Look Ahead — 2019 Comeback of the Year: Stars aligned for an East Carolina football revival

With a new coach and a returning quarterback, the Pirates could surprise in ’19

New East Carolina coach Mike Houston will have returning quarterback Holton Ahlers under center in 2019. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

There’s a reason East Carolina moved so quickly to fire football coach Scottie Montgomery once it was announced that Mike Houston was about to be hired at Charlotte. There’s also a reason why Houston decided to turn down the 49ers job as soon as the Pirates began pursuing him.

While ECU targeted the former James Madison coach as the man best suited to turn its struggling program around, Houston saw ECU as his best opportunity to win — and win quickly — at the FBS level.

It’s a partnership that has the potential to pay immediate dividends for the Pirates in 2019.

“As soon as I was contacted by East Carolina University, there was no doubt what my desire was and that was to be the head football coach here,” the 47-year-old Houston said upon his hiring earlier this month. “This is a job that I identified, in my past, as being somewhere that I would pursue trying to have this opportunity.”

As a North Carolina native, Houston is familiar with ECU’s winning tradition and how far the program has fallen during its current stretch of four straight losing seasons — including 3-9 in each of the last three years.

He also knows how fertile a recruiting ground the eastern part of the state has become and how attractive a draw the competitive American Athletic Conference can be.

Houston got off to a strong start last week by signing most of the recruits that had previously committed to Montgomery, a class that is generally acknowledged as the best of the three the now former coach put together in Greenville.

Now he faces the taller task of developing those players, along with the returning core, into a winning unit.

“I would tell them we’re all in this together,” Houston said. “You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. I haven’t been here the last three years, so I can’t tell you what all the problems are, but I can tell you this, I’m committed to getting it fixed.

“I’m going to work together with our players to make sure that we put a product on the field that our fanbase can embrace.”

While turning the Pirates’ fortunes around in his first year on the job won’t be easy, it’s not impossible either.

As much trouble as Montgomery and his staff had winning games during their three unsuccessful seasons in Greenville, they didn’t leave their successors with a bare cupboard.

Quarterback Holton Ahlers, who threw for nearly 1,800 yards, 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions in five starts while also leading the team in rushing, is a player around which Houston can build.

In addition to Ahlers, four of his top six receivers are back — and that doesn’t include redshirt freshman Tyler Snead, who caught 15 passes in the four games he played this year. There’s also a large supply of experienced running backs and linemen returning on offense.

Defensively, the Pirates will have seven experienced starters next fall with the potential of an eighth if AAC Defensive Player of the Year Nate Harvey has his petition for another year of eligibility granted.

“We are going to be a hard-nosed, fundamentally sound, disciplined football team,” Houston said. “That’s what we’re going to be. We’re going to play with tremendous intensity. We’re going to play with passion. We’re going to play with fire. We’re going to compete and go toe-to-toe with anybody we match up against.”

One thing Houston has going for him is that the schedule he’ll face in 2019 figures to be much more manageable than those of the recent past now that Virginia Tech has pulled out of its game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

In addition to a replacement team, the Pirates will also play nonconference games against Gardner-Webb and Old Dominion while its AAC cross-divisional dates are against 3-9 Tulsa and 5-7 SMU.

They’ll also be led by a coach with a history of winning, winning big and doing it almost immediately.

His overall career record is 80-25 with six conference championships in eight seasons as a head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and, most recently, James Madison. In three years with the Dukes, he went 37-6, a mark that includes the 2016 FCS national championship and a return trip to the title game in 2017.

“He’s been a high school coach. He’s been a Division II coach. He’s been a I-AA coach and now he’s moving onto the East Carolina Pirates,” new ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert said of Houston. “I think that is really one of the most impressive things about his track record. I know that he places a high value on culture, as do I. I know that he will bring a great culture to our football program.”