My News & Observer story
By Tom Shanahan
An early task first-year coaches contemplate is identifying a rally cry that bonds players and coaches new to each other, but East Carolina’s Mike Houston took over with that check-list item gift-wrapped.
The final chapter to ECU’s 3-9 football season that created the job opening was N.C. State whipping the Pirates 58-3. The Wolfpack added insult to injury, handing the ball to center Garrett Bradbury for a 1-yard a late touchdown run. If that wasn’t enough salt in the wound, guard Terronne Prescod grabbed the ball and booted it into the stands.
Not that ECU needs added motivation to face N.C. State, but Houston soon learned the sting still burns upon fielding his first question from fans in February at the Pirate Club Suite in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“Will you have the team ready for Aug. 31?”
“Absolutely,” Houston said. “We are enthusiastically looking forward to playing N.C. State in Raleigh on Aug. 31.”
It’s not often a new coach rapid-fire lists the opponent, location and date.
ECU was 3-9 in each of the past three seasons under Scottie Montgomery (although Montgomery was fired before the ninth loss in 2018). In American Athletic Conference play, Montgomery’s teams finished 4-20.
Houston, 47, turned around losing programs at Lenoir-Rhyne University and The Citadel in addition to lifting James Madison University to another level. His JMU teams were 37-6 in three seasons with back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision title game trips, winning the 2016 crown and settling for runner-up in 2017.
“We’re going to get East Carolina back to where it belongs playing for AAC championships and bowl games,” Houston said that February evening.
Sophomore Holton Ahlers doesn’t have to earn the job. He enters spring drills firmly ranked atop the depth chart.
In Ahlers’ first career start at midseason, the dual-threat QB rung up 475 total yards while flirting with scaring UCF. ECU trailed 23-10 as he drove the Pirates 98 yards to the 1-yard line. But one play from a TD making it 23-17 with 10 minutes to play, Ahlers’ third-down fumble was returned for a touchdown. UCF took a 30-10 lead en route to a 37-10 victory.
The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder’s total yards broke down to 406 passing and 69 rushing. The next three games he totaled 556 (449/57) against Memphis; 427 (360/67), Tulane; and 372, Connecticut (242/130).
But ECU notched only one victory, the UConn game, due to Ahlers running for his life behind an injury-plagued offensive line, dropped passes and a minus-11 turnover ratio.
Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick runs a similar spread offense, but he wants a reliable run game. The experience of Ahlers and redshirt junior Reid Herring, the Millbrook High alum that started the first half of the season, helps.
The NCAA granted a bonus to rebuilding the offensive line with a fifth-year medical redshirt for starting guard Branden Pena. He started four games before a season-ending injury. Thus, the only position without a player that has started is right tackle. Matt Morgan backed up graduate student Garrett McGhin.
At center, John Spellacy started six until a concussion ended his season and possibly his career. True freshman Peyton Winstead of Leesville Road High finished the season.
Seniors De’Ante Smith and Cortez Herrin are back at left tackle and left guard after starting all 12 games.
The Pirates are hoping for another favorable fifth-year NCAA ruling regarding a defensive end Nate Harvey
(6-1, 225), the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He led the nation in tackles for a loss (25.1/2.1 per game) and finishing third in sacks per game (1.2).
Houston and defensive coordinator Bob Trott use a similar 4-2-5 scheme, meaning Harvey can rejoin three other returning senior starters up front, defensive end Kendall Futrell (6-2, 230), nose tackle Alex Turner (6-2, 293) and defensive tackle Jalen Price (6-2, 297).
Houston’s first recruiting class includes two junior college linemen brought in to play right away. Three-star offensive lineman Bailey Malovic (6-7, 290) and defensive tackle Hozey Haji-Badri (6-3, 270) are both enrolled early for spring ball.
Among the 20 high school recruits, six are enrolled early for spring drills: DB Alex Angus, QB Bryan Gagg, WR Jsi Hatfield, DB Ja’Quan McMillan, Athlete Juan Powell and PK Patrick Nations.