East Carolina ready to make next step

After lean years, the Pirates have the foundations of a contending program

Quarterback Holton Ahlers returns for a fifth season in Greenville looking to help coach Mike Houston and the Pirates continue their climb up the American Athletic Conference. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

Houston, we have a program.

After two losing seasons as Pirates head coach, Mike Houston doubled his win total at East Carolina with seven wins last year.

A good measure of just how far the program has come in three years is the lack of freshmen on the depth chart.

“In 2020, we started a ton of freshmen,” Houston said. “They’re still here. So, in order for a freshman to play, they have to be a special player. We have a number of them that can play, but we don’t feel a need to push anybody out there.”

Now, Houston’s program is ready to take the next step and contend at the top of the AAC.

“Year Four, we have a roster that’s been in the program that we’ve recruited and built,” Houston said. “They’re committed to what we’re trying to do here. We have great stability. It’s the first time we’ve had experience like this. I expect us to be a really good football team on Day One. There’s no excuses not to expect to play at a really high level right out of the gate.”


The East Carolina offense has experience in just about every area, starting at quarterback. Holton Ahlers returns for his fifth season with the Pirates and fourth as team captain. He’ll have plenty of targets to choose from. While Tyler Snead took his 201 catches and 18 touchdowns to the NFL, the Pirates get back C.J. Johnson, who returns from suspension.

“He earned it,” Houston said of the reinstatement. “It was not a very comfortable spring and June for him, but he did everything we asked. He’s remorseful and doing a good job of keeping his mouth shut and letting his actions talk.”

The receiving unit also adds a pair of grad transfers in Toledo’s Isaiah Winstead and Georgia’s Jaylen Johnson, who played in last year’s National Championship Game.

Running backs Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell, who Ahlers called the “best in the conference and maybe the country,” also return, and the team adds UNC transfer Kamarro Edmonds.

The line is deep, which is a luxury Houston appreciates.

“We had five guys, period, my first year,” Houston said of the offensive line. “Now I say we don’t have five starters. We’re two deep — more than just five guys.”


ECU played a lot of guys on defense over the last few years, and that should pay off in increased depth this season. The two big departures were linebacker Bruce Bivens and safety Ja’Quan McMillian.

Myles Berry and pass rusher Xavier Smith give the Pirates a pair of senior linebackers. Smith returns to inside linebacker after spending last season as a hybrid defensive end.

The line should be fine without Smith, as three starters return, including Immanuel Hickman, who led ECU with 7.5 tackles for loss last year. The Pirates also add the Mims family to the line in freshman CJ and transfer Shaundre, who arrives after graduating from Charleston Southern.

The secondary returns Malik Fleming, Juan Powell and Jireh Wilson to a unit that had 15 interceptions last season, although they’ll all be playing larger roles this season.

Special Teams

In addition to his contributions in the receiving game, Snead was the top return man for the Pirates. He brought back 17 of the team’s 20 kick returns and was the man for all the punt returns.

Mitchell and Maceo Donald are the players on the roster who have returned a kick for ECU.

With a roster packed with experience, the return game might be an area for a promising freshman skill player to get his hands on the ball.

Kicker Owen Daffer returns after making first-team All-AAC last season. In his first year as the team’s kicker, he led the league in field goals, attempts and kick scoring, and he hit a 54-yard game-winner at the buzzer against Navy.

John Young leaves after a second-team All-ACC season as punter. Australian Luke Larsen is expected to replace him. He’s punted 18 times for a 41.3-yard average in two seasons as Young’s backup. David Chapeau, a transfer from Air Force, is the only other punter on the roster.


The team tied for third in the American last season and earned a bowl bid — although the game was scratched due to COVID issues. The consensus seems to be that the Pirates will take a step back. They were chosen sixth in the preseason AAC poll.

Houston’s not buying that, however.

“We haven’t cared about preseason stuff before,” he said. “We’re not going to start now. What we do on the field, we earn.”

The team will undoubtedly be better this season as the depth that Houston spent three years building will pay dividends. The problem is a schedule that opens with NC State in what promises to be a tough, emotional nonconference showdown. The rest of the schedule is backloaded with games against UCF and Houston, and trips to BYU, Cincinnati and Temple creating a tough stretch run.

The Pirates should be able to put together another bowl season and put a scare into the AAC’s top tier as they threaten to crash the party in upcoming years.