Pirates face big holes, tough schedule

The offense looks to replace mainstays Holton Ahlers and Keaton Mitchell

Running back Rahjai Harris will be key to an East Carolina offense that lost stars Holton Ahlers and Keaton Mitchell. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

East Carolina is looking to take another step as a program despite some big losses up front.

The Pirates are coming off an 8-5 season in which they went 4-4 in conference play, although it can be argued they could have had two more wins under their belt over NC State and Navy had it not been for some bad kicks.

“For me and my staff, as we start year five at East Carolina, we’re just really pleased with where the program is right now,” said coach Mike Houston. “Excited about this group this fall and excited about the dedication and commitment that they’ve shown during the offseason.

“I know there’s a lot of documentation about who’s in the NFL and who we lost last year — and I’ve heard a lot of that this summer — but I’m really excited about who we have returning. Lot of players have been waiting for their time. Lot of players have been doing it out there and now have been thrust into a bigger role. As we stand here today, I’m as excited about the program and this season as I ever have been for any.”

While Houston might have downplayed it a bit at the American Athletic Conference media day, there’s no denying that the Pirates lost a lot of talent, especially in their backfield. Quarterback Holton Ahlers, who set multiple school and conference records, and running back Keaton Mitchell, who had back-to-back 1,000-plus rushing yard seasons, left arguably the two biggest holes with their departures to the NFL.

“The positive thing is that Mason [Garcia] and Alex [Flinn] have both been there in the same room with Holton his entire time,” Houston said about his quarterback situation. “Those guys have been there, been at practice getting reps, been getting the same looks and things like that. The thing you can’t replace though is the game experience. Both those guys are inexperienced when it comes to college snaps, but they have to work very hard this offseason to prepare. They’re both preparing as well as they ever had.”

Houston is also confident in the experience of running backs Rahjai Harris and Marlon Gunn to help cover for the loss of Mitchell.

“Rahjai Harris was first-team all-conference back in 2020,” Houston said. “He had a pretty tough injury last year, but he’s fully recovered now and had a great offseason. He and Marlon Gunn are two very experienced backs who are returning. Marlon played a lot for us last year after Rahjai went down, so those two guys are pretty proven commodities in this league. I expect those two to have very solid years for us.”

One area where Houston’s optimism can be believed is with ECU’s defense. The Pirates had the fourth-best turnover margin in the country last season at plus-13 and were tied for 34th overall in forced turnovers with 20.

“On the defensive side of the ball, Julius Wood, I don’t know how he didn’t make all-conference last year. I think he’s one of the best safeties in the league,” Houston said. “He’s had a great offseason. Just really excited about him and Teagan [Wilk] returning at that position.

“Our defensive front, we returned virtually everybody up front. It’s a solid bunch. They’ve all been playing for three years. I talk about them as a group because that’s how we view them and they’re all just solid, core players.”

Houston and the Pirates will have their work cut out for themselves almost immediately when they open the season in Ann Arbor to face preseason No. 2 Michigan.

“Big matchup to start us off with,” Houston said of the Sept. 2 game.

ECU follows that with a visit from Marshall, which finished 9-5 a year ago, before traveling to Boone to play in-state foe Appalachian State.

“Pretty challenging start to the season, but also very excited about that because we’re going to find out a lot about ourselves,” Houston said.

The Pirates will also have greater competition within the conference as the AAC adds six new members for the 2023 season: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, Alabama-Birmingham and Texas-San Antonio.

“It’s going to create some new matchups and rivalries,” Houston said, “and I know all the coaches in the league are excited about that.”

The Pirates will face four of its new conference rivals this season: at Rice on Sept. 30, home against Charlotte on Oct. 21, and on the road against both UTSA (Oct. 28) and FAU (Nov. 11).