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PIRATE PREVIEW: Full personnel breakdown

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ECU's defensive line features senior starters Kendall Futrell (44), Alex Turner, middle, and Jalen Price.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 24, 2019

First-year East Carolina football coach Mike Houston has mainly established his starters and is in the fine-tuning phase of August as the noon kickoff against N.C. State in Raleigh is exactly one week away.

ECU was established as a 17-point underdog to the Wolfpack and has the task of trying to prove doubters wrong again this year after also being picked fifth in the American Athletic Conference East Division in the league’s preseason poll. ECU’s last two games of 2018 were a 56-6 loss to Cincinnati and 58-3 defeat to the Wolfpack.

Houston is now at the forefront of the Pirates with his winning pedigree of an 80-25 career record and a mission to bring confidence, pride and winning back to Greenville.

He has talented sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers, a Greenville native and former record-setting QB at D.H. Conley High School, set to lead an offense that features a variety of receivers on the outside and junior Darius Pinnix looking to give ECU a powerful and much-needed lead running back.

The Pirates started 1-6 in 2017 and were 2-2 last year before struggling in AAC play.

This year’s schedule features two games against Football Championship Subdivision opponents in September, along with trips to Navy and Old Dominion.

“So many times (in December), it seemed pretty overwhelming, and you wondered if you would ever make it to the regular season,” Houston said last weekend. “But as I look back now, we have come a long way. I’ve talked to donors about the transformation of some of our players in the locker room and their development and the maturation of our culture.

“We have come so far and we are not a finished product yet and not the way we want to be yet, but we are light years from where we were.”

Here is a closer look at the Pirates’ personnel:

OFFENSE

Ahlers is one of the team’s all-AAC candidates after leading the Pirates in rushing in 2018 as a running/QB specialist and then the starter for most of the last half of the season.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound left-hander accounted for 18 touchdowns (12 passing, six rushing) during his freshman campaign. He threw three interceptions.

Reid Herring also returns at QB after seven starts in 2018.

An important and intriguing part of the Pirate offense is at receiver, where Trevon Brown’s 1,123 yards a year ago gave ECU an NCAA-best seven straight seasons with a 1,000-yard pass-catcher. Brown was a senior, leaving inside receiver Deondre Farrier and outside starter Blake Proehl as the leading returning receivers. Houston and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick also want to see more impact at tight end, where Anthony Watley and transfer Zech Byrd were solid in the preseason.

“We are spreading it out a lot and we have a lot of guys,” Ahlers said after a preseason scrimmage. “They are interchangeable. A lot of guys will come in and make a big play and come out and the next guy will make a big play. That is what we need around here, so we definitely have some playmakers and I am excited for the year.”

ECU added outside receiver Audie Omotosho as a graduate transfer from UCLA during the second week of preseason camp. He battled injuries with the Bruins and never made a catch during his three years in Los Angeles, but Houston said there was enough quality practice film on the former four-star recruit from Plano, Texas, to bring him to Greenville as a potential big-play threat with at least two years of eligibility remaining.

“I think he is a talented player and a great young man,” Houston said. “He gives us some depth and a little bit of experience in that room, but he still has a good bit of time with our program here.”

Pinnix has been ECU’s top running back since the spring. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry a year ago and totaled three touchdowns before bulking up to 234 pounds this summer.

Up front, a lead trio is established with left tackle D’Ante Smith, left guard Cortez Herrin and center Branden Pena. Smith has started 13 straight games and Pena had a strong preseason as a sixth-year senior, but some questions still remain about the right side of the line and the Pirates’ depth behind their lead trio of linemen.

One to watch: Sean Bailey, right guard -- Bailey has ideal size at 6-foot-6 and 339 pounds. The junior is also lauded by teammates for his prowess in the weight room. Him continuing to progress and move to the forefront as a quality starter who could shore up the right side of the line would be a boost for the Pirates.

DEFENSE

Some explosiveness on the line and a young secondary looking to establish itself are areas to watch on the Pirate defense.

D-end Kendall Futrell turned in another strong preseason camp for his senior year and is aiming to be the team leader in sacks. Another senior and all-AAC candidate is tackle Alex Turner, who started all 12 games a season ago at nose tackle and totaled 10.5 tackles for loss.

The secondary is intriguing mainly because of the possibility of freshmen cornerbacks Ja’Quan McMillian and/or Juan Powell starting against the Wolfpack. Senior Mike Witherspoon also is a lead candidate at corner, but he only started two games in 2018 with the Pirates after transferring from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.

A bright spot during the preseason was junior safety Tank Robinson grabbing two interceptions during a scrimmage.

“I don’t know where we are at right now, because we’ll find out (Aug. 31), but we are getting better,” defensive coordinator Bob Trott said. “It’s a process. Every day is a challenge ... and we just stress to get better every day.”

At linebacker, ECU will lean on steady starter Bruce Bivens and the emergence of former tight end Xavier Smith after he stepped up during preseason camp. Smith is plenty athletic as a sophomore at 6-foot and 244 pounds, and Bivens enters his junior year with 71 career tackles, two sacks and one fumble recovery.

“Since the day I got here, it is guys like that who have stood out,” Houston said of Bivens and Smith as projected starting inside linebackers.

The Pirates ranked 73rd in the nation in rush defense last season, 101st in total defense and 120th in scoring defense.

This will be Trott’s first season at ECU in a career that began in 1976 as a graduate assistant at North Carolina. He spent nine seasons coaching in the NFL and at James Madison was named 2017 Football Championship Subdivision coordinator of the year by Footballscoop.com.

One to watch: Smith, linebacker -- The Pirates think they might have a budding star in Smith, despite only one career tackle. His rookie season was marked by special teams work and a minor role as a tight end late in the season, but he is fully focused now on linebacking and proved during the preseason that he is ready for a shot at starting on defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Pirates are proven in the kicking game, beginning with junior Jake Verity returning as the top placekicker in the American Athletic Conference.

He was 19-of-21 on field goals last season for a 90.5 percentage that ranked fourth nationally and set a new Pirate school record. He is 36-for-48 in his career.

“He has to approach it that we can always get better in everything that we do,” special teams coordinator Roy Tesh of Verity, who is from Bremen, Ga., and will also be the Pirates’ lead kickoff man. “Operation times are always a must, trying to take pressure off those guys up front in field goal situations. He has to continue to make sure that he pushes to be great.”

Jonn Young also returns as starting punter. The West Virginia transfer averaged 40.4 yards per punt a year ago.

Pinnix and Demetrius Mauney are in the mix to return kicks and punts, along with a host of receivers and defensive backs that includes freshmen corners McMillian and Powell.

One to watch: Mauney -- The running back from Forest City is one of the freshmen expected to contribute immediately for the Pirates. If Pinnix excels in the role of No. 1 running back, Mauney could seize his opportunity on special teams while also serving as a backup in the backfield.

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

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