As is customary for media day in the American Athletic Conference, commissioner Mike Aresco led off Thursday with remarks addressing the myriad of issues that confront college football — NIL, the transfer portal, conference realignment and its consequential shift in the balance of power, and possible expansion of the College Football Playoff.
Aresco said the best model moving forward may be a governing body for FBS that is separate from the NCAA.
The membership of the AAC will change dramatically a year from now with the addition of Alabama-Birmingham, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Charlotte, Rice and Texas-San Antonio. Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston will be leaving the AAC for the Big 12.
For now, Houston is the preseason favorite and two-time defending champion Cincinnati is picked second.
Year Four in Houston era
East Carolina will start preseason practice next week and Pirates coach Mike Houston was asked what the basis of his excitement.
“I just think that the biggest thing that excites us is the student athletes that we have,” Houston said. “When I took the job in 2019, you started with a vision, and you started building the roster. And as we sit here going into year four, you have a roster that’s been in the program, you have a roster that you’ve recruited and built, and we believe in these young men, and they’re very committed to what we’re trying to do here.
“So, you just really feel like for the first time, you have great stability, you feel like you have the talent where you need to have the talent, you have the experience. And it’s always good when you return your quarterback (Holton Ahlers). So, we really like our roster going into the season.”
State comes to Greenville
The Pirates open on Saturday, Sept. 3 at noon against N.C. State.
“It’s a big game right out of the gate,” Houston said. “N.C. State had a great year last year. Dave (Doeren, NCSU coach) has done a great job building that program there. They’re talking this maybe is the best N.C. State team that they’ve had. So right out of the gate, you’ll go up against a stiff opponent.
“But we like our team. It’s going to be a great game. I’m really excited we have it here at home. We expect a full stadium, so 51,000 Pirates here to greet them. So, we’re really excited about the matchup.”
Houston will have the most experienced and talented group in his tenure with the Pirates.
“We talked last week, before we broke for this discretionary week, we talked as a team,” Houston said. “Just with the experience we have back, it really was the first time we’ve had experience like this. I expect us to look like a really good football team day one.
“There’s really no excuses not to. The guys that are going to be on the field in the two-deep are guys that have played a lot of ball. They’ve been in the system. They’ve been in our program. So, we expect to be playing at a pretty high level right out of the gate. And I think that should translate into game day, starting September 3rd.”
Pirates sixth in AAC poll
ECU was picked sixth in the AAC preseason poll, squarely in the middle of the 11 football-playing members
“We really haven’t cared about anything preseason-wise in the past, and I’m not going to start now,” Houston said. “What we do on the field and what we earn will be how our season is measured. We’re really interested in that postseason standing more than anything preseason.”
What happens in the trenches determines outcomes and the Pirates feel good about their personnel up front on each side of the ball.
“Both offensively and defensively, we feel very good about our offensive front and our defensive front,” Houston said. “I think we have good size, good athleticism, very good depth. Talking about the offensive line, you talk about wanting to have a starting five. I don’t think we have a starting five, I think we’ve got a two-deep right there where I can’t tell you how it’s going to shake out during preseason camp, exactly who’s going to be in there. To me, that’s a good thing this year, because I think we do have more than just five guys that can go out there September 3rd.”
Ahlers’ targets will feature some new faces to ECU but they have significant accomplishments elsewhere.
“The receiving corps, with Tyler (Snead) declaring last year, Audie (Omotosho) graduating, and just some of the things there in that room, we felt like we needed to address that with some experience pretty quick.” Houston said. “We do have some young guys that played some last year that’ll be in the rotation again this year, but we felt like we needed some older additions. So, we’re excited about those guys that we brought in.
“I think (Toledo transfer) Isaiah Winstead has been a guy that’s had a lot of success at the FBS level. He’s done a great job this summer of coming in and establishing himself, work-ethic wise, establishing himself from experience and leadership wise as a guy that can be trusted. Excited about Jaylen Johnson, a transfer from Georgia, played in the national championship game, was a good player at Georgia, excited to have him here with us. And so, I think that you start looking at those guys in addition to what else we have coming back, we feel good about our receiving corps.”
Frosh will wait
The experience factor means a redshirt year for most incoming freshmen.
“With the experience we have coming back, it’s going to be hard for a freshman to get on the field,” Houston said. “When we look at our team in 2020, you started a ton of freshmen. Those guys are still here. And so, you have third-year guys that have a lot of experience to where I think in order for freshmen to get on the field and play this year, he’ll have to be a pretty special player. I think we’ve got a couple that may, but certainly we don’t feel the need to have to push anybody out there this year.
Houston was asked about the pending changes in membership in the AAC.
“I think that everybody is curious to see how the next couple of years are going to go,” said the ECU coach. “College football’s changing. It’s changing pretty quick. I think with what the SEC and the Big Ten are doing, it’s going to have a trickle-down effect on all the other conferences.
“The American Conference has been a highly competitive conference, ever since its start, and we’re excited to be a part of it. Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston have been great programs in this conference. Them departing, they’ll go on and try to do the same thing in the Big 12, but we’ll have six schools coming in, so the conference is going to change.
“At the end of the day, our focus is going to be purely on East Carolina. I think we have a chance, just like I thought when I came here in 2019, we have a chance to establish ourselves as one of the top programs in the country. I think we’ve got a great fan base. We’ve got a great school to recruit to. The administration here, both on campus and within the athletic department, is committed to football. So, we’re excited about the future of Pirate football.”
Ahlers has grown in many areas since coming to ECU as a heralded recruit from nearby D.H. Conley.
“The maturity that he’s developed has been so important,” Houston said. “When I got here, you had a guy that had some ability, had had some success his freshman year, but he had to learn how to be a great game manager, a great leader, a great teammate, had to learn how to not try to do it all himself, to trust his teammates.
“I really feel like the second half of last year, Holton played at a very high level. He’s had a great off-season. So, coming into this year, I think he brings experience. I think his body is in the best shape it’s been in. He’s really worked hard on his mechanics. I think he has a lot of confidence in the pieces around him. So, I think that now you have a guy that is a great leader of a unit, as opposed just trying to get a guy to go out there and kind of do it all himself.”
Preparing for conditions
ECU plays its first four games at home. Old Dominion, Campbell and Navy follow the season opener with State.
“The reality is you’re going to see a lot of heat the first half of the season, especially the first four at home here in Greenville,” Houston said. “Temperature September 3rd, 12 o’clock kickoff, you’re probably going to be in the mid 90s with pretty high humidity. So having depth on the front, having guys that you can rotate in and out with little drop off or no drop off, I think will only help us.
“We worked very, very hard to develop that defensive line room, because it was virtually non-existent when I got here. But we’re excited about the kids in that room, and they’ve worked very, very hard. And I’m excited to see what they’re going to do this year.”
Ahlers and linebacker Myles Berry are looking forward to their final season as Pirates.
“Anytime you return the guys that we’re returning and the experience that we’re returning, I mean, just the off season runs smoothly, spring runs smoothly,” Ahlers said. “And just getting ready for camp, knowing what to expect for the season, getting your body and your mind right, is really important. Just having guys that have been in that position before is huge for us. I mean, I’m pretty sure most of our guys returning have started a good chunk of games, so it’s really exciting for us.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Berry said. “With the amount of experience that we do have, everybody’s on one mission. We have one goal, and we all know what we need to do to achieve that goal. So, we’re all just tunnel vision, and we have a mission this year. And with the experience that we have, that leadership will be able to carry us to that.”
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