Mike Houston has been busy working to make sure a 2-10 record in 2023 was an aberration after two straight bowl berths.
Following up on staff changes in recent weeks, Houston stepped to the podium in TowneBank Tower on Wednesday to talk about the recruits the Pirates have locked down in the current class.
No mention was made of Katin Houser, a transfer from Michigan State, who will be counted on to solve problems at quarterback under new offensive coordinator John David Baker. Houston’s focus was on 18 high school signees and a pair of junior college transfers.
“Signing day has changed so much over the years, but still is just a huge day for all these young men and their families.” Houston said. “You think back to all the signing days over the years and even back to the day that I signed a couple of years ago, it’s just a special moment that these young men will never forget.
“Very excited about the class that we signed today. We signed a total of 20 new Pirates. Eighteen of those are high school signees, two are junior college signees. We signed 12 offensive players, eight defensive players, and just looking, a pretty good scattering of where they’re from, background wise, from all over the east coast up and down the eastern seaboard. So very pleased with the way the class ended up.
“Obviously the class started way back in March with Trenton Cloud being our first commit and excited that he finished it off.
“But along the way, putting this together throughout the summer and the fall, I just feel really, really good about the quality of players. I think this is a very high end talent class, but feel equally as good about the character and the families that are joining us today and just can’t wait to get them here.
“Eight of them will be mid-year enrollees, so they will be here the first week of January and then the rest of them will get here in either May or June. So, a big day for Pirate Nation, a big day for our football program and the first key pieces added to our current roster for next year’s football team.”
ECU retained a high percentage of players who committed to the Pirates during the recruiting process.
“A couple of reasons for that, and one is just a lot of hard work went into putting this class together by both our recruiting staff and our coaching staff,” Houston said. “Scott Gasper (director of player personnel/recruiting) did a good job of coordinating all those efforts. And I know just from my perspective, I probably spent more time individually with each of these kids this year than I ever have in my career. I mean, Scott did a great job of organizing us and keeping us on task. And so, I think that’s one reason for keeping the class together.
“Another reason I think is just this class, they really bonded over the summer and going into the fall, and I think they have kept in very, very close touch. Cole Hodge (quarterback signee) really was, I think a big piece of that from a leadership standpoint. I told him I was going to have to put him on payroll. He’s always texting me about different players and this and that and the other, but I think he did a great job of keeping this group engaged with each other throughout the year, and they have a pretty strong bond already even though they’ve never been here together.”
Houston spoke about common factors that attracted the class that signed Wednesday.
“Some of the things that stood out are things that we all know, but I think sometimes we don’t realize the impact they have on recruiting,” Houston said. “Probably the single biggest factor that they all were very passionate about was the game day environment that we have here at East Carolina. The passion of our fan base. I’m obviously biased, but I think that Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, when it’s rocking in the fall, is the best venue in the country.
“The way our fans interact with the team on game day obviously stood out to these guys.
“A couple of these guys have been coming here for multiple years, seeing games here, so it wasn’t just something they saw this fall, but a lot from what they’ve seen historically here. And I think another piece is just the history of the program and some of the players that have come out of here. I think certainly everybody is seeing what Ja’Quan (McMillian, Denver) and Keaton (Mitchell, Baltimore) have done this year on the professional level, but I think just the performance of our players historically and currently after leaving here was a factor also.”
Hodge recruits recruits
Houston said recruits can be instrumental in influencing other recruits.
Hodge, from Louisville, has been serving in that capacity.
“I promise you Cole’s smart enough to know this,” Houston said. “His ability on the field as a quarterback is going to be directly related to the receivers he has, the running backs, the offensive lineman, and so that’s something that he understood and had good relationships with those guys.
“We’ve done that every year with our signing classes. You find a couple of guys, once they get solidly committed, you try to use them to help recruit the rest of the class and certainly I think that was part of the case this year, too.”
Houston was asked if the defensive line signees have a chance for playing time in 2024 with the depth that returns on the defensive front. Competition is a cornerstone in Houston’s design for player development.
“I don’t know,” said Houston, who will be entering his sixth season at ECU. “We’ll see. That’s the one thing that certainly happens, and you know this as well as anybody, every one of these kids thinks they’re going to come in and they’re going to play as a freshman and some may, but it is very, very hard to play as a true freshman in college, especially on the line because of the size, strength and ability of the players at this level.
“And I think certainly with our returning guys up front, we have a pretty strong group right there, so we’ll see. Now I feel very, very good about this group and I mean all those guys in my opinion are going to be really, really good players when their day does come. So we will find out.”
Impact of staff changes
Staff changes include new offensive coordinator John David Baker, new offensive line coach Matt Mattowx and new tight ends coach Hunter MacKay.
The group has blazed the recruiting trail in recent weeks.
“That is always the challenge when you have staff change for whatever reason,” Houston said. “They’ve built strong relationships with the commits. We start out recruiting areas and then once a kid gets a scholarship offer from us, it becomes the coaches recruiting their position.
“That is something we had to work really, really hard with some of the staff adjustments that we’ve had over the last couple of months and it’s something that we had to work through. … Our new staff members did a great job of immediately hitting the ground running and establishing relationships and they’re still building these relationships.
“Some of the staff have been here a very short time right now, but they’ve worked very, very hard to start building positive relationships with the players and their families. I still go back to this. Another big key was Scott really having me so, so close with these players and families is you still had that connection with the program through our relationship, and so I think that probably helped smooth everything over also.”
Signee from Tarboro
Defensive back O’Marion Lewis signed with the Pirates from Tarboro, the Eastern 1-A champions in 2023.
“Could not be more excited,” Houston said. “Certainly O’Mar has grown up watching the Pirates play, being from Tarboro, and certainly Coach (Jeff) Craddock has done such an exceptional job there with that program, perennially competing for the state championship. It’s great to get one of his players here. And O’Mar wanted to be here and he never wavered on that and he did the work he had to do to make sure he could graduate early.
“He will be a mid-year enrollee and can’t wait to get him here in January. Now once he gets in that weight room with Big John (Williams, strength coach) and the crew, mid-January, he may be doubting some stuff, but he’s going to be a big joker now. He’s got a long frame.”
Receiver Yannick Smith also was a Shrine Bowl selection from South Carolina. He is among four receivers who signed Wednesday.
“The quality there is really what stands out and they’re all a little bit different,” Houston said. “I wish the Shrine Bowl hadn’t got so much publicity last weekend because Yannick did some great things in that game, but all four we expect to be really, really good players for us. We’ll start with Yannick. Summerville High School. They were one of the top teams in the state of South Carolina this year. Made it to I think the quarterfinals before being knocked off. Yannick is a multi-sport athlete, player of the year in the state of South Carolina in basketball last year and first team All-State this year in football. … I just think he’s got such a high ceiling.
“Staying in South Carolina, J5, Jyron Waiters, slot receiver out of Wilson. Came to camp last summer, ran low (4.5s, 40 yards) on grass out there on a hot afternoon. He was very, very impressive. And just a guy that has a lot of juice there at that slot position.
“We talked about Trenton (Cloud) a little bit earlier, a four-time all conference player. I mean that stands out. And he was at a school where traditionally they have been up and down in football and he didn’t have a ton of college guys around him like some of the other schools in that area do. But was a huge impact to help his team win and that really stood out just how his getting double covered a lot of times and still making plays.
“Obviously, Dillon Lorick from Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, very, very explosive athlete. Another multi-sport athlete, being a basketball player as well. Dylan has good size but really has explosion and acceleration. His dad played at the University of South Carolina, so he has some good genes there, but he’s a very exciting player to watch.”
The players who enroll in January are expected to be involved in spring practice.
“I wish we could get them all in here early,’ Houston said. “I mean that’d be ideal. And all of them wanted to, but it just depends on their high school and some schools don’t allow you to graduate mid-year. Some do. Really, to graduate mid-year, you’ve got to start planning it out pretty early in your high school career to make sure you’ve got the credits and everything lined up.
“So, we want any kid we can get because, get them here in January, get them lifting, go through spring practice, get their feet on the ground academically. It just prepares them to be set up to have a really successful freshman year. So, the guys that are going mid-year, we mentioned O’Mar, T.J. Engleman, the running back … So Jayson Tarpeh, junior college offensive lineman from Lackawanna. K.D. (Kendarius) Small, transfer offensive lineman out of Alabama. Shaikh Thompson, our other Shrine Bowl guy, Sam Riddy from Charleston, South Carolina, big defensive end. J5, we mentioned him already, slot receiver, and K.J (Kevon) Merrell (linebacker). Those guys will be our mid-year guys.”
Tight end signee Nick Slogik plans to play baseball and football for the Pirates.
“It’s hard to do,” Houston said. “Very few guys can play multiple sports at the college level just because of the time commitment that’s required. And I think it’s especially hard with football. I have had players in the past that played football and baseball. You can make it work. Both head coaches have to really do a great job of working together, which I’m very confident Cliff (Godwin) and I’ll do fine handling that.
“It’s something I do think that helped with Nick in that we were open to allowing him to play baseball as well. One key thing that everybody may not understand is he’s a football scholarship player, so football pays the scholarship for the student athlete and then baseball. He’ll play that also.”
Merrell (6 feet 1 and 200 pounds) can cover ground.
“He can run now,” Houston said. “Well, he is … a freak athletically. I mean, he’s a 10.6 (seconds) 100-meter kid and that’s blazing. So obviously he has the ability to play sideline to sideline. He weighs about 200 pounds right now. So, I do think getting him here early is going to allow us to put a little bit of weight on him.
“We’ll see how much he grows and develops. His dad is a big guy, so he could continue to grow, but he’s a very mature kid and just really excited to see what he’s going to become.”
Houston expounded on what he looks for among prospects up front.
“That’s probably one of the more difficult positions to identify,” Houston said. “Obviously, at this level, the size piece is very important. Height, wingspan, hand size, but you’ve got to have great mobility in their hips and knees and ankles, the ability to bend, especially if you’re playing tackle.
“And then you start getting into the other intangibles of just nastiness, work ethic, toughness, football IQ. The offensive line requires a lot when it comes to protections and communications, so you’ve got to have certain traits right there, but that’s why you just see a lot of guys that maybe are under-recruited become some of the best linemen to ever play. And sometimes you get somebody that looks like a surefire thing and they don’t end up being quite as good. So the linemen are definitely something challenging to identify.”