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SUMMERS: Youth being served

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East Carolina's Hussein Howe, right, runs the ball during their game against Tulane on Nov. 11, 2017. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Monday, November 13, 2017

What began when the weather was still raging hot with early September sun continued into the first true November chill on Saturday night for East Carolina football.

But for the first time since the season began in that summer steam with an upset loss to James Madison, this eighth setback of a painful season hurt in a new and different sort of way. The two-win Pirates were making their own steam as they walked, shocked, off the field in the cold after a 31-24 overtime loss to Tulane.

The Green Wave's defensive front turned tsunami on the last of a dizzying amount of pivotal fourth down plays in the game, crashing into the ECU offensive line on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and washing over freshman running back Darius Pinnix to end the game just one step away from another shot at a third win.

That's right. A true freshman had the ball with the game on the line in overtime. And while the up-the-gut play call might be up for argument among postgame pundits, putting the game in the hands of a rookie was very likely the right call.

Within a few confused seconds, Tulane's on-field celebrations were audible as another small ECU crowd left in a rush. As the lingering smoke from another empty-sounding postgame cannon blast echoed across Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the steam from another night lost for the ECU players drifted skyward with it, this team's true identity was revealed.

The problems are many, but the possible solutions are equally abundant.

While it is certain to be a final season of disappointment for senior players who were asked to invest themselves into two very different coaching philosophies during their careers, the inevitable influx of freshmen and sophomores into prominent roles has already changed the face of the team.

Whether or not they too get lost in transition is on them.

Smartly, dynamic sophomore tailback Hussein Howe and the powerful Pinnix have largely taken over the ECU rush the second half of the season, part of a crew of now 24 first-time starters for the Pirates.

They are the immediate future of ECU football.

Howe authored one of the only moments of athletic brilliance the team has seen in the run game this year. His hard right turn into the middle of the field and gravity-defying balance in breaking a tackle before collapsing into the end zone for the team's second touchdown was a picture in determination that bodes well for his future and maybe his team's also.

No matter what changes, or not, the offseason will bring to the team now adrift in a three-year bowl absence, the underclassmen steadily taking the reins will be asked to carry the team for a while.

In a sense, this rendition of Pirates was also lost in transfer.

Part of the Pirates' solution that is also part of their problem is the high level of short-term players brought in to fill specific needs but who are a costly gamble if they don't work out right away. Some, like linebacker Cannon Gibbs, have proven their worth right away. Others have proven to still be works in progress, possibly limiting the growth of younger, potentially long-term players.

Those four- and five-year players are the only chance the Pirates have in recreating themselves as a winner, so they might as well know what it's like to have the game in their hands. More players like Howe and Pinnix must play their way into prominence at their positions, and quickly.

The passage of time can seem cruelly quick in college sports. Even with youth on their side, players like Howe already are nearing the midway point in their careers.

The clock is always ticking and the ECU football team is in desperate need of a long-term identity.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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