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With Mike Houston in charge, it’s possible to feel optimistic about ECU again

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The former James Madison head coach inherits low expectations and a core of young talent. ECU might finally have a bright future.

NCAA Football: D1 Football Championship
Mike Houston
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

It’s easy to forget now, but the Scottie Montgomery era at East Carolina started out well.

In 2016, the AAC was maybe at its most exciting and ambitious. Tom Herman’s Houston had just pummeled Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Matt Rhule was still at Temple, Willie Taggart was still at USF, and Chad Morris was still at SMU. Bob Diaco was coming off of a bowl season at UConn, and Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery hire looked like a resounding success. Memphis had just lost Justin Fuente but replaced him with Mike Norvell. UCF had just hired a former Nebraska QB named Frost.

Within this high-upside environment, ECU had just gone 13-12 in its last two years under Ruffin McNeill. In 2014 the Pirates had enjoyed their first 10-win season since 1991 and finished 40th in S&P+, but they had regressed for two straight years. After a decent start to 2015, they finished the season with four losses in five games and missed the postseason. Proclaiming that “our expectations are to win championships,” athletic director Jeff Compher stunned many by firing the ultra-likable McNeill and bringing in David Cutcliffe’s right-hand man.

ECU did not, in fact, win championships. When you decide your program doesn’t have enough upside, your quest often opens you up to lower downside, too, and the three years post-McNeill have played out in such a stark way that I considered renaming Glen Mason Territory as Ruffin McNeill Territory.

For a few weeks, though, there was a glint. ECU began 2016 with a romp over Western Carolina (Montgomery’s only FCS win in three tries, as it turned out) and a 33-30 victory over NC State. In Week 3, the Pirates out-gained South Carolina by 207 yards and engineered 34 first downs to the Gamecocks’ 13 and lost 20-15 because of bad turnovers luck and missed scoring chances.

First impressions obviously don’t end up mattering in college football, but Montgomery made a good one. And then, unit by unit, basically the entire two-deep succumbed to injury issues.

ECU collapsed, then Montgomery began to desperately seek answers on the transfer market, and ECU collapsed further, especially on defense. In his third year, he solved some of his defensive issues, and his offense fell apart. After nailing the first impression, he basically failed every single one thereafter. After winning his first two games, he lost 26 of his last 33.

In a basic way, you almost can’t blame Compher for seeing everyone else’s big ambitions and deciding he wanted some of his own. It cost him his job, of course — a miserable football program tends to have that effect — so maybe you can blame him, but if nothing else, he set the table for an exciting hire in his absence.

In basically his first hour on the job, new athletic director Jon Gilbert announced Montgomery’s replacement, and it is, on paper, a good one.

Mike Houston is intensely Carolina.

  • He went to Mars Hill University, near Asheville.
  • He coached in the North Carolina high school ranks for 12 seasons, then coached at Division 3’s Brevard College and Division 2’s Lenoir-Rhyne, both within NC borders.
  • He brought Lenoir-Rhyne to the D2 title game in 2013, then got called up to The Citadel (a state below) and had the Bulldogs in the FCS playoffs by year two.
  • When Everett Withers left James Madison (a state above) for Texas State, Houston replaced him and immediately won the 2016 FCS title. His Dukes won their first 14 games of 2017, too, and came up just four points short of a second title.

Houston’s three years at JMU produced 37 wins, two conference titles, two national title game appearances, and just six losses. With each successive jump to a new level, the 47-year old, who nearly picked Charlotte before ECU called, has somehow gotten more successful at coaching.

Technically that trend could end at any time. But you have to feel good about his chances at ECU. He’s going to have free rein to change the culture however he needs, he inherits a roster full of three-star talent (for all his problems, Montgomery was a pretty successful recruiter), and while he usually makes instantly positive impressions in his new head coaching jobs, the bar for him is pretty low out of the gates as well.

Offense

Houston’s worst offensive season at JMU easily out-classed anything ECU has accomplished in a while. The Dukes averaged just 33.9 points per game in 2018, down from 34.4 in 2017 and 46.0 in 2016; ECU hasn’t topped 30 since Lincoln Riley left for Oklahoma in 2014.

Worse, JMU accomplished all that with an ECU guy leading the way — longtime Pirate assistant Donnie Kirkpatrick became JMU’s OC when Montgomery came to town. He’s back in Greenville now, though.

Kirkpatrick’s got his work cut out for him. After ranking 80th and 77th, respectively, in Off. S&P+ in Montgomery’s first two years, the Pirates collapsed to 119th last fall. But at least you can blame injuries for a lot of that. Quarterback Reid Herring began the season as starter but battled ankle injuries early and concussion issues late. In between, freshman and star recruit Holton Ahlers took over and seemed to figure some things out before first injuring his throwing hand, then his knee.

There were plenty of other injuries, too — only two of five leading receivers played in more than 10 games, and seemingly every lineman on the team started a game at center and right guard — but when your QBs are hobbling and ineffective, that pretty much ends your offense.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Cincinnati
Holton Ahlers
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Ahlers could end up being one hell of a Montgomery-to-Houston parting gift. A nearly four-star prospect, the 6’3, 236-pound sophomore showed flashes of that high ceiling, albeit in up-and-down, true-freshman fashion.

Ahlers’ full-season numbers were a predictable mixed bag: a 12-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio (excellent!), more than 14 yards per completion (great!), 48 percent completion rate (really bad!). But that completion rate was dragged down by two bad games — he was a ghastly 29-for-89 against Tulane and Cincinnati and completed 59 percent in his other four games of major action.

He threw for 449 yards and three scores against Memphis, then went 22-for-31 with four touchdowns against UConn’s horrid D. He also rushed for 693 non-sack yards (6.6 per carry).

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at East Carolina
Deondre Farrier (1)
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

When you’re desperate for a program savior and a star quarterback recruit shows early flashes, you can easily dump too many expectations on him too quickly. But Ahlers REALLY DID show flashes, and if he’s able to stay on the field for all or most of 2019, it’s easy to talk yourself into the receiving corps at his disposal, too.

Granted, go-to receiver Trevon Brown is gone. He was targeted three times more than anyone else on the team, but he was a bit on the all-or-nothing side, and ECU threw so damn much in 2018 that six other players were still targeted 30-plus times. Five of them return. That includes a strong possession man in slot receiver Deondre Farrier and another former star recruit in sophomore Leroy Henley. (It also includes a Proehl: Blake, a sophomore and Ricky’s son.)

The run game ... well ... is bad. ECU was 125th in Rushing S&P+, and that was with leading rusher Anthony Scott and three-year starting tackle Garrett McGhin. It probably won’t get worse because it almost can’t, but any improvement whatsoever could do wonders for the passing game. Ahlers was tossed into the pyre as a true freshman and was asked to throw 50 passes a game for an insanely one-dimensional attack.

There are yet more former star recruits at running back, namely sophomore Trace Christian and incoming freshman Demetrius Murray. Plus, thanks to all the shuffling at center and right guard, a total of seven linemen return with at least one game of starting experience, including two sophomores. Just give Ahlers something here.

Defense

After fielding maybe the worst defense in school history in 2017, ECU made some solid strides last fall. The secondary was still a garish mess, but the Pirates were as aggressive as humanly possible in the front six, and it frequently paid off. Granted, when it backfired, it backfired spectacularly — ECU was 125th in rushing marginal explosiveness — but you’ll take that when you’re also ranking 10th in rushing marginal efficiency.

There’s good news, and there’s bad news for new defensive coordinator Bob Trott. We’ll do the bad news first:

  • Bad news: the main source of havoc in this havoc-hungry front six is gone. End Nate Harvey had a monstrous season, racking up 14.5 sacks (fourth in FBS) and 31.5 run stuffs (second). In his lone season as a defender (he was a backup RB in 2017), he won the AAC’s defensive player of the year award. The NCAA’s Wheel of Random Destiny denied him an extra year of eligibility in typically cruel “he played too many snaps in junior college four years ago” fashion.
  • Good news: just about everyone else is back.
East Carolina v Temple
Alex Turner (94)
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Senior tackles Alex Turner and Jalen Price combined for 15.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and 19 run stuffs, and ends Kendall Futrell and Chance Purvis combined for 10 and four, respectively. Futrell broke up five passes as well. None of this matches Harvey’s production, obviously, but it’s a good starting point. And at linebacker, havocky (it’s a word, go with it) juniors Aaron Ramseur and Bruce Bivens are back after generating 14 TFLs of their own.

The key to continued success up front could come from the redshirt freshmen. Houston signed wonderfully named three-star JUCO transfer Hozey Haji-Badri, but ends Dorian Hardy and Damir Faison were both mid- to high-three-star prospects in the 2018 class. If one of them turns into an immediate contributor, both the run defense and pass rush could be accounted for.

East Carolina v Tulane
Davondre Robinson (13)
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The pass defense is in the same boat as the run game: it probably won’t get worse. I mean, it certainly could, but we like to be optimistic around these parts.

Despite a tremendous pass rush, ECU still ranked 107th in Passing S&P+, and that was with nickel back Devon Sutton (10.5 TFLs and four breakups) and corner Corey Seargent (two INTs, eight breakups). Five of eight players who made at least 15 tackles do return, led by safety Davondre Robinson and corner Colby Gore, but the two best play-makers do not.

Special Teams

One ECU unit did manage to improve each year under Montgomery. ECU went from 101st to 48th to 33rd in Special Teams S&P+ over his three seasons, and the primary reason for last year’s excellence, kicker Jake Verity, returns. He went 13-for-13 on field goals under 40 yards and 6-for-8 beyond. Punter John Young’s also back, and while the return game gets a reset, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — the Pirates were 125th in kick return efficiency.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at N.C. State 47 -23.2 9%
7-Sep Gardner-Webb NR 27.5 94%
14-Sep at Navy 118 -0.6 49%
21-Sep William & Mary NR 17.8 85%
28-Sep at Old Dominion 119 0.6 51%
3-Oct Temple 66 -14.1 21%
19-Oct at UCF 27 -28.6 5%
26-Oct USF 71 -12.9 23%
2-Nov Cincinnati 44 -19.0 14%
9-Nov at SMU 85 -14.7 20%
23-Nov at Connecticut 129 7.8 67%
30-Nov Tulsa 95 -5.9 37%
Projected S&P+ Rk 113
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 118 / 104
Projected wins 4.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -6.0 (90)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 77
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -14 / -11.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 60% (65%, 56%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 3.8 (-0.8)

It’s good to feel somewhat optimistic about this program again. While I attempted to spin the Montgomery hire as well as I could, any major optimism was limited to a three-week stretch in September 2016.

But Montgomery didn’t leave an empty cupboard for Houston, and Houston has proven that he can make something pretty interesting out of the previous coach’s leftovers. Granted, having Harvey for another year would have been amazing, but it’s still not hard to talk yourself into ECU’s offense improving a lot and its defense at least holding steady.

ECU’s schedule is strangely easy, too: the Pirates play two FCS opponents, plus three FBS teams projected 118th or lower. ECU itself is projected just 113th but has a strong shot at five wins or so, and if the team overachieves, as Houston teams often do, a bowl appearance is on the table.

On paper, ECU nailed this hire. Now Houston just has to go out and prove his AD right.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.