East Carolina’s football roster will have experienced a significant turnover by the time the 2023 season kicks off next September 2nd at Michigan.
Because of expired eligibility, exits via the NCAA Transfer Portal and others departing for a shot at the NFL, the Pirates will be missing 29 players who were part of an 8-5 finish highlighted by a big victory against Coastal Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. Fifteen of those were starters, including record-setting quarterback Holton Ahlers, All-American Athletic Conference running back Keaton Mitchell and defensive standouts Gerard Stringer and Myles Berry.
ECU head coach Mike Houston and his staff have filled some of those holes by signing 20 high school prospects and bringing aboard eight others from the transfer portal with various levels of collegiate experience.
Twelve of the newcomers added so far play on offense, which is exactly the number of players on that side of the ball who have departed.
Looking ahead to spring practice and how the recruiting Class of 2023 might fit into the program, we present our annual position-by-position grades for the offensive signees. In addition, we’ll project the best organizational profile we can and look ahead to the recruiting needs as the coaching staff pursues the Class of 2024. These are all projections based on the final depth chart from last season and other information we’d gathered by press time — projections that may be altered by position changes during spring practice, or program defections or additions.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The imminent departure of Ahlers after a brilliant five-year run in Greenville was enough to make quarterback a position of need in the Class of 2023 for depth purposes if nothing else. It became even a bigger priority after Ryan Stubblefield decided to depart ECU after seeing no game action in three seasons with the Pirates. So securing at least one signal caller, hopefully one who could compete for playing time quickly, was a major goal.
WHO SIGNED: Raheim Jeter (6-3, 220), from Spartanburg, SC, was an all-state 5-A first-team pick as a senior and a finalist for Mr. Football honors awarded to the best player in the Palmetto State. A consensus three-star prospect, Jeter chose the Pirates after originally committing to West Virginia while also entertaining offers from Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Virginia Tech. Jeter passed for 7,167 yards and 60 touchdowns over a four-year varsity career.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The Pirates may have landed their quarterback of the future in Jeter, but first he’ll compete for the backup job behind Mason Garcia. He’s already enrolled and will challenge junior Alex Flinn during spring drills to be Garcia’s understudy. Jeter reminds me physically of former ECU quarterback David Garrard, so he’s already built to handle a heavy workload, if needed. He comes from a spread offense in high school that should translate well to East Carolina’s scheme. He’s still developing as a passer, but has the arm strength to make all the throws.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina targeted a pair of Georgia passers early in the 2023 cycle, offering Buford High’s Dylan Wittke back in April 2021 and Westlake’s R.J. Johnson in January 2022. Both three-star prospects took unofficial recruiting visits to ECU last March, but their interest seemed to end there. Wittke wound up signing with Virginia Tech and Johnson with Toledo.
WHO’S BACK: Mason Garcia has been ECU’s “Quarterback-In-Waiting” since he arrived on campus in 2020. Garcia has waited patiently to take the reins of the Pirate offense and has no doubt benefitted from having one of the best quarterbacks in college football — Holton Ahlers — as a mentor for three seasons. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound sophomore has displayed mobility (120 yards, two rushing TDs) and a strong passing arm in limited action (12 games) so far, but now his time has come and expectations will be high.
Junior Alex Flinn (6-1, 234) has toiled even longer behind Ahlers as he enters his fifth year in the program. Flinn knows the offense inside and out at this point, but just hasn’t had many opportunities to prove he can run it under game conditions. He’s only played in two games, both last season, and hasn’t recorded a pass or rush. But Flinn will need to be ready to step up in 2023 because ECU is only an injury away from needing him to start.
Redshirt freshman Grantt Logan (6-1, 205) is a preferred walk-on, who as a senior in 2021 led Providence Day School to the Independent Schools state Division I championship. Logan, who originally committed to Charlotte, passed for 2,241 yards and 25 touchdowns, while also rushing for 689 and seven scores as a senior.
WHO’S GONE: Holton Ahlers is simply one of the best to ever wear the purple-and-gold. He’ll be forever known as the local guy who stayed home to help turn the hometown university into a winner again on the football field. Ahlers leaves behind a legacy of team and individual success that Pirate fans will always treasure. A four-year starter and three-time team captain, he concluded his career as ECU’s all-time leader in passing yards (13,927), touchdown passes (97) and total offense (15,373). Ahlers capped his college career by throwing for five touchdowns and earning MVP honors for ECU at the Birmingham Bowl, and then getting MVP honors at both the Hula Bowl and NFLPA Bowl all-star games.
Ryan Stubblefield spent three seasons at ECU without playing a down. With three years of eligibility still left, Stubblefield decided in late November to put his name in the NCAA Transfer Portal. He ultimately returned to his home state of Texas where he’ll play next fall at NCAA Division II Incarnate Word.
Although he left the program before the 2022 season began, Walter Simmons III was also supposed to be part of ECU’s future quarterback plans. But after being shifted to wide receiver last spring, Simmons entered the transfer portal in April and landed at Bethune-Cookman.
NEEDS FOR 2023: It’s doubtful Flinn will return for a sixth season just to be a backup, so that would leave East Carolina with just two scholarship quarterbacks in Garcia and Jeter. That’s way too thin for any FBS program at the most important position on the field. Signing two quarterbacks puts the Pirates back on solid ground in the depth department.
Oddly, the Pirates haven’t rushed out with a lot of early offers to quarterbacks in the Class of 2024. We’ve heard of only three scholarships extended to prep quarterbacks to date, including five-star in-state passer Jadyn Davis from Providence Day in Charlotte. Jayden Bradford from IMG Academy in Florida and Riley Trujillo from Bartram Trail High in Jacksonville, FL have also been offered by the Pirates.
This could be an area where ECU fills its needs from the transfer portal.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Mason Garcia, Myrtle Beach, SC (6-5, 242) Sophomore
Alex Flinn, Asheville, NC (6-1, 234) Junior
Grant Logan, Charlotte, NC (6-1, 205) Redshirt freshman
Raheim Jeter, Spartanburg, SC (6-3, 220) Freshman
RUNNING BACK B
WHAT THEY NEEDED: It was almost a given that either Keaton Mitchell or Rahjai Harris would likely head off to the NFL after the 2022 season. They are both that good. As a precaution, the Pirates wanted a minimum of two new backs to join a position group top-heavy with young talent.
WHO SIGNED: Javious Bond’s change-of-heart proved to be a major recruiting coup for East Carolina. The 5-11, 185-pounder from Jones County High in Gray, GA, had a large group of college suitors after earning 4-AAAA Region Athlete of the Year honors as a junior (950 yards rushing, 555 receiving, 69 tackles). Bond, who racked up 3,052 career all-purpose yards and 244 tackles, committed to Memphis in August. But the Pirates remained diligent in their pursuit and got him on campus for an official visit Oct. 22. That trip was enough to convince Bond to back off his pledge to Memphis and flip to the Pirates on the first day of the early signing period.
The Pirates also added a veteran presence to the backfield through the transfer portal in former Georgia Southern rusher Gerald Green. Green (5-9, 195) racked up 1,456 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns on 256 carries during a four-year run for the Eagles. ECU running backs coach Chris Foster had recruited Green while he was on the staff at Georgia Southern, so when he entered the transfer portal on Dec. 28 the Pirates were quick to express their interest. Green committed to ECU over Louisville after an early January visit.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Green, who once rushed for 132 yards against Nebraska while at Georgia Southern, is an all-purpose back with a wealth of college experience (34 games). Those attributes could be valuable for an ECU backfield with only one other player (Rahjai Harris) ranking above the sophomore class. He’s also a solid insurance policy if Harris’ comeback from ACL surgery takes longer than expected. Green has two years of eligibility left.
Bond will get a head start on making his mark on the running back depth chart because he’s already enrolled at ECU. A speedy, slippery back with excellent hands, he could find a role early with the Pirates as third-down back on passing plays or as a return man.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Cincinnati product Trey Cornist (5-11, 209) is a power back who took an official visit to East Carolina on Dec. 2. and listed the Pirates among his top seven schools on Dec. 9 along with Kansas State, Kentucky, Louisville, Tulane, Michigan State and West Virginia. Cornist, who ran for 1,629 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Winton Woods High, chose Tulane on Dec. 20.
The Pirates also lost out on a big talent in their own backyard. Tralon Mitchell grew up just 30 minutes east of Greenville in the town of Bailey where he compiled 2,450 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Southern Nash High School. ECU was the first to offer Mitchell last January and he came to campus for an official visit in June. But Virginia Tech wound up coaxing Mitchell across the border to play for the Hokies.
WHO’S BACK: No doubt a key to East Carolina’s running game, and its 2023 season, will be impacted by the health of junior Rahjai Harris. Harris (5-11, 208) was one half of the Pirates’ dynamic rushing duo along with NFL-bound Keaton Mitchell before suffering a torn ACL against Central Florida. If fully recovered, Harris will be an all-star candidate capable of producing big plays and big stats. Splitting carries with Mitchell for much of his three seasons at ECU, the former co-AAC Rookie of the Year has averaged four yards per carry and totaled 1,441 yards overall in 25 games.
Sophomore Marlon Gunn Jr. (5-11, 202) stepped in during Harris’s absence last season with impressive results. Gunn finished second in team rushing with 344 yards on 67 carries, had 14 catches for 77 yards and 114 more yards on kickoff returns. He’ll face competition this spring from sophomore Joseph McKay (6-1, 216), redshirt freshman Nemo Squire (5-8, 198) and former four-star recruit Kamarro Edwards (5-11, 230). Edwards arrived last season via transfer from North Carolina. He’s a gifted athlete who was able to get his feet wet at ECU in three games last season. Edwards should play a more prominent role in 2023.
Rounding out the backfield returnees are walk-ons — sophomore Cameron Moore (6-0, 195), redshirt freshman Christian Joyner-Armstrong (6-0, 185) and redshirt freshman Grayson Klue (5-11, 175). Moore saw action in five games on special teams last season. He was an 3-A all-state pick as a senior at nearby Wilson Hunt High School, while Klue averaged 8.9 yards a carry at Greenville’s Christ Church Episcopal as a senior.
WHO’S GONE: It’s safe to say East Carolina hasn’t had a running back as explosive and exciting as Keaton Mitchell since Chris Johnson roamed Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. In just three seasons, Mitchell rose to third on ECU’s all-time rushing list (3,027 yards) and his 1,452 yards in 2022 were the second-highest single-game total in school history. His 14 rushing touchdowns in ’22 is also tied for sixth in a single season.
After such a spectacular performance, which included a second straight spot on the All-AAC first team, Mitchell declared himself eligible for the 2023 NFL Draft on Jan. 2.
NEEDS FOR 2023: The running back room is currently deep, talented and young. Of course, that could change literally overnight if someone decides to jump into the transfer portal. But really the only imminent departure, and even that’s a maybe, would be if Rahjai Harris enjoys a healthy return and produces a stellar 2023 season. Like Mitchell, he probably would, and should, dart off to the NFL, even though he’d have a year of eligibility left.
But with that said, the Pirates are likely to sign at least one running back. An impressive prospect offered by ECU in January is Khyair Spain, a 5-9, 190-pounder from Parkview High in Lilburn, GA. Spain had an incredible junior season in which he ran 273 times for 2,383 yards and 16 touchdowns. The performance earned him player of the year for Region 4 and all-state 7-A honors. ECU was the first to offer, followed by Charlotte and East Tennessee State.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Rahjai Harris, Jr., Duncan, SC (5-11, 208) Junior
Marlon Gunn Jr., Baton Rouge, LA (5-11, 202) Sophomore
Gerald Green, Jr., Columbus, GA (5-9, 195) Junior
Kamarro Edwards, Havelock, NC (5-11, 230) Sophomore
Joseph McKay, Phenix City, AL (6-1, 216) Sophomore
Nemo Squire, Dillon, SC (5-8, 198) Redshirt freshman
Javious Bond, Gray, GA (5-11, 185) Freshman
Cameron Moore, Raleigh, NC (6-0, 195) Sophomore
Christian Joyner-Armstrong, Wilson, NC (6-0, 185) Redshirt freshman
Grayson Klue, Greenville, NC (5-11, 175) Redshirt freshman
WIDE RECEIVER A
WHAT THEY NEEDED: East Carolina is always going to be in the market for one or two receivers in each class. But simply by the number of early offers extended by the Pirates in the 2023 recruiting cycle it was clear the coaching staff felt the need would be beyond that standard number. And they were right to pursue a larger number because by the time the dust cleared on the 2022 season their top two pass catchers had departed and three others entered the transfer portal.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates dove into the deep talent pools of Georgia and South Carolina to add four impressive receivers to their roster. Zion Agnew (5-11, 170) from Columbia, SC, and Nate Branch (5-10, 172) from Hopkins, SC, were both all-state performers as seniors. Agnew snared 118 catches for 1,900 yards and scored 22 touchdowns over his final two prep seasons, while Branch had 57 catches for 1,406 yards and 12 scores during the same span.
Malik Leverett (6-3, 200) from Evans, GA, and Ryan King (6-3, 215) from Loganville, GA, are both big-play prep receivers. Leverett ranked third in Georgia with 1,326 receiving yards as a junior and had 10 touchdowns in 10 games. King averaged 17.3 yards per catch over his final two prep seasons at Loganville High before signing with Georgia Tech. He spent three seasons in Atlanta, playing in 23 games before entering the transfer portal in November. King committed to ECU on Jan. 8.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: First and foremost, the Pirates have added some legit speed to the receiving corps. Branch was one of South Carolina’s top prep sprinters (10.70 100-yard dash), while Agnew has been timed at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Leverett was a regional placer in the 400-meter dash (57.07 personal best) and long jump (17 feet).
In Leverett and King, ECU has also added length and receivers who can create matchup problems because of their size and agility.
The Pirates are hoping they’ve struck gold again through the transfer portal acquisition of King. They had a major portal success story last season with Isaiah Winstead, who came in from Toledo and led ECU in receptions and receiving yards. If King can deliver half of Winstead’s production, it will be a major boost to an offense replacing a lot of key parts.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: The state of North Carolina produced a bevy of highly rated pass-catchers in the Class of 2023. East Carolina pursued just about every one of them and actually had at least one on campus for a Junior Day event. But there never seemed to be a high level of interest in ECU. Rolesville High’s Noah Rogers wound up signing with Ohio State, Raleigh Millbrook’s Nathan Leacock with Tennessee, Maiden’s Chris Culliver and Hickory Ridge’s Christian Hamilton with UNC, Chambers’ Kevin Concepcion with N.C. State and East Forsyth’s Que’Sean Brown with Duke.
WHO’S BACK: Five players who caught at least one pass in 2022 are back, but their stats were minimal because Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson had most of the receptions aimed at receivers. Leading the group of experienced returnees is senior Jsi Hatfield (5-10, 173), who has been a triple threat rushing, receiving and returning the football during his ECU career. In just eight games last year, Hatfield had 11 catches for 178 yards and led the team in kickoff returns (14 for 381 yards and a touchdown). He’ll be a strong candidate to fill the slot or H receiver position occupied by Johnson last season.
Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson, a 6-2, 197-pound senior, has the most starting experience among the returning receivers. Johnson started six of 10 games in which he appeared and finished fifth in team receiving with 26 catches for 340 yards and four touchdowns. He ended 2022 as the starter at the Z outside receiver spot ahead of sophomore Kerry King (5-10, 165). King, a walk-on, saw action in 11 games and caught six passes for 52 yards.
Duke transfer Jarrett Garner (6-3, 207), who’ll be a grad student in 2023, played in 12 games as a reserve last year and made two catches for 19 yards. Garner ended the season as the backup to Winstead at the X outside receiver, while promising redshirt freshman Brock Spalding (5-10, 182) was No. 2 on the depth chart behind C.J. Johnson at the H inside spot for the Birmingham Bowl. Spalding made one catch for five yards in his only appearance in 2022.
Marshall transfer Jhari Patterson (6-0, 192), a sophomore, junior Khaheim Bragg (6-1, 170), sophomore Terrance Copper Jr. (5-11, 189), sophomore Melvin Jacobs III (6-0, 185), redshirt freshman Josh Murphy (6-1, 176) and sophomore Andrew Doss (5-10, 180) are other returnees at receiver.
Redshirt freshmen Bleu Coleman (6-1, 180) and Brandon Still (6-0, 165) are also part of the spring roster.
WHO’S GONE: It seems like record breakers are departing at every skill position on offense for the Pirates. Wide receiver took a double hit in losing two of the most productive receivers in college football.
Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson combined for 155 receptions, 2,101 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 2022. In his only season with the Pirates after transferring in from Toledo, Winstead tied for seventh on ECU’s record list for single-season catches (88) and produced the seventh-highest single-season receiving yards total (1,085). Johnson ended a four-year run as a Pirate with 175 catches (5th all-time) for 2,849 yards (4th all-time) and 21 touchdowns (tied for 4th all-time). He could have returned for a sixth year, but in early January declared himself eligible for the 2023 NFL Draft.
East Carolina also lost some depth at receiver to the transfer portal. Letterwinners Taji Hudson, Maceo Donald and Andre Pegues all hit the transfer portal in January but have yet to find new homes.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Despite the strong additions at receiver in the Class of 2023, this will remain a priority during the ’24 recruiting cycle. Jarrett Garner, Jsi Hatfield and Jaylen Johnson are all seniors whose eligibility will expire at the end of next season, and Ryan King will be finished after 2024. Landing two or three replacements would be a legitimate need.
Two strong candidates to fill those voids are Isaiah Crumpler (6-0, 175) from Greenville’s D.H. Conley High and Jalen Harris from Hickory Ridge High in Harrisburg, NC. Crumpler is a legacy Pirate, whose father Carlester is one of the greatest players in ECU history. The younger Crumpler was offered by the Pirates when he was just a sophomore and is also being courted by Charlotte, Duke and James Madison so far. The 6-3, 185-pound Harris averaged 24.5 yards a catch as a junior and was on ECU’s campus for a Junior Day event in late January. Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, James Madison and Maryland have also offered Harris.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
*Note: Outside receiver positions are interchangeable and those players may work at both X and Z positions.
Outside receiver (X)
Jarrett Garner, Harrisburg, NC (6-3, 207) Grad student
Ryan King, Loganville, GA (6-3, 215) Junior
Zion Agnew, Columbia, SC (5-11, 165) Freshman
Josh Murphy, Myrtle Beach, SC (6-1, 179) Redshirt freshman
Melvin Jacobs III, Upper Marlboro, MD (6-0, 185) Sophomore
Blue Coleman, Charlotte, NC (6-1, 180) Freshman
Outside receiver (Z)
Jaylen Johnson, Duluth, GA (6-2, 197) Senior
Kerry King, Highland Springs, VA (5-10, 169) Sophomore
Malik Leverett, Evans, GA (6-3, 200) Freshman
Khaheim Bragg, Waldorf, MD (6-1, 170) Junior
Brandon Still, Chesapeake, VA (6-0, 165) Freshman
Inside receiver (H)
Jsi Hatfield (5-10, 173), Graham, NC (5-10, 173) Senior
Brock Spalding, Lorton, VA (5-10, 182) Redshirt freshman
Nate Branch, Hopkins, SC (5-10, 172) Freshman
Jhari Patterson, Asheville, NC (6-0, 194) Sophomore
Terrance Copper Jr., Grifton, NC (5-11, 190) Freshman
Andrew Doss, Raleigh, NC (5-10, 180) Sophomore
TIGHT END C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates really needed to sign at least one tight end recruit because seniors Ryan Jones and Aaron Jarman were done after the 2022 season. Jones was the best pass catcher among the tight ends, so preferably the newcomer would be a similar threat.
WHO SIGNED: Antonio Ferguson (6-4, 235) handled tight end duties at Florida powerhouse Apoka High for three seasons. An injury sidelined Ferguson for part of his senior year, but he still played a key role for an offense that rushed for 2,607 yards and 33 touchdowns.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Ferguson is first and foremost a beast as a blocker. So he could earn playing time right away at ECU in certain run packages. But he’s still developing as a receiver, which will hold him back for a while from earning a full-time role. With time, however, he could become a matchup nightmare for defensive backs and linebackers.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Havelock High in Eastern North Carolina has been a major recruiting spot for the Pirates through the years. ECU made an early bid for Havelock’s Javonte Vereen. But the 6-4, 205-pounder chose to travel about an hour west to Raleigh to play for N.C. State.
WHO’S BACK: Junior Shane Calhoun (6-3, 242) is a true veteran, who has played in 31 career games with the Pirates and started 26. He’s a stellar blocker and over the last two seasons has become a productive receiver. Calhoun was ECU’s sixth-best receiver in 2022 with 25 catches for 202 yards and two scores. Those stats should see a significant jump next fall with Jones’ departure.
Junior Tyler Savage (6-3, 236) began his ECU career as a receiver, but moved into the tight end rotation last year. He played in all 12 games, logging two catches for 27 yards.
German-born Max Lantzsch, a 6-6, 240-pound redshirt freshman, could also earn some snaps next fall.
WHO’S GONE: After spending three years at Oklahoma playing linebacker, Ryan Jones decided to return to his home state and transition to tight end. The move paid off handsomely for Jones and the Pirates. During his two seasons in Greenville, Jones became a valuable playmaker for the offense, making 78 catches for 855 yards and nine touchdowns.
The third- and fourth-string tight ends from 2022, Aaron Jarman and D’Angelo McKinnie, graduated. Jarman appeared in 11 games last season and even started one.
NEEDS FOR 2023: East Carolina likes to utilize multiple tight ends, especially when it has a pair like Jones and Calhoun. But with Jones gone, and Savage and Calhoun set to exit after 2024, the Pirates should be seeking one or more tight ends in the next class.
Four-star in-state tight end Jack Larson from state power Charlotte Catholic got an offer in May from ECU, but by June gave his verbal commitment to Notre Dame. ECU’s only other reported offer to a tight end has gone to 6-7, 225-pound Luca Puccinelli from Benedictine High in Richmond, VA. The Pirates are one of nine schools that have already offered Puccinelli.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Shane Calhoun, St. Augustine, FL (6-3, 242) Junior
Tyler Savage, Aldie, VA (6-3, 236) Junior
Max Lantzch, Dresden, Germany (6-6, 240) Redshirt freshman
Antonio Ferguson, Apopka, FL (6-4, 235) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: “A big season by (Avery) Jones could hastened his departure from ECU to the next level, so as insurance the Pirates should attempt to sign at least one potential center in the Class of 2023.” — That was our prognosis for the need at center last February. We were right on the part about Jones having a big year and leaving ECU with a year to play. But we thought it would be for the NFL, not another team. Still, the need remained the same and the Pirates hit their mark.
WHO SIGNED: Kameron Durant (6-4, 315) was a three-year varsity starter at Cave Bay High in Summerville, SC. Durant earned a starting job at tackle as a sophomore, then moved to guard for his final two prep seasons. Durant was selected to play in the annual North-South All-Star game featuring South Carolina’s top seniors.
Bryce Weaver (6-3, 315) is a local product from Greenville’s D.H. Conley High School, which also produced Holton Ahlers and C.J. Johnson. Weaver blocked for an offense as a senior that amassed 3,362 yards of total offense. His contribution earned a first-team spot on the All-Big Carolina 3-A/4-A Conference squad. Like Durant, Weaver could wind up playing a dual role at ECU as a guard or center.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Durant is a bright, athletic athlete who is just coming into his own as an offensive lineman. He has the size to move people around and the speed to lead the way on sweep or counter plays. Durant will get an early start on improving his craft at East Carolina after enrolling in January.
Weaver is a relentless player who stays on blocks until the whistle blows, and then some, according to his prep coach Nate Conner. He’s mobile enough to get downfield to make secondary blocks.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: The Pirates got involved early with center prospects Aaron Fenimore (6-1, 275) from Sharpsburg, GA, and Cal Grubbs (6-4, 290) from Maryville, TN. Both received offers from the Pirates last January and Fenimore actually was on campus in March for an unofficial visit. But in a strange recruiting twist, Fenimore and Grubbs both wound up signing to play for Liberty.
WHO’S BACK: Junior Hampton Ergle battled his way from scout team walk-on player to ECU’s starter at center in the Birmingham Bowl. Ergle was elevated to center starter in the bowl after Avery Jones hit the transfer portal and opted not to play. It was a big break for the 6-6, 305-pound Ergle, who slid over from a reserve role at right guard to man the center spot against Coastal Carolina. He performed so well that he was awarded a scholarship after the bowl.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Sacra (6-6, 321) saw most of his four-game action in 2022 at right guard but was also listed as the No. 2 center on the depth chart for the bowl game behind Ergle. And redshirt freshman Omari Allen (6-4, 318) worked out at center and guard during his rookie year in Greenville.
Sophomore Grant Copeland (6-3, 293) is another candidate at a position where any number of ECU interior offensive linemen could wind up as the starter.
WHO’S GONE: As mentioned above, Avery Jones manned the center spot at ECU for the last two seasons and had another year of eligibility left. But the former UNC transfer, who started 33 overall games for the Pirates in three years, decided to play that final year elsewhere and entered the transfer portal on Dec.2. He initially committed to Illinois but flipped to Auburn in the end.
Ben Johnson came to ECU last spring through the transfer portal via Marist College, where he was an all-league performer at tackle. He played in 10 games for the Pirates last season at guard and center. For most of the year, Johnson was listed as the No. 2 center behind Jones. Although he had an additional year of eligibility, Johnson decided to graduate and conclude his college career.
Ethan Lang, who came to ECU as a heralded center prospect in the Class of 2022, has left the team and is expected to transfer, according to school officials.
NEEDS FOR 2023: A potential center-tackle prospect already on ECU’s radar is Joseph Ionata (6-4.5, 280) from Calvary Christian School in Clearwater, FL. The three-star prospect is the son of former Florida State offensive lineman Joey Ionata. The younger Ionata has already garnered 18 scholarship offers, including one from the Pirates on Jan. 18.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Hampton Ergle, Lexington, SC (6-6, 305) Junior
Jacob Sacra, Madison, VA (6-6, 321) Redshirt freshman
Omari Allen, Henderson, NC (6-4, 318) Redshirt freshman
Grant Copeland, Clemmons, NC (6-3, 292) Sophomore
Kameron Durant, Summerville, SC (6-4, 315) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: With only one significant contributor departing the guard corps after the 2022 season, this wasn’t a high priority for the Class of 2023. But there’s always room for more talent at the interior line spots, so signing at least two guards is kind of a standard.
WHO SIGNED: We’ve already mentioned Kameron Durant and Bryce Weaver at the center position, but both could as easily wind up playing guard for the Pirates.
ECU also picked up Will Coats (6-3, 285) from Clayton, whose recruitment was hindered by an injury that sidelined him much of his junior season. But Coats came back to earn a spot on North Carolina’s squad for the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game as a senior. He could be a real steal for the Pirates.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: See above for what Durant and Weaver bring to the table. Coats is a road grader who comes out of his stance fast and with a purpose. Like Durant and Weaver, he could also flip over to center, if needed.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Three-star James Jenkins (6-5, 270) from Tampa, FL, was still committed to Cincinnati when he came to Greenville for an official visit on Dec. 2. But after the coaching change there he backed off his pledge to the Bearcats on Dec. 14, giving the Pirates hopes of landing him. But Jenkins eventually decided to play in his home state and signed with South Florida.
WHO’S BACK: Juniors Nishad Strother (6-3, 326) and Isaiah Foote (6-4, 328) should be one of the best guard tandems in the American Athletic Conference in 2023. Strother, who should man the left guard spot for a third straight year, is one of the program’s most experienced players with 34 games under his belt, including 26 starts. Foote handled the snaps at right guard for all 13 games last season in his first year as a starter.
Sophomore Richard Pearce (6-3, 313) served as Strother’s backup at left guard in 2022, playing in 11 of 13 games. Pearce, redshirt freshman Jacob Sacra, who is also mentioned at center, and redshirt freshman Trey Hardison are the lone returnees besides the starters who saw action last season.
But redshirt freshman Omari Allen, who may also be a center candidate, junior Keziah Everett (6-1, 311), redshirt freshman Elisha Samples (6-3, 311), sophomore Grayson Lewis (6-3, 322) and sophomore Zion Wilson (6-3, 305) are other veterans in the mix for backup duty.
WHO’S GONE: Really, the only player missing from the depth chart next fall will be Ben Johnson, who was a backup at both right guard and center for much of the 2022 campaign. Johnson played in 10 games and could have returned for another season, but opted to conclude his college career.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Strother is a candidate to skip off to the NFL after the 2023 season, even though he’ll have another year of eligibility left at ECU. Foote and Everett are juniors who’ll be bidding the Pirates farewell in two years. Starting to replace that trio should be a focus in the 2024 class. Signing two would put the Pirates ahead of the curve in replacing those imminent departures.
Four-star Caleb Holmes (6-3, 285) from Creekside High in Fairburn, GA, is rated the nation’s No. 11 interior offensive lineman by 247Sports.com. ECU extended an offer to Holmes on Jan. 30, joining a growing group of schools that already includes Auburn, Cincinnati, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
The Pirates also made a late January offer to 6-3, 290-pound Nathan Tveit from Oviedo High in Florida. The three-star prospect also has offers from Liberty, Marshall and USF.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Nishad Strother, Havelock, NC (6-3, 326) Junior
Richard Pearce, Hueytown, AL (6-3, 313) Sophomore
Keziah Everett, Farmville, NC (6-1, 311) Junior
Elisha Samples, Cumming, GA (6-3, 311) Redshirt freshman
Trey Hardison, Jacksonville, NC (6-3, 250) Redshirt freshman
Grayson Lewis, Harrisburg, NC (6-3, 322) Sophomore
Zion Wilson, Belhaven, NC (6-3, 305) Sophomore
Will Coats, Clayton, NC (6-3, 285) Freshman
Isaiah Foote, Prince Frederick, MD (6-4, 328) Junior
Jacob Sacra, Madison, VA (6-6, 321) Redshirt freshman
Omari Allen, Henderson, NC (6-4, 318), Redshirt freshman
Kameron Durant, Summerville, SC (6-4, 311) Freshman
Bryce Weaver, Greenville, NC (6-2, 315) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Securing one or two tackles was the original plan with at least one player set to exhaust his eligibility after 2022 and a second, Noah Henderson, likely opting out of his final year to take a shot at the NFL. The coaching staff, however, must have thought the need was greater because they extended offers to more than 20 tackle prospects.
WHO SIGNED: Two of the late additions to the Class of 2023 were tackles Jimarion McCrimon (6-5, 270) from Osceola High in Kissimmee, FL, and Marleo Neolien (6-8, 320) from Freeport, NY, who attended St. Thomas More in Oakdale, CT.
McCrimon was a four-year varsity starter at Osceola and made the all-area first team compiled by the Orlando Sentinel as a senior. He committed to East Carolina on January 27 over offers from Alabama A&M, Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Purdue, UCF, Western Carolina and Western Kentucky.
Neolien is a project prospect who only began playing football in high school. He originally attended Long Island Lutheran before reclassifying academically and participating in the post-graduate program at St. Thomas More. A 4.0 student who was recruited by a number of Ivy League schools, Neolien received a late offer from ECU on Jan. 12 and visited campus two days later. He committed on Jan. 24 despite receiving a late offer from Penn State.
East Carolina also picked up 6-5, 285-pound tackle Jake Crocker from Princeton, NC, as a preferred walk-on. Crocker played a pivotal role in Princeton High setting a North Carolina state record with 6,491 rushing yards in 2022. He was named to the North Carolina squad for the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game at the end of the season.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: McCrimon could provide some early depth at tackle for the Pirates, while Neolien will need a year or two to develop and gain experience since he’s relatively new to the sport. But his athleticism and size are two characteristics that are already major-college level.
Crocker could be a real steal for the Pirates. He’s a big, motivated athlete who grew up an ECU fan. Crocker is an excellent run blocker but will need to gain some experience as a pass blocker before he’s ready for action at ECU.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Caleb Walker is rated the No. 13 junior college offensive tackle by 247Sports.com. Walker (6-5, 285), who spent this season playing at the College of the Sequoias in California, made an official visit to Greenville on Jan. 4. He also took trips to Coastal Carolina, Illinois State and Utah State. But all four of those schools lost out when UCLA came in with a late offer to keep Walker on the West Coast.
WHO’S BACK: West Virginia transfer Parker Moorer (6-5, 318) enjoyed a solid first season at ECU by appearing in 12 games and making one start against BYU. Most of the year Moorer served as the backup at right tackle to Noah Henderson and will be the favorite to slide into that starting spot next fall.
Junior Walter Stribling (6-6, 328) had a similar experience on the opposite side, seeing action in 11 games as the backup left tackle behind Justin Redd. Stribling is the most seasoned tackle returning with 32 games under his belt. Like Moorer, he is the top candidate to take over at left tackle next fall for Redd.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Sacra, who was on the depth chart at guard and center during the 2022 season, could also figure into the tackle picture in 2023. Redshirt freshman Emmanuel Poku (6-5, 277) is the only other returning tackle.
WHO’S GONE: The starters at left and right tackle will be missing when the Pirates tee it up in 2023. Justin Redd, the Norfolk State transfer, started all 13 games at left tackle in his only season at ECU, while Noah Henderson has manned the right tackle spot for two straight years. Henderson had another year of eligibility remaining, but having already earned his degree decided to go ahead and enter the 2023 NFL Draft.
Reserve Bailey Malovic, who played in 13 games for ECU during an often-injured career, has also departed.
NEEDS FOR 2023: The Pirates could easily shift some current linemen to tackle to fill what on paper looks like a thin tackle corps. But regardless of any position changes, ECU needs to grab two to three tackles from either the prep ranks or transfer portal to address the program depth.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Walter Stribling, Charlottesville, VA (6-6, 328) Junior
Jacob Sacra, Madison, VA (6-6, 321) Redshirt freshman
Marleo Neolien, Freeport, NY (6-8, 318) Freshman
Parker Moorer, Charlotte, NC (6-5, 318) Junior
Emmanuel Poku, Charlotte, NC (6-5, 277) Redshirt freshman
Jimarion McCrimon, Kissimmee, FL (6-5, 270) Freshman
Jake Crocker, Princeton, NC (6-5, 285) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates have three experienced kickers on their roster, so there really wasn’t a need to sign one in the Class of 2023.
WHO SIGNED: But ECU is bringing one in anyway. The Pirates extended a late preferred walk-on offer on Feb. 1 to Ryan Capriotti, a 5-11, 163-pounder kicker-punter from Our Lady of Good Counsel High in Olney, MD. Capriotti accepted a Feb. 7 offer over offers from Buffalo and Stony Brook. As a senior, Capriotti converted eight of 11 field-goal attempts with a long of 48. He made 43 of 45 points-after-kicks and sent 47 of 59 kickoffs into the end zone. Capriotti also averaged 41 yards per punt. He earned first-team all-league honors and second-team All-MET from the Washington Post.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Capriotti is capable of handling all three aspects of the kicking game. He’s athletic — he was a stellar baseball player in high school, too — and has shown solid leg strength.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: No reported offers went out to kickers other than Capriotti.
WHO’S BACK: Junior Owen Daffer, who came to ECU as a walk-on, was an All-AAC pick as a freshman in 2021 and began the regular season as the No. 1 placekicker. But after struggling at one stretch, he was replaced by sophomore Andrew Conrad down the stretch. Still, Daffer has experience (22 ECU games) and had made 24 of 31 career field-goal tries. He’ll get the chance to win his job back during spring practice.
Conrad, a sophomore, stepped in for Daffer for the Memphis game and converted eight of 12 field-goal attempts in seven games. His 33-yarder in the final seconds gave the Pirates a win at Brigham Young.
Sophomore Laith Marjan also handled kickoff duties in five games last season, averaging 62.7 yards per boot and sending four through end zone for touchbacks.
Sophomore Carson Smith has yet to appear in a game during two seasons with the Pirates.
WHO’S GONE: No one.
NEEDS FOR 2023: All three of ECU’s main kickers have two or more seasons of eligibility left, so it would seem like a waste of a scholarship to bring anyone in during the next recruiting cycle.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Andrew Conrad, Kernersville, NC (5-11, 156) Sophomore
Owen Daffer, Wilmington, NC (6-0, 170) Junior
Marjan Laith, Cary, NC (6-3, 195) Sophomore
Carson Smith, Belmont, NC (5-11, 167) Sophomore
Ryan Capriotti, Olney, MD (5-11, 163) Freshman
OVERALL OFFENSIVE GRADE B
The Pirates signed prospects at every position and were especially successful adding talent at the skill spots. The receiver signees should make an immediate impact while the rest of the class will add depth and provide a foundation for the future. The 247Sports.com network rates ECU’s class sixth-best in the AAC. We think it’s better than that.