If April showers bring May flowers, what will an April scrimmage bring?
For East Carolina, looking to follow up on an 8-5 season and a bowl triumph, the hope for Saturday’s Purple-Gold scrimmage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is that it will be a prelude to another successful season despite significant losses in terms of skill personnel.
For the first time since before Mike Houston took over as coach after the 2018 season, Holton Ahlers is not in the quarterback picture. Also moving on with aspirations for pro careers are elite running back Keaton Mitchell and productive receivers C.J. Johnson and Isaiah Winstead.
“We know exactly what we have,” Houston said following a 17-9 win for the Gold team — coached by recovering running back Rahjai Harris — over the Purple unit — coached by outside linebacker Jeremy Lewis, who also has been sidelined. “I think that’s the best way to put it. We know where we are very strong and we know where we’ve got to improve between now and August.”
Improved has described ECU under Houston, who took over a program that had struggled without a winning season since 2014. He guided the Pirates to a 7-5 mark and an unfulfilled bowl berth in 2021. ECU performed a nice encore in 2022 and the players aren’t studying a backslide.
“Our kids have enjoyed the program getting it to where it is and I can promise you they’re determined for us not to go backwards,” said Houston within the dry confines of the Murphy Center weight room after four 15-minute quarters of combat on Bagwell Field. “So, they have very high expectations for us going into the season.”
While Mason Garcia has been waiting in the wings as Ahlers’ successor, Alex Flinn showed in the final spring session that he is capable of giving offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Donnie Kirkpatrick a potentially viable option.
Flinn threw a 59-yard scoring pass to Jsi Hatfield and subsequently ran 62 yards for a touchdown. The big plays secured the winners’ meal of steak and shrimp for the Gold team.
The Purple didn’t convert a 4th-and-short deep in Gold territory in the late stages when a TD and a 2-point conversion would have tied the score — like last year when the offense and defense played to a spring knot. This year, the losing team was destined to dine on cold beanie weenies.
Flinn completed 19 of 22 for 173 yards without an interception, which didn’t surprise Houston.
“He’s had that kind of spring,” said the Pirates coach. “We feel very comfortable with both quarterbacks going into the summer. But (Alex) is a kid that is in his fourth year in the program. He has complete command of the offense. And I thought the thing that’s most impressive to me is he sees what’s coming defensively and was able to consistently get us in the right protections, consistently get us in the right play.”
Garcia connected on 17 of 29 passes for 153 yards with two interceptions that led to 10 points.
Flinn was the game’s top rusher with six keepers for 68 yards, the bulk of it coming on his sprint to the East end zone in the third quarter.
“You had a pressure and a corner trap coverage, so you had everybody coming off the edge,” Houston said. “The receiver sealed it, and it’s just green grass. You probably have the defensive guys getting on the Purple about the pursuit right there because I don’t think anybody expected Alex to go.”
True freshman Javoius Bond ran six times for 64 yards for the Purple with a 60-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter that was followed by a missed conversion kick, a recurring problem in 2022.
The offense totaled 471 yards on 74 snaps, a high degree of productivity that begs the question of offensive efficiency or defensive breakdowns that always come with intersquad scrimmage appraisals.
ECU has had some difficulties with the departure of star quarterbacks in the past. When David Garrard went to the NFL after the 2001 season, the Pirates dropped from 6-6 to 4-8. When Shane Carden exited following the 2014, season, ECU went from 8-5 to 5-7. Disastrous coaching changes followed the seasons after Garrard and Carden had been gone for a year.
Garcia’s second start is projected to be at Michigan on Sept. 2. Hatfield, who had five catches for 83 yards for the Gold team on Saturday, will be on his side that day.
Jarrett Garner had seven grabs for 58 yards. Brock Spalding had two catches for 43 yards. Four players had three catches — Kamarro Edmonds (31 yards), Ryan King (30 yards), Marlon Gunn Jr. (25 yards) and Tyler Savage (14 yards). Jhari Patterson made four receptions for 18 yards.
“I want to take a look at the film and see how they performed,” Houston said of the receivers. “The big thing is who makes contested catches and then what do they do after the catch? That’s a big thing that we’ve got to evaluate. So much of what the production was last year was who could do something with the ball after the catch and who could make those contested catches against tight coverage. And so that’s really what you want to evaluate them on.”
And although Flinn was impressive, Garcia had the stronger finish — after Purple trailed, 17-3.
“He’s got a lot of positives he took from today,” Houston said of Garcia. “He’s got some things that he needs to function and operate better. I think that what we’ve seen from him all spring is when we have our personnel out there with him, he functions very well. So again, I think you have some growing pieces for a lot of guys and him in particular, but you have a lot to go off of from the whole spring that you’re excited about.”
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