ECU banks on momentum, experience to turn around program

Quarterback Holton Ahlers gives the Pirates a fighting chance in coach Mike Houston’s third season in Greenville

East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) scrambles as Central Florida linebacker Tatum Bethune (15) chases during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Nothing breeds optimism more than the start of a preseason training camp.

For the East Carolina football team, those high hopes might finally be more than just wishful thinking. That’s because, for the first time since 2014, the Pirates are headed into a season with some positive momentum.

“We really want to build on the way we finished the season last year,” coach Mike Houston said last week after his team’s opening practice. “I thought we played very well at the end of the year. I thought we were playing with great physicality.”

ECU went 3-6 in 2020, its sixth consecutive season with a losing record. But unlike the other years in that streak, it finished on a high note.

Instead of just going through the motions after a trying campaign that included three postponements, COVID quarantines that left the team shorthanded and an acknowledged blown call that cost it a win at Tulsa, the Pirates put together their best two best efforts in wins against Temple and SMU.

With most of the Pirates’ top players back and a full, normal offseason to prepare, there’s a palpable feeling among the players and staff that despite being picked to finish eighth in the American Athletic Conference, the program is on the verge of turning the corner in Houston’s third season in Greenville.

“We might be a surprise team to other teams, but we’re not going to be a surprise team to ourselves,” three-year starting quarterback Holton Ahlers said at the AAC’s recent media day. “We hold ourselves very accountable in what we do, and we take everything personal. Talking about being predicted to finish eighth, I don’t think any of us strive to finish eighth. We’ll see how that is at the end of the year.”

The Pirates feature 10 starters on offense and nine defense among the 59 returning lettermen on the roster, eight of which are corona seniors taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.

Among the Pirates’ veterans, Ahlers is the headliner.

A Greenville native whose father is the public address announcer at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior already ranks sixth on ECU’s all-time list in passing yards (7,093) and fifth in touchdowns (51). He also improved his completion percentage to a career-best 61.3% last season.

Ahlers will have plenty of weapons surrounding him, starting with running back Rahjai Harris, the 2020 AAC Rookie of the Year whose 624 rushing yards were the most by an ECU freshman since 1982. Leading receiver Tyler Snead, who has 134 career receptions for 1,519 yards and 14 touchdowns, is also back as is most of an experienced offensive line bolstered by the addition of NC State transfer Justin Chase.

Although the Pirates will have to find a replacement for All-AAC placekicker Jake Verity, punter Jonn Young — a Ray Guy Award candidate — is back to anchor special teams.

“I think we’re definitely ahead of where we’ve been,” Ahlers said. “Most of the guys here have played in big games and played for a long time here, not just for one year, but for multiple years they have been starters. It’s definitely comfortable, we can jump into things and add stuff to the playbook in the preseason.”

Defensively, each of the team’s top eight tacklers return, along with players that accounted for 17 of the team’s 18 takeaways from last season — including junior inside linebacker Xavier Smith (72 tackles), sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian (four interceptions) and sophomore safety Jireh Wilson (three forced fumbles).

“It’s refreshing to have the experience coming back that we do have from the guys that played so much last year,” Houston said. “We are bigger, faster, stronger and in better shape and look a heck of a lot better now than from the spring game. We have continued our mental progression as far as mental discipline and toughness, which comes after a couple of months training together.”

As experienced, deep and improved as the Pirates figure to be, improvement in the win-loss column is still anything but a given because of a difficult nonconference schedule. ECU opens with an in-state matchup against Appalachian State in Charlotte, a home opener against South Carolina of the SEC and a trip to Marshall in the first three weeks.

Its AAC slate includes nationally ranked Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati.

“You never know week in and week out,” Houston said. “I like our chances in every game we play, but it’s going to be a freaking dogfight every week.”