East Carolina faces some huge voids from its 2022 roster as the 2023 season opener at Michigan on Sept. 2 at noon approaches.
The Pirates have welcomed transfers who could help sustain the success that has resulted in bowl invitations the last two years.
Mason Garcia has been the quarterback in waiting for three seasons behind Holton Ahlers. As Garcia takes the reins, the supporting cast that helped Ahlers throw for 3,708 yards and 28 touchdowns during an 8-5 season, is largely gone.
Those losses include running back Keaton Mitchell, who scooted for 1,452 yards and 14 TDs.
Ahlers’ targets such as Isaiah Winstead (1,085 yards, 6 TDs) and C.J. Johnson (1,016 yards, 10 TDs) are gone as well.
Center Avery Jones had already departed for Auburn when ECU overwhelmed Coastal Carolina, 53-29, in the Birmingham Bowl. The offseason also saw another exit from the offensive front with left guard Nishad Strother heading for Oregon.
New offensive line coach Allen Mogridge has helped scour the transfer portal for a number of potential replacements. Hampton Ergle stepped up at center in the bowl game and should figure prominently moving forward.
Dustyn Hall made 12 starts at right guard at South Florida, where Mogridge coached the OL last year. Hall transferred to ECU after a brief stay at Duke. The Pirates have also brought in a duo from Akron, interior offensive lineman Ryan Beckman and offensive tackle Owen Murphy. The former Zips endured a 2-10 season last year and will be hungry to be part of a winner.
The new faces in the wide receiver room will include transfers Ryan King from Georgia Tech, Kelan Robinson (Kansas) and Chase Sowell (Colorado). Former Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson is back and is the leading returning receiver for the Pirates with 26 catches for 340 yards and four scores. Jsi Hatfield also returns after making 11 catches for 178 yards in eight games in 2022.
King was on hand for Purple-Gold game and had three receptions for 30 yards. Hatfield had five catches for 83 yards and a TD in the spring game.
Shane Calhoun is a proven performer at tight end with 25 catches for 202 yards and two TDs as a sophomore last season for ECU.
The running backs include Rahjai Harris, Marlon Gunn Jr., Georgia Southern transfer Gerald Green and true freshman Javious Bond.
Harris was productive in two seasons before going out with a knee injury after five games. He had 67 carries last year for 247 yards with five touchdowns. He also had nine catches for 71 yards and a score. His 2021 numbers included 583 yards rushing on 165 attempts with four touchdowns as well as 24 catches for 162 yards with one TD.
Harris arrived at ECU in 2020 and was American Athletic Conference Rookie of the year as well as first team All-AAC after running for 624 yards and four TDs in eight games.
Harris did not participate in spring drills in 2023 following knee surgery.
Gunn saw extensive action in 2022 after Harris went out, accumulating 344 yards rushing and 77 receiving in his true freshman campaign.
Green had 1,456 yards rushing on 256 attempts with 13 touchdowns at Georgia Southern.
Bond, who had seven Power Five offers, had six carries for 64 yards and a TD in the ECU spring game.
The Pirates have shored up a placekicking game that was inconsistent last year with the addition of experienced booter Jerry Rice from Virginia Military Institute.
The projected strength of the Pirates, based on experience within the program, will be the defensive front where four starters are back including tackles D’Anta Johnson and Chad Stephens as well as ends Elijah Morris and Jeremy Lewis. The quartet was in on 141 tackles last season.
Safeties Julius Wood and Teagan Wilk give ECU six returning starters on defense.
The portal has given the Pirates some needed resources at linebacker and at the corners.
Incoming linebackers include B.J. Davis (South Carolina State), Ra Ra Dillworth (North Carolina) and Tyquan King (North Carolina A&T).
Potential reinforcements from the portal in the secondary are Tymir Brown (UNC), Rance Conner (Louisville), Jonathan Jones (Campbell), Dontavius Nash (UNC) and Omar Rogers (Elon).
Punter Archer Trafford from Mississippi State has the ability to enhance field position.
Corner Antione Jackson and quarterback Raheim Jeter are among ECU’s more heralded high school recruits. Mike Houston and staff have seldom backed away from playing capable first-year Pirates.
With the influx of transfers who could contribute plus inexperience at quarterback, ECU may need the nonconference portion of the schedule to get the kinks worked out and challenge in the American.
The AAC will undergo a drastic change with the loss of Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston to the Big 12 accompanied by the addition of Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio from Conference USA.
The Pirates will have a long way to go and a relatively short time to get there in preseason practice.