Defensive struggles and wide-open opposing receivers have plagued East Carolina for a decade full of football seasons since the Pirates last won a conference championship in 2009, yet second-year Pirate coach Mike Houston is leaning toward offense in the most unique offseason of his career.
Fix defense with more offense? Yes, that strategy might be brewing at ECU and it just might be the short-term answer during anxious times on the heels of five straight losing seasons.
Another losing campaign would create an unprecedented run of six straight for the Pirates, who are in win-now mode as much as any other team in the American Athletic Conference.
With that in mind and despite the attention of adding former Alabama cornerback Nigel Knott, most of the transfers the Pirates landed this offseason will play offense whenever preseason camp begins. The list for offense includes a former Oklahoma linebacker.
First-year defensive coordinator Blake Harrell has time. He is young and has deep ties to Houston, giving Harrell a lengthy leash to figure some things out, especially with spring practices already completely wiped out by COVID-19.
ECU does not have unlimited time with sophomore receiver C.J. Johnson, who is the best pro prospect on the roster, and especially not with junior starting quarterback Holton Ahlers. They were stars together at D.H. Conley High School and they are budding stars together at ECU, which also has Blake Proehl, Jsi Hatfield and Tyler Snead at receiver.
Back to defense, where the Pirate statistics have been mostly ugly the last 10 seasons.
After winning the Conference USA title in 2008 and ‘09 under coach Skip Holtz and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, East Carolina has finished last in the country in total defense twice (2010, 2017), and its average ranking in the 10-year span is 85.5. After a solid showing of 38th in total defense in 2014, ECU’s ranking dropped to No. 67 in 2015 and then 99, 130, 101 and 119, respectively, the last four years.
ECU went 8-5 in 2012 with a defense that was 89th in the country.
Eight years later, this is another window to load up on offense.
Two offensive linemen have arrived from Atlantic Coast Conference schools, one each from North Carolina and N.C. State. It would not be a surprise if former Arkansas running back Chase Hayden is ECU’s leading rusher as early as September. (Hint: The Pirates’ second game is at South Carolina — a Southeastern Conference team — on Sept. 12. UCF also is on the schedule for Sept. 24).
Incoming freshman quarterback Mason Garcia is one of the most decorated recruits in school history. He is built like Ahlers and has a similar playing style, which ideally would set him up as a first-time sophomore starter in 2022 after Ahlers is finished with his record-breaking and potentially breakthrough career and hands the reins to Garcia.
Then there is Oklahoma transfer Ryan Jones. He is the wild card of this offseason.
Jones started three games for the Sooners at linebacker as a redshirt freshman in 2018. He undoubtedly could help the Pirates on defense, but the Charlotte native who stands 6-foot-2 and around 230 pounds is expecting to get a shot first at offense.
The strength at the top of the AAC annually forces teams in the bottom half, like ECU, to be creative. A Pirate tight end/H-back room led by talented pass-catchers Jones and Zech Byrd would not compare to the uniqueness of Navy’s triple-option rushing scheme, but it could be a great asset for the Pirates.
SMU coach Sonny Dykes took some risks last season and they worked. The Mustangs already had one of the best receiving corps in the country, and they complemented that by adding Texas transfer Shane Buechele as their starting quarterback.
Dykes used droves of offseason transfers to fill holes and help craft a turnaround from a 5-7 record in 2018 to a 10-3 mark last year. The Mustangs weren’t too concerned with playing a traditional style of defense — they just wanted the ball and wanted to score — and they used a defensive back to punt, when they actually elected to punt.
SMU eked out a 59-51 win over ECU on Nov. 9 in Dallas, one week after Cincinnati did the same with a 46-43 victory over the Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Ahlers passed for 498 yards and six touchdowns against the Mustangs, who countered with 414 pass yards and five TDs by Buechele and 222 team rushing yards.
Houston hasn’t gone as far as Dykes in this Pirate roster makeover, but he has bought Harrell some extra time if ECU can capitalize on the potential and opportunity it has on offense.
Let it fly.