charges of second degree kidnapping and breaking/entering with intent to terrorize or injure. He was immediately suspended indefinitely from all football activities by Houston.
The situation with Purvis could leave the Pirates with only one defensive end who saw action last season for spring practice and beyond. The lone returnee is Rick D’Abreu (6-2, 257), from Chester, VA, who was rushed into action as a true freshman last season and finished the year as Purvis’ backup. He played in 11 games, making 10 tackles and forcing three quarterback hurries.
Here’s where things get even more tricky for the Pirates at end. The prize of the 2019 recruiting class, Treveon Freshwater (6-1, 242), should be eligible after being forced to sit out last year as an academic redshirt. Freshwater, from Elizabeth City, NC, was allowed to practice last season, so if he’s taken care of duties off the field he should be ready to play a vital role next fall as a redshirt freshman.
There are also questions to be answered about the status of sophomore Dorian Hardy (6-4, 242) . Hardy arrived in Greenville with high expectations, but a preseason knee injury last August put him on the sidelines for 2019. Hardy’s status became further complicated in January when he was suspended indefinitely by Houston after being arrested for failing to appear in court on three misdemeanor traffic charges.
So Hardy faces an uphill battle back from a serious knee surgery and must redeem himself to the ECU coaching staff, both of which make him a longshot to make a significant contribution next fall. But Hardy has the potential to be a really good college player if he can get back on track.
WHO’S GONE: Kendall Futrell made 33 career starts for ECU, including all 12 last season when he earned second-team All-American Athletic Conference honors. He paced the Pirates in tackles for loss (16), quarterback sacks (11), quarterback hurries (11) and forced fumbles (3), while making 63 total stops.
Graduation also claimed Michael Swift, a former walk-on who played tight end and linebacker before becoming a valuable reserve at end last season. He appeared in all 12 games as a senior and made five tackles.
While the departures of Futrell and Swift were anticipated, losing redshirt senior Chandon Hickerson and sophomore Trey Love were not. Hickerson, who played in three games last season, left the program earlier this month, while Love entered the NCAA transfer portal then withdrew his name a few days later. Love was removed from ECU’s online roster and is not expected to return to the program.
NEEDS FOR 2021: This should be the No. 1 priority on defense for the Pirates for the 2021 class. They could possibly enter spring practice with only one player who has seen major action at the end spots, unless Hardy is available. Purvis, if he returns, completes his eligibility after the 2020 season, and if Garrison and Robinson play immediately as expected, they’ll be done following the ’21 campaign. The scenario means East Carolina desperately needs to acquire at least two or three more end prospects by next February.
Two targets who received January offers from East Carolina are 6-5, 260-pound Justus Boone from Sumter, SC, and 6-7, 245-pound Zyun Reeves from Kernersville, NC. The Pirates joined a list of about 20 programs that have offered Boone, who is one of the early favorites to be the top-ranked recruit in South Carolina for the Class of 2021. Reeves, who made 80 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season for East Forsyth High School, has offers from Duke, Florida State, Georgia State, N.C. State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart at Defensive End
STRONGSIDE DEFENSIVE END
- Henry Garrison, Junior
- Jason Romero, Freshman
- Dorian Hardy, Sophomore
WEAKSIDE DEFENSIVE END
- $Chance Purvis, Senior
- Rick D’Abreu, Sophomore
- Traveon Freshwater, Redshirt freshman
- Elijah Robinson, Sophomore
$Denotes currently suspended from football activities
DEFENSIVE TACKLE A-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The interior defensive line spots have become among the most important in building a successful defense in this era of football, which makes it a priority in almost every recruiting class. But it was critical area for ECU this time around, even though the Pirates brought some quality tackle talent aboard in the 2019 class. Both first-team tackles from 2019 have completed their college eligibility and depart with 61 games of starting experience. Landing replacements for that duo made two a logical number to pursue for the 2020 class, but with another set to graduate after next season securing an additional tackle better filled the need.
WHO SIGNED: Next to secondary prospects, tackle was the most heavily recruited defensive position in the 2020 class. The Pirates signed four with impressive credentials from the high school ranks, including two from the state of Virginia.
In-state prospect J’Vian McCray (6-1, 285) was the first tackle to make a commitment to ECU on June 5, 2019. McCray, from the coastal town of Shallotte, enjoyed a stellar career at West Brunswick High playing for East Carolina graduate Brett Hickman. He was named the All-Area Defensive Player of the Year by the Wilmington Star News as a senior after collecting 51 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and seven sacks for a 10-2 squad. To cap his prep career, the cousin of former Pirate defensive back Colby Gore was selected to represent North Carolina in the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game.
East Carolina beat out Air Force, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina and Tulane for McCray’s services.
On the opposite sideline at the Shrine Bowl was Cheraw, South Carolina’s Xavier McIver, a 6-1, 282-pounder who reeled in offers from Akron, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Middle Tennessee State, South Carolina, Syracuse, Temple, Tulane, Central Florida, South Florida, Wake Forest and West Virginia. McIver wasn’t really considering ECU until, as a courtesy to a Cheraw teammate, he came to Greenville for an unofficial visit last March. The trip sold McIver on the Pirates and he committed in August.
As a senior at Cheraw, McIver recorded 73 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks to earn Class AAA all-state status from the South Carolina Football Coaches’ Association.
D’Anta Johnson (6-2, 265) from Dinwiddie, VA, joined the class in late October in the midst of a monster senior campaign at Dinwiddie High. Johnson recorded 84 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and had eight quarterback hurries in just 10 games. He made a school-record six quarterbacks sacks in one game against Petersburg on the way to earning All-Metro honors from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Johnson picked ECU over offers from Central Florida, Coastal Carolina, Delaware, Delaware State, James Madison, Kent State, Liberty and Villanova.
The final addition to the tackle class occurred on the day the early signing period opened on Dec. 18. Suirad Ware (6-0, 280) from Highland Springs High, just up I-95 from Johnson in Richmond, VA, was a Class 5A All-Region B selection as a senior at offensive guard an defensive end. He also pulled in offers from Coastal Carolina, James Madison, Morgan State, Robert Morris and Wagner before settling on the Pirates.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Darius Shipp from Northwest Missouri Community College had already given a verbal commitment to Western Kentucky when the Pirates made their offer on Dec. 11. Shipp quickly arranged an official visit to Greenville two days later, but in the end stuck with his pledge and signed with the Hilltoppers.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The four signees enhance the depth and add some more studs to what is an impressive group of young tackles in the ECU program.
McCray is already enrolled at ECU, so he’ll probably get the first crack at making the depth chart next fall. Athletically, he’s probably the best of the quartet. Capable of dunking a basketball, McCray has an explosive twitch to quickly get past blockers. His prep coach Hickman, compares him to former Pirate and NFL defensive lineman Jay Ross, which is a pretty strong endorsement.
Johnson and McIver area also quick, powerful, durable athletes with the ability to see action as true freshmen, if needed.
Ware is a former linebacker who is one of the class “sleepers.” He comes from one of Virginia’s top prep programs, so he’ll be well prepared for the transition to the college game. Speed is Ware’s biggest asset at this stage.
WHO’S BACK: Only three tackles with game experience are back, but only one saw significant action last season.
Junior college transfer Hozey Haji-Badri (6-3, 276) worked in 10 games as a backup, collecting 11 tackles along the way. He and sophomore D’Angelo McKinnie (6-4, 277), who just moved to tackle from tight end last year, were both listed in No. 2 positions at tackle on the depth chart when the season ended. McKinnie appeared in four games. A third returnee is 6-3, 266-pound redshirt freshman Immanuel Hickman, who made a tackle while playing in two games last season.
Untested but returning players at tackle also include sophomore Chandler Medeiros (6-3, 286) and redshirt freshman Keziah Everett (6-1, 343), plus walk-ons in redshirt freshmen Joseph Samson (6-2, 237) and Justyn Haynesworth (6-1, 280). Everett is a player with great size, athleticism and potential that the Pirates would like to see step forward this spring and compete for playing time.
WHO’S GONE: Alex Turner (30 career starts) and Jalen Price (31) were two of the most experienced players in the ECU program. Turner, a former walk-on, exits with 124 career tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, while Price accumulated 105 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
NEEDS FOR 2021: By signing four in the 2020 class, ECU met its immediate needs at defensive tackle. Eight of the nine scholarship players expected to be in the tackle competition next fall are in either the sophomore, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen classes.
But as we stated above, it’s alway a good practice to sign one or two tackles.
The Pirates certainly wouldn’t mind adding 6-1, 296-pound Kenjuan Manuel from St. John’s High in Washington, DC, whom they offered in late January. They jumped in the fray for Manuel along with Kent State, Liberty, Massachusetts, Ohio and Purdue.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart at Defensive Tackle
- Hozey Haji-Badri, Senior
- D’Angelo McKinnie, Sophomore
- J’Vian McCray, Freshman
- Suirad Ware, Freshman
- *Justyn Haynesworth, Redshirt freshman
- Immanuel Hickman, Redshirt freshman
- Chandler Medeiros, Sophomore
- Keziah Everett, Redshirt freshman
- D’Anta Johnson, Freshman
- Xavier McIver, Freshman
- *Joseph Samson, Redshirt freshman
*Denotes walk-on player
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The 2019 linebacker corps essentially returns intact, so this wasn’t a pressing area of need for the 2020 class. Picking up two, however, for depth purposes was the target number.
WHO SIGNED: Both Eric Doctor (6-0, 200) from Edgewater High in Orlando, FL, and Teylor Jackson (6-0, 210) from Woodson High in Washington, DC, were part of the June commitment spree that saw the Pirates land pledges from 10 of their eventual signees.
Doctor was part of a state finalist team as a senior at Edgewater, manning the strong safety position on defense. He made 37 tackles, five tackles for loss and two interceptions to earn a spot on the Orlando Sentinel’s All-Area second team.
ECU was the first to offer Doctor back in May 2019 followed by Campbell, Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Florida International, Illinois, Indiana, Jacksonville State, Kent State, Louisville, Marshall, Mercer, South Dakota, Tennesssee-Martin, Troy, Tulane, UAB and Vanderbilt. He had already lined up officials visits to Florida International and Tulane for the fall when he came to Greenville for an unofficial visit in June. Three days later he gave his pledge to the Pirates.
Because he sat out a prep season after transferring, Jackson spent last season playing for the National Christian Academy where he made 25 tackles and a sack for a 7-3 team. He pulled in a number of scholarship offers from the likes of Air Force, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Temple and West Virginia. But he opted instead to join former Woodson High teammate Sean Tucker in Greenville.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Both these guys are prep safeties who’ll be transitioning to linebacker in college. But they’ll get a head start on that since they’re already enrolled in school and will participate in spring practice.
Doctor is a sure tackler who has the speed to make plays from sideline-to-sideline. He’s more than capable of dropping into pass coverage, whether it’s man-to-man or zone, and when balls are thrown in his direction he has great hands to make the pick.
Jackson’s skills are similar to Doctor’s. But he plays a bit more physical and has a knack for getting to the point of attack very quickly.
The duo will need to improve their size and strength before they are ready for full-time duty at linebacker. But as reserves and special teams players they could wind up contributing next fall.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Shon Brown from Clover, SC, was part of the June rush of commitments to ECU. A powerful 6-2, 220-pounder, he quickly jumped at an offer from the Pirates in June 2019 before any other schools had gotten involved with him. He came to campus for an official visit in September, but suddenly dropped the Pirates in early October. The three-star prospect wound up signing with Coastal Carolina.
WHO’S BACK: Experience abounds at the three linebacker positions where seven players with starting experience will return for 2020. That includes three of the top five tacklers from the 2019 unit.
Junior Xavier Smith (6-0, 244) led the Pirates with 81 tackles while starting all 12 games at the weakside linebacker spot. Junior Gerard Stringer (6-2, 196) was also in the lineup for all 12 contests at outside linebacker, where he collected 63 tackles (third-highest on team), 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Barring injury, you can pencil those guys into those positions again for next fall.
Myles Berry (6-1, 221), a junior, started one game at the weakside spot and played in all 12. Berry, a former safety, made 14 tackles. Also returning at the weakside or outside spots are sophomore Jireh Wilson (6-3, 202), who tallied 28 tackles and had a tackle for loss in 12 games last season, senior Warren Saba (5-10, 191) and redshirt freshman Alex Angus (6-2, 193). Saba played in 11 contests a year ago, making 17 tackles and a tackle for loss. Angus appeared in four games without registering a tackle.
Senior Bruce Bivens (6-0, 234) was ECU’s starting middle linebacker for nine of the first 10 games and finished fifth in team tackles with 61. But late in the year Bivens gave way to junior Delvonte Harris (6-0, 224), who made 13 tackles and two tackles for loss over the final three games (two starts).
Walk-on senior Damani Harrison (6-1, 240), redshirt freshman Chad Stephens (6-0, 252) and Dre’Shwun Terry (6-1, 244) are other candidates at middle linebacker. Harrison made three tackles in 11 games last season, while Terry is a transfer from NCAA Division II Chowan where he totalled 95 tackles and seven tackles for loss in two seasons.
An X-factor at middle or weakside linebacker could be senior Aaron Ramseur (6-1, 213). Ramseur was one of ECU’s best defenders in 2017 and 2018, and was being projected as an all-star candidate entering last season. But just as Ramseur was starting to play up to his all-star status at mid-year, he suffered a torn ACL in the loss against South Florida. He had made 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks before the injury sidelined him. The Pirates will likely keep a close eye on Ramseur during spring practice and hold him out of contact. But if he’s ready by the fall he would be a major asset to the ECU defense.
WHO’S GONE: The only player missing from the 2019 linebacker corps is walk-on Rowe Mellott, who made two tackles in eight games, mostly on special teams.
NEEDS FOR 2021: East Carolina faces some significant losses at the linebacker spots following the 2020 season. Bivens, Ramseur, Saba and Harrison are scheduled to complete their eligibility and five other linebackers are on course to exit after the 2021 campaign. So the Pirates will need some high numbers in the ’21 class to fill the gaps. Signing at least three linebackers is essential.
A pair of Virginia Beach, VA, area standouts are early ECU linebacker targets. Zemarion Harrell (6-2 220) from Salem High received an offer from the Pirates in December and is also being courted by Auburn, Florida Atlantic, Louisville, Marshall, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Temple, Tennessee and Virginia.
Jayden Truesdale (6-0, 225) plays for Princess Anne High and has offers from Charlotte, Florida and Liberty along with ECU.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart at Linebacker
- Xavier Smith, Junior
- Myles Berry, Junior
- Aaron Ramseur, Senior
- *Damani Harrison, Senior
- Eric Doctor, Freshman
- Bruce Bivens, Senior
- Delvonte Harris, Junior
- Chad Stephens, Redshirt freshman
- *Dre’Shuwn Terry, Junior
- Gerard Stringer, Junior
- Warren Saba, Senior
- Jireh Wilson, Sophomore
- Alex Angus, Redshirt freshman
- Teylor Jackson, Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Safety wasn’t a big priority when the cycle started because the Pirates had nine players in the freshman and sophomore classes at the position. But injuries, position changes and defections altered the situation enough to make securing one or two a necessity.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates landed David Laney (6-0, 180) from one of Virginia’s top programs at Highland Springs High. Laney started his career at quarterback for the Springers, but moved to the secondary as a sophomore during the second of three straight state Class 5 championships. He earned All-Region Class B honors as a senior and was rated by 247Sports.com as one of the top 35 prospects in the state.
ECU offered Laney last May and he came to campus for an unofficial visit on June 16. Two days later he made a pledge to the Pirates over Army, Kent State, Louisville, Purdue, Virginia and Western Michigan.
Teagan Wilk (5-11, 180) didn’t need a long, drawn-out recruitment process. He attended camp at ECU in June, which earned him a scholarship offer from the Pirates. Wilk returned to campus for a visit on June 14, then gave his pledge to the Pirates June 21.
Wilk played wide receiver and safety at Berwick (PA) High School where he set the school record with 17 career interceptions. He earned all-state honors three times from the Pennsylvania Football Writers.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Wilk is an interception machine who plays a lot like former ECU safety Damon Magazu. The guy has the hands of a receiver, great vision and speed, which makes him a potential future playmaker for the Pirates.
Because Wilk is already enrolled at ECU and will participate in spring practice, he could easily work himself into playing time at free safety or on special teams by next fall.
Laney is a physical, fast, versatile athlete who could play either safety position or even corner. The Pirates probably also like the fact that Laney is a guy who knows how to prepare for success after playing for such a high profile prep program.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina pursued a handful of safeties such as four-star Ja’Quarious Conley from Northside High in Jacksonville, NC, and three-star prospects Isaiah Fisher-Smith of Greensboro (NC) Page and Elijuwan Mack from St. Joseph Regional in Montavale, NJ. The Pirates even had Conley and Mack on campus early in the recruiting cycle.
But Conley wound up signing with North Carolina, Fisher-Smith with Duke and Mack with Rutgers.
WHO’S BACK: The starters are set to return at free and strong safety as does a third player who finished 2019 No. 2 on the depth chart at strong safety. But beyond that the Pirates are scary thin unless some position changes occur in the spring to bolster the depth.
Senior Davondre Robinson (6-0, 201) manned the free safety position in all 12 games last season and wound up second to Xavier Smith in team tackles with 71. He had two tackles for loss, broke up four passes and tied Ja’Quan McMillian for the team lead with three interceptions. Robinson will enter 2020 having made 24 consecutive starts for the Pirates and 27 overall.
Former walk-on Daniel Charles (6-1, 187) made 11 starts at strong safety as a sophomore and collected 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and two interceptions. Redshirt freshman Juan Powell (5-11, 176) impressed as Charles’ backup down the stretch last season, making 18 tackles in just four games, including a start at free safety in the season finale.
Nolan Johnson (6-2, 204) made an impressive debut as a true freshman in 2018, but he only appeared in three games and made eight tackles last season.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Jonathan Coleman (6-1, 201) and Duke transfer Isaiah Kemp (6-1, 175) round out the safety group. Kemp will have to sit out the 2020 season under NCAA transfer rules after spending his true freshman year with the Blue Devils.
WHO’S GONE: Promising free safety Jaren Rainey played in two games as a freshman in 2018 and three last season. But apparently not happy with his playing time, Rainey entered the NCAA transfer portal in December. He wound up joining the Football Championship Subdivision program at Hampton University.
NEEDS FOR 2021: With depth lacking and Robinson on schedule to finish his eligibility after the 2020 season, the Pirates need to be ready to sign two or three safeties in the next class. And getting four wouldn’t be out of the question.
ECU jumped into the fray in January for 6-2, 195-pound Bralyn Oliver from Belton-Honea Path (SC). Oliver had been verbally committed to Georgia, but backed off that pledge to re-open his recruitment. He’s now looking at a group of schools that includes Appalachian State, Charlotte, Colorado, Duke, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart at Safety
- Davondre Robinson, Senior
- Juan Powell, Redshirt freshman
- Teagan Wilk, Freshman
- David Laney, Freshman
- Daniel Charles, Junior
- Nolan Johnson, Sophomore
- *Jonathan Coleman, Redshirt freshman
- #Isaiah Kemp, Redshirt freshman
*Denotes walk-on player
#Transfer; won’t be eligible in 2020
WHAT THEY NEEDED: This was a critical area of need in the 2020 class due to position changes and graduation losses. Signing three to five cornerbacks was required to replenish the losses.
WHO SIGNED: Three high school corners and a junior college transfer have joined the Pirate cornerback corps, including the first pledge to the Class of 2020.
Nasir Clerk (6-2, 170) from Irvington (NJ) High School, made his verbal commitment to ECU not long after the Class of 2019 last February. Buffalo, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Northern Illinois and Syracuse also made runs at Clerk, but his decision stuck and he signed during the early period.
Clerk enjoyed a stellar senior season at Irvington, earning a spot on the Super Football Conference Freedom White Division squad, All-Essex County Group 4&5 and Jersey Sports Zone all-state honors.
C.J. Crump (6-0, 170) from Greensboro (NC) Page High and Sean Tucker (6-0, 170) from H.D. Woodson High in Washington, DC, both were part of the June recruiting binge for ECU.
Crump, who was a prep teammate of current Pirate outside linebacker Alex Angus, received an offer from ECU after producing a 40-yard dash time of 4.4 seconds in last year’s summer camp. He cast his lot with the Pirates about two weeks after receiving the offer. Campbell, Elon, Massachusetts and N.C. Central were his other offers.
Cincinnati, Indiana, Kent State, Massachusetts, Temple, Toledo, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin are some of the teams that were pursuing Tucker before he chose ECU. That was right before a senior season in which he made 15 tackles, broke up seven passes and had an interception for Woodson’s dynamic defense.
The final piece to ECU’s Class of 2020 came a day after the start of the traditional signing period in February. Junior college transfer Robert Kennedy (5-10, 185) from Lackawanna Community College decided on the Pirates after receiving offers from Arkansas State, Army, Marshall, Massachusetts and Old Dominion.
Kennedy, from Jeannette, PA, made 34 tackles with 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore at Lackawanna. He also produced four interceptions and broke up nine other passes.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: From a physical and mental standpoint, Kennedy will arrive at ECU ready to play after two seasons at budding JUCO powerhouse Lackawanna. Don’t be surprised if he’s at the top of the depth chart by the time preseason camp ends. The former Mr. Football in Pennsylvania excels in pass coverage, but is also capable of creating havoc in the opponent’s backfield as evidenced by his 8.5 tackles for loss at Lackawanna.
Clerk, Crump and Tucker are all speedy, man-to-man cover corners. Clerk is the most versatile of the trio with his ability to play safety and return kicks, which may make him a candidate to see playing time sooner. Crump is still a raw talent, but has major-league speed, while Tucker is a stick-to-them-like-glue defender.
Depending on how quickly they develop in preseason camp, any of the three could wind up on the depth chart for the Aug. 29 opener against Marshall.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Devan Boykin from Jamestown Ragsdale High was awarded three stars and ranked the No. 17 prospect in North Carolina by 247Sports.com. Boykin actually took an unofficial visit to ECU in March 2019, but N.C. State took his commitment a month later.
WHO’S BACK: Ja’Quan McMillian (5-9, 170) was a breakout performer as a true freshman. McMillian landed the starting job at the boundary corner out of preseason camp and held it for all 12 games in 2019. He wound up with 38 tackles, a tackle for loss, tied for the team lead with three interceptions and led the way with nine pass breakups. Not bad for a true freshman.
Corner backups from last year returning are sophomores Malik Fleming (5-9, 178) and Damel Hickman (6-0, 180. Fleming (12 games, 5 tackles) and Hickman (2 games) both finished the year No. 2 on the depth chart at the corners.
Senior walk-on Ahonore Varner (5-9, 199) and NCAA Division III transfer from Methodist University Seth Giles (6-1, 173) are other cornerbacks on the spring roster.
WHO’S GONE: Despite being hindered by injuries, Colby Gore played a key role in ECU’s secondary for four consecutive seasons. Gore accumulated 171 tackles and four interceptions over 43 games, including 52 last year while making 10 starts at the field corner. He took over the spot from senior Michael Witherspoon, who made nine tackles in the first two games before giving way to Gore.
NEEDS FOR 2021: It will be a young cornerback room at ECU this year. There’s no scholarship seniors in the group and only one junior in transfer Robert Kennedy. But you never let a recruiting class slip by without adding at least two cornerback prospects.
Three of several January 2020 offers issued by the Pirates went to 6-1, 178-pound Damond Harmon, a teammate of current ECU signee David Laney at Highland Springs (VA) High, 5-11, 165-pound Javon Bullard from Baldwin High in Milledgeville, GA, and Thailand Baldwin (5-11, 163) from Life Christian Academy in Colonial Heights, VA.
Rated the nation’s No. 77 cornerback prospect by 247Sports.com, Harmon has pulled down some major offers from the likes of Michigan and Ohio State among others. But the ECU staff has a strong connection to Highland Springs, so the Pirates shouldn’t be counted out.
Bullard and Baldwin are both speedy track athletes with multiple suitors along with the Pirates.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: With Jonn Young on track to complete his eligibility after the 2020 season, signing a potential replacement now instead of waiting until the next cycle was the smart move.
WHO SIGNED: Luke Larsen (6-3, 240) is from Keilor Park, Victoria, Australia, and is a product of the ProKick Australia program that has developed numerous college punters in recent years. Larsen committed to the Pirates last summer and will be 28 when the season begins next fall.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Larsen will probably be able to redshirt next fall as Young finishes out his career. That will allow Larsen time to adjust to the college game and prepare himself to handle the punting duties for the following four years.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: None.
WHO’S BACK: Young has been a steady punter for the Pirates the last two seasons. He ranked eighth among AAC punters a year ago with a 40.6 average on 60 attempts.
WHO’S GONE: No one.
NEEDS FOR 2021: With Larsen on board, there is no need her for the foreseeable future.
Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart at Punter
- Jonn Young, Senior
- Luke Larsen, Freshman
OVERALL DEFENSIVE GRADE B+
The defensive class kind of has it all — numbers, size, speed, versatility and even a punter. The Pirates addressed critical needs on the defensive front and in the secondary with several of those athletes capable of contributing immediately next fall. This group and the defenders remaining from the 2019 class will form the core of ECU’s defense for the next couple of seasons, which, if we’re judging it correctly, should mean some significant improvement in that area. [See: Defensive class caps off sterling recruiting effort (published Feb. 26, 2020)]
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. [See: Gifted quarterbacks, running backs headline offensive signees (published Feb. 19, 2020)]
OVERALL CLASS GRADE B+
Okay, that was easy. The Pirates ended up ranked fourth among AAC classes, but we think it may be even better. As good as the 2019 class was, this one is even better because it has better balance between the offensive and defensive talent. [See: Pirates on the rise in recruiting wars (published Jan. 1, 2020)]