There was drizzle in the region early Saturday as East Carolina prepared to host Southern Methodist in the final game of the 2020 football season for the Pirates.
Well before the ECU team took a picture on Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium after a 52-38 victory over the Mustangs, the sun had emerged on a beautiful fall afternoon.
The weather for the American Athletic Conference matchup was symbolic of the progression of the Pirates’ second season under the direction of coach Mike Houston.
ECU overcame some cloud and gloom to win its last two games, AAC triumphs that will provide a springboard into what will hopefully be a more normal offseason than the athletic prohibition generated by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last nine months.
“I could not have asked for a better end of the season,” Houston said Tuesday. “The two-game winning streak to close out, especially being able to win the finale here at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in the manner we won it against a quality opponent was the perfect script. Just really excited for the players and coaching staff for the hard work they did each week throughout the fall with everything they had to manage just to play football.
“If you would go back to 2019 and say this is how you were going to have to play, manage and practice in 2020, no one would have believed anyone. There is no way you thought you could pull it off with everything you had to go through with the protocol and testing and the way you had to meet and practice. Not having spring practice. Not having summer training. It took a lot resource wise. It took a lot mentally for each person involved. The way this group came together and functioned throughout the season, I’m just very proud of them.
“You guys didn’t get to see this group work throughout this year, but the way they practice now versus what it was two years ago (Dec. 2, 2018), when I took this job is night and day. They work and practice now the way I expect them to and the way that winners do. The result is their continued improved play on the field.”
The Pirates won their final game of a season for the first time since a 37-20 bowl victory over Ohio in St. Petersburg in 2013.
“That moment postgame Saturday on the field is something I thought about throughout the week because of the way I thought our program was trending,” Houston said. “I felt like we were going to play well Saturday. I didn’t expect 45-7 at the half. I wanted to capture that moment so I got them together for a postgame photograph with TowneBank Tower and the fans we had in attendance in the background because in that moment, which I talked about in our final team meeting before they went home, we have an opportunity that many long for.
The Pirates went into the matchup with SMU after taking their first-ever AAC win over Temple, 28-3, in Philadelphia on Nov. 21.
“Hopefully it’s when everything flipped for our football program, the players and direction we’re headed,” Houston said of the win over the Mustangs, who had been ranked as high as No. 16 during 2020. “Great weekend. We had great weather. I know we only had 3,500 in attendance but I appreciate them because it was an electric atmosphere in the stadium. I wish it would have been 50,000 because it probably would have been suffocating for the opponent with the energy that was on our sideline and in the stands. You could feel it. It was a great way to end the season. … Certainly, as we stand here today, things have changed drastically as opposed to Dec. 2, 2018.”
ECU went 3-5 in league play, its best performance in the AAC since going 3-5 in 2015. The Pirates were denied an opportunity to run out the clock with a 30-27 lead at Tulsa with 1:52 left due to a replay review error on Oct. 30 that was acknowledged by the AAC.
ECU lost, 27-23, to Navy on Oct. 17, playing without quarterback Holton Ahlers, who was not available due to an apparently false positive coronavirus test.
The excitement generated by the SMU game was mitigated to a degree by an announcement Thursday that receiver Blake Proehl was declaring for the NFL draft.
Proehl had six catches for 152 yards and two touchdowns against the Mustangs. ECU media relations personnel tried to locate him for a zoom interview session after the game but were not successful.
The son of former NFL standout Ricky Prohel met with media on Thursday. Getting bigger and stronger is one of his primary objectives. He got emotional when thinking about leaving ECU while he still had eligibility. He said catching a TD pass from his roommate, Tyler Snead, on Saturday will be one of his best college memories.
“I’ll always be a Pirate.” Proehl said, after thanking his coaches, family and teammates.
Proehl will get a degree in interpersonal communications with a minor in business.
“I just want to say how proud I am of Blake,” Houston said. “I got to meet him two years ago, this week. Blake has been everything I could ask of him as a player, as an athlete and as a person. I’m thankful for my time I had with him. … He worked so hard to develop. I’m excited about this next opportunity for him.”
In three seasons at ECU, Proehl had 130 catches for 1,576 yards with nine touchdowns. He had a blocked punt at Georgia State this past season that he returned for a score.
There was significant personnel transition on the roster after ECU went 4-8 overall and 1-7 in league play after Houston’s first season at the helm of the Pirate ship in 2019.
The NCAA is not counting 2020 as a year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
“I’ve had a lot of dialogue with our players over the last month,” Houston said. “We’re anticipating the vast majority to return next year. We’ll have a few that were recognized on Saturday that where they are in life – graduating from East Carolina University – and having made preparations to go to that next step where they will transition on. We support them and will celebrate them. There are one or two that have some things to consider. Those guys were probably not coming back, but having had such a positive experience, they want to discuss things with their families.
“We feel good about the roster that’s coming back. I don’t want to stand up here and put a dead number on it now, but the vast majority will be back next year. We also have a recruiting class we will sign, part of it on Dec. 16 and the rest throughout the spring and early summer to have a full roster ready for next fall. As far as where I think we are right now going into what I hesitate to call year three, since we were really robbed of an offseason, I think we are in a really good spot. My expectations are very high, and the kids’ expectations are very high. Whatever goals our fanbase has, I promise you that our internal goals will exceed that.
“We have a lot of work to do. Despite all the damage the pandemic has done, especially with the financial impacts where families have been devastated, there has been one positive with the extra year of eligibility. I went through the room. Holton, you’ll be a junior next year. Bruce Bivens, you’ll be a senior next year. Rahjai (Harris, running back), all those defensive lineman, you’re going to be freshmen next year. They have a tremendous amount of experience now.
“Experience is not something you can create. You can’t replace it either. We have a special moment the next eight months to capitalize on the opportunity to take an experienced group of freshmen and develop them. We laid out a plan yesterday. It’s just over six weeks until they return. They’ll start returning the week of Jan. 10. We’ll have to go through testing before they start working out. We’ll begin our winter conditioning the week of Jan. 18. We have to hit the ground running on that date. They have to be in shape before they return because I don’t want to have to get them in shape then.
“We struggled with the quarantine. There were guys that didn’t recover from the quarantine. We didn’t manage that as well as I would have liked to. We can’t have that happen between now and Jan. 18. We have a chance to hit the ground running and have a great couple of weeks of strength and conditioning. Mack drills with the coaching staff. Teaching a group how to have spring practice and a summer. It’s not just lifting weights and running. It is character development. It is team, cohesive development. It’s maturity. There are so many things this group did not get last year.
“Heading into 2021, we have the chance to become a highly-competitive team that can compete with anybody. Our schedule is tough next year. There’s no bones about it. We’re going to play quality non-conference football teams. The American is a beast. We have goals that are very lofty.”
The non-conference schedule for 2021, according to ecupirates.com, includes Appalachian State in Charlotte on Sept. 2, a trip to Marshall on Sept. 18, Charleston Southern at home on Sept. 25 and a home date with South Carolina on a date to be announced.
Healing for players already in the program and recruiting under current protocols are among priorities.
“The number one focus right now is our current roster,” Houston said. “Guys need to heal up. We did have some injuries down the stretch. I told the guys they need to unpack the season and decompress. For example, Fernando Frye played an enormous number of snaps. They need to let their bodies rest before Jan. 18. We need to stay on top of our current roster and have them in a good place heading into the spring semester.
“Recruiting is the other big focus right now for the staff. We’re starting virtual visits (Wednesday). We’re using some of the suites up here (TowneBank Tower) trying to show recruits and their families everything they can’t see. We’re trying to get as much face time with recruits and families that we can over the next two weeks and develop the relationship that we haven’t had the opportunity to develop. Right now, we have 10 commitments. I don’t see us signing a number enormously larger than that on Dec. 16. That’s on purpose. We have specific needs we’re being very direct with in terms of the offers we are sending out.
“I like our returning roster a lot. I’ve said it all year – I like the kids in our program. We have put this together with some intent. I’m so proud of the older players we have that have been with us here the whole time. I mentioned Bruce (Bivens) earlier. He’s playing the best ball of his career right now. He carries himself as such a positive leader. Those guys have changed. I’m also proud of the young group that has joined them. We need to make sure we are very cautious but direct with who we bring in.”
The Pirates have been through a process of developing productive character.
“We have the culture we said we wanted to create,” Houston said. “We’re achieving at very high levels academically. We’re representing the university in a very positive manner. I talked to them yesterday and said I pray we don’t have an incident that douses that between now and when they come back in January. I talked to them about all the things they need to be cautious of. They need to represent each other and the university in a first-class manner. They’re doing that. Our play on the field is continuing to improve so the roster is my biggest focus right now. All of those things I mentioned before from strength and conditioning to spring practice will be critical.”
The Pirates will undergo a systems evaluation.
“We need to do the postseason evaluations of schemes, what we did on the field that was good and what we didn’t do well,” Houston said. “I’m not in a big hurry to do that but we’re beginning it this week. I want to take my time with it as we look toward tweaks and changes that we’re going to make moving forward.
“That will take place over the next month and some change. I pushed spring practice about as far back as I could. We aren’t going to start until mid-March at the earliest. The spring game will be in late April. It will be the latest I can have it before final exams. I want to give Coach Big John (Williams Jr.) and his staff the maximum amount of time they can have with these guys in the weight room and on the field. Bigger, faster, stronger and – for some of them – slimmer. Those things, as well as maturity, are what I want to focus on right now.”
The Pirates generally went as Ahlers went and his performance generally related to his protection and how well the offensive line enabled the running game.
Ahlers completed 20 of 29 passes for 298 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the season finale.
“I’ll be the first to say I expected to have a better year than I did,” Ahlers said. “I’m glad I played the way I did (in the SMU game). That’s what I kind of expect of myself and really this offense. I’m going to keep working. That’s how I’ve gotten here, just keep working, trust and believing in myself. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.
“I think that’s what makes Pirates great is you always bet on yourself and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
Offensive line transforms
The offensive line had to evolve out of necessity in 2020.
“There are some reasons we had inconsistencies throughout the year,” Houston said. “One is having consistent personnel on the field. Our projected offensive line as we sat here on this day a year ago and who we played with were completely different. Some never played a snap. Some played one game then never again. Some played a lot. I think that group played very well on Saturday.
“No matter what happened week in or week out, that group improved throughout the season. We want to be what we were on Saturday. Very balanced. I think Holton threw for 300. I don’t know what we ran for (160 yards), but it was a significant amount. I don’t think anyone can deny the fact that our ability to run the football effectively this year improved our offense. It gave us a shot and kept us in ball games. We’ve shown our explosive ability in the passing game too. Part of that consistency is growing up and continuing to improve the guys we have. Our philosophy remains being balanced and aggressive.”
Personnel up front
The offensive line progressed after the run game was limited to 50 yards in a 49-29 loss at Georgia State on Oct. 3.
“The continuity just wasn’t there,” Houston said. “You had guys like Nishad (Strother) playing tackle for the first time in their careers. There were so many things that day that were on display. Then you look at Saturday. Nobody touched Holton all day. We ran the football effectively. Nishad wasn’t there for that one. When he was redshirted last year, I thought he had a chance to be really good. I can tell you for a fact that he’s going to be a good player for us. He’s had successful surgery and is rehabbing right now. Looking forward to getting him back healthy.
“It’s not just him. Fernando Frye started out playing center for the first time ever. Certainly, he had some ups and downs with that early in the year but his performance the last several weeks has been impressive. Here’s a guy reaching three techniques in our zone run game. That’s tough. Nobody can understand what I mean by that, but very few guys can do that.
“Sean Bailey played as well as he could have and he’s such a positive piece of that room right now. Bailey Malovic was a guy that needed that offseason development and was robbed of it, but the way he played throughout the year was really positive. The new guys, whether it’s Avery Jones or Justin Chase. What they did with no spring or summer, thrown into fall camp. They were very solid down the stretch. Walt Stribling. Significant playing time at Temple. Trent Holler. Significant playing time across the board. Those guys came so far, and I’m really pleased with that group going into the offseason.
“Noah Henderson is going to be back. He will make a recovery. I look forward to getting him back into shape and on the field this spring. I have some young guys in the program right now that will be brought along. We do plan on adding some older players to the mix to give us the depth and size we need. Some guys probably played before they should have this year. We’re getting ready to go play Temple and I tell Walt he’s starting at left tackle and probably isn’t ready for it. You’ve worked hard. I believe in you. You’ll never forget this day. He played really well against a really good defensive line. Now he can use that experience and confidence in the offseason to continue to develop.
“It’s a group that trended upward through the year. With some of the obstacles they faced, that’s pretty impressive. We do plan on adding as many as six offensive linemen to that room with a combination of high school kids and transfers.”
ECU averaged 173.8 yards rushing in 2020, up from 141.3 yards per game in 2019.
Ahlers was the team’s leading rusher in 2019 with 592 yards. He was fourth on the team in 2020. True freshmen Rahjai Harris (624 yards) and Keaton Mitchell (443 yards) led the ground game in the recently-completed shortened season.
Defense in retrospect
Houston brought in Blake Harrell as defensive coordinator after the 2019 season.
“It’s night and day from where we were a year ago,” Houston said. “It’s something I wanted to accomplish. It was tough for Blake when he first came in, but who would have imagined when you put your staff together, you would get sent home and wouldn’t see them or get to know them. The kids were sent home, so you didn’t get to know them. You’re not going to have spring practice. You’re not going to have summer. All install is going to be done via Zoom. You’re going to teach your playbook via Zoom. Then, we are going to play a full year. What you’re asking of that group when they got in here was a pretty tall task.
“I could not be more excited about the job he did. The positivity, energy and enthusiasm. He did a great job bringing the coaching staff together. The kids embraced it and did a great job. As we sat here a year ago, this was a group that did not have a lot of confidence. Now they think they can play anybody and go toe to toe with them. That confidence is so important. Believing in yourself is so important for any athlete. We all saw the way they played Saturday and last week at Temple. The way they played a Tulsa. The way they defended Navy. The performance of that group on the field consistently throughout the year. We can continue to improve. The traits of high energy, physicality, intensity, camaraderie. There are no “me guys.” They do it together. That’s what we wanted to create and what we were able to create. I’m excited to see what’s next for that group.
“Blake does a great job evaluating his opponents and a great job of self-evaluation. He’s going to be his biggest critic going into the offseason. The biggest thing he got was the experience of facing the American Conference. Steve Ellis had the experience last year at South Florida. You try to tell Blake, Tripp (Weaver), the graduate assistants and analysts that this is a big boy league. The running backs are going to be 220. Every team has them. All of these quarterbacks are good. The speed you’ll see from the skill players. The size of the offensive line. You can talk about it, but you have to experience it. It impacts recruiting. You have to recruit guys that can play in this league because it’s a big-time league. It’s going to benefit Blake going into the offseason to be better in 2021 because of his experiences.
Kicker Jake Verity and punter Jonn Young returned to the program in 2020 with proven experience.
Verity became ECU’s leading career scorer in 2020.
“Jake would say that he’s better than what he showed at times this year,” Houston said. “At the same time, the reason you’re thinking that is because the expectation is way up here. I thought Jonn improved significantly this year. The competition from Luke (Larsen) helped a lot. I had discussions with both of them. They both want to return. We’re still talking through a couple things. I feel good about both of them. I feel good about that room.
“The reasons we had some blocks were because of a combination of things. A couple of kicks maybe didn’t have enough trajectory. A couple of kicks had penetration in the A gap. It wasn’t just one specific thing. I thought we did a much better job Saturday with protection. Jake would give anything to have the kick back that he missed. He has had a great career here. I know he wants to end it on a really high note. He has a lot of devotion to East Carolina University.”
Big building block
The Pirates go into the offseason under much different circumstances than those following a 49-24 home loss to Tulsa to conclude the 2019 season.
“It’s the confidence within the roster,” Houston said. “The belief in themselves. The frustrating thing about the Tulsa game (34-30 loss in 2020) is that you played the way you did. No one can take that away from you. That was an impressive performance that night but the thing you have to have at the end is the win. You can say you won that one, but it’s not on our record. That mental piece is significant. As much as we tried not to let it hurt us the next week, it did.
“All of a sudden, we have that confidence of winning back-to-back conference games, beating a 7-win team. If you throw Tulsa in, that’s two really good teams ranked in the Top 25 and you essentially knock both of them off. We didn’t get the win (Tulsa), but no one can take SMU away from us.
“The confidence and mentality going into the offseason is the biggest positive. Does it help recruiting? As soon as the game is over my cell phone is blowing up from our recruits, both commits and guys that are still out there, that watched the game Saturday and loved the way we played and the energy.”