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Houston, ECU focused on the trenches

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Offensive lineman Branden Pena has been granted a medical hardship waiver to play one more season at East Carolina.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Coach Mike Houston is hoping a mix of new and old faces for East Carolina football in the trenches will mesh together this offseason and form solid units for this fall.

Houston said Wednesday, while announcing the additions of two high school defensive linemen and 6-foot-7, 265-pound junior college tight end Zech Byrd to complete a 21-player recruiting class, that interior offensive lineman Branden Pena has been granted a final year of eligibility for this season for medical hardship.

The Pirates’ first-year coach also voiced optimism for a similar result for defensive end and 2018 American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year Nate Harvey. His 14.5 sacks last year ranked third in the na­tion and tied the AAC sin­gle-sea­son record.

“We did get a request back this week to submit some additional information, which I think is very positive,” Houston said of Harvey, who transferred to ECU from Georgia Military College in the spring of 2017. “We hope to have a decision, one way or another, on Nate’s status by the time we get to spring practice (beginning March 15).”

Pena suffered a season-ending injury in the 2017 season opener, versus James Madison, and started the first four games a year ago before another injury. Harvey’s medical hardship request is based on a shortened season at Georgia Military.

Houston hired veterans to lead ECU up front in Jeff Hanson, who began his career coaching defensive linemen in the early 1970s, and Steve Shankweiler, who is in his fourth stint as the Pirates’ O-line coach.

ECU’s recruiting class consisted of five defensive linemen and three linemen on offense. One offensive lineman was December signee Bailey Malovic (6-6, 260) from Highland (Kan.) Community College.

Starting for the ECU offensive front in its last game, a 58-3 loss at N.C. State on Dec. 1, were then-true freshman center Peyton Winstead joined by tackles Garrett McGhin and D’Ante Smith and guards Cortez Herrin and walk-on Fernando Frye. McGhin was a senior, but Smith, Herrin and Frey all are seniors for this year along with Pena in his final campaign.

“I know we have some work to do there, but he is the guy that can do it,” Houston said of Shankweiler.

Malovic and seven other December signees already enrolled at East Carolina and have been working out with the team. They are: defensive back Alex Angus, quarterback Bryan Gagg, JUCO defensive lineman Hozey Haji-Badri, receiver Jsi Hatfield, DB Ja’Quan McMillian, kicker Patrick Nations and DB/athlete Juan Powell.

Schedule release 

ECU released its full football schedule on Thursday in conjunction with the American Athletic Conference, which has Temple traveling to Greenville to play the Pirates during a Thursday night ESPN game on Oct. 3. That is ECU’s only non-Saturday game.

Kickoff times for the first three weeks of the season will be announced in June. The other times will be through the traditional 12-day/six-day process. Season tickets go on sale Feb. 20.

"We are excited to have our first schedule completed and start circling dates on the calendar," Houston said in a release. “We also embrace the opportunity to compete on a national stage on a Thursday night and are thankful the American will enable us to again show the rest of the country about the pride of Pirate Nation.”

ECU’s other TV game announced Thursday is a CBS Sports Network broadcast for the AAC opener for both the Pirates and Navy. They will meet Sept. 14 in Annapolis, Md., between East Carolina’s two home FCS games versus Gardner-Webb (Sept. 7) and William & Mary (Sept. 21).

Homecoming is Oct. 26 versus South Florida.

The Pirates’ schedule is split evenly between six home contests and six on the road. Their slate begins Aug. 31 at rival N.C. State and the final regular season game is Thanksgiving weekend when the Pirates host Tulsa on Nov. 30.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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