ECU Improving Up Front Both Defensively And On Offense
Coming off of a close 27-23 loss to Navy last Saturday, 1-3 East Carolina heads into the bye week with renewed confidence and determination.
While so far there have been more losses than wins, there are emerging positive signs in the way the Pirates are playing and competing according to second year head coach Mike Houston.
“I think I’ve been most pleased with is just positive growth. There are so many levels where you talk about that. You have so many new players in the program. You have so many freshmen and then you combine those guys with the returners that we have,” said Houston.
“You didn’t have the spring and summer so you had a lot of just gelling of all of these individuals together and getting them schematically on the same page and gelling them as an offense, defense and special teams units. Just positive growth in all areas, whether it be on the field, off the field physically and collectively in terms of positive dynamics in the locker room. That positive growth has been reflected in our play and our confidence on the field.”
“In the second half of the season, I want to see us win those games like that game this past Saturday. Like the Cincinnati and SMU game last year. I want to continue to see us compete at a high level and learn how to close out those games against quality opponents. There is a lot that goes into that,” Houston stated.
“There are a lot of individual things whether it’s in specific position groups or specific units where you also want to see some things improve and we’ve spent a lot of time the last two days as a staff talking about those things. But the big thing is just getting over the hump which we feel like we’re right there.”
Part of ECU’s biggest improvement the past few weeks has come at the line of scrimmage where the Pirates are getting good play both defensively and on offense.
Sophomore converted linebacker Rick D’Abreu, freshmen like Elijah Morris and Xavier McIver and sophomore Damir Faison provide future stability defensively and combined with current veterans like Hozey Haji-Badri and Appalachian State transfer Chris Willis, ECU should continue to show improvement as the season progresses.
“Obviously the D-line was a huge priority in recruiting and really and you guys have seen a handful of those guys on the field playing right now,” Houston told PirateIllustrated.com, “There are another four or five who aren’t playing right now that I am really, really excited about as well. Just that group right there and the job that Roy Tesh and Byron Threatt are doing with them. Really excited about that and their progress. It’s a group that’s going to be her a long time. That’s really going to solidify us defensively up front for the foreseeable future. A lot of competition, a lot of depth and a lot of ability.”
“Rick is a kid that I have recruited probably since he was a sophomore and knew very, very well. He’s a player that I recruited heavily when I took the job here to get him here at East Carolina University. I thought then and think now that he has a chance to be a really high impact player on the field. He’s got a chance to be a really strong culture guy in the locker room.”
“He’s one that I feel like I have a very strong personal relationship with him and those always help as you go though these early years of a player’s development. I think he has a chance to be very special,” said Houston.
“He is going to continue to grow and he’s not going to get any smaller and he’s extremely explosive for a big kid. He has twitch and you saw that interiorly Saturday. Just his ability to impact the quarterback - fullback game so dynamically in the interior of the defensive line, I think he’s going to continue to improve.”
Backup quarterback Mason Garcia got the start for ECU when Holton Ahlers had to sit it out due to a positive Covid19 test last week. Garcia went 10 for 20 through the air for 104 yards in his first outing and also ran the football for 63 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown.
The biggest bright spot this season and particularly last Saturday was the play of running back Rahjai Harris who rushed for 172 yards on 22 carries including an 80-yard touchdown scamper down the left sideline that gave ECU every chance to win last Saturday against Navy.
In front of Harris is an improving Steve Shankweiler coached offensive line that includes a lot of youth. Freshmen like Nishad Strother, Walt Stribling, Trent Holler and sophomore UNC transfer Avery Jones are at the heart of the matter for ECU along with veterans like Fernando Frye at center, Sean Bailey at right guard and ever improving play from both Bailey Malovic and grad transfer Justin Chase.
“Offensive line wise, given some of the challenges we had with some injuries we had early in camp and some guys just not available, it’s challenged us and that’s some of the issues you saw at Georgia State,” Houston told PI, “But I really am excited about that group, the way they’ve meshed the last three weeks. You had the same starting lineup the last three games for the most part and the same guys rotating in and out.”
“I’m really excited about the way that group has responded week in and week out and improved drastically. I think that shows a lot of dedication on their part. I think it’s a great job by Coach Shankweiler to bring that group along. You see the young guys like Nishad Strother, Avery Jones, Trent Holler, you see their development coming along. You see the leadership from a Fernando Frye, the determination to play well from Sean Bailey, Bailey Malovic - his energy and enthusiasm. There’s so many positive things right there in that group that is causing them to play better and better each week.”
Coach Houston says ECU has one active positive case of Covid19 at the moment and several others out due to contact tracing but he expects all of them to be back by this weekend unless there are additional setbacks.
ECU has considerable time to prepare for their next game against the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa that takes on USF this Friday. That will give the Pirates a good look at what they can expect when the two teams meet in two weeks in a 9 p.m. matchup on ESPN2.
Stay tuned to PirateIllustrated.com for the very latest from Greenville.