East Carolina's bowl hopes for the 2020 season will hinge on an offense directed by quarterback Holton Ahlers and one of the AAC's top receiving corps, as the team's defense returns just five starters and has major question marks in the trenches. The Pirates are headed in the right direction under coach Mike Houston and there should be some improvement in the win column if the defenses finds the right pieces to match a high-scoring offense. However, a bowl game might be a year away.
Previewing East Carolina's Offense for 2020
Homegrown Holton Ahlers was handed the helm of the Pirate ship during a bye week last year, as coach Mike Houston set a new course. From then, with Ahlers airing it out behind more protection, East Carolina rang up nearly 500 yards per game over the final six contests.
Ahlers completed 59.7 percent of his throws and finished with 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns. He added another six scores on the ground and was second on the team with 359 yards rushing. Houston likes a strong running game, and he’s hoping his backfield crew can do more of the heavy lifting there this season. Demetrius Mauney led the way with 446 yards, but Darius Pinnix Jr. started much of the season and averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden will join the mix this fall.
The question is how the depth-shy line will do. Tackle D’Ante Smith is a stud, and Noah Henderson looks like the next big thing, but there are question marks all over the two-deep, particularly at center, where John Spellacy had to retire for medical reasons. Veteran guard Cortez Herrin also won't return to the team. Houston hit the transfer portal for help this offseason, adding former NC State lineman Justin Chase to compete for snaps.
Coaches are also hoping some depth emerges at receiver, although they’re covered there — or uncovered with this talented crew. C.J. Johnson was on a couple of Freshman All-America lists and led the team with 908 yards on 54 catches. Fellow sophomore Tyler Snead had 66 receptions for 759 yards. Steady Blake Proehl is also back, and tight ends Zech Byrd and Jeremy Lewis seem ready to take a step.
Previewing East Carolina's Defense for 2020
Houston let his long-time defensive coordinator Bob Trott go and hired Blake Harrell to install a new multiple-look package, which probably could have used some work in the spring. Harrell has a history with Houston, too, and did good things at Kennesaw State and The Citadel.
The Pirates defense struggled last year, and compounding the issues, all four starters are gone up front in the base 4-2-5 after Chance Purvis was removed from the roster in May. Appalachian State transfer Chris Willis should help right away.
Redshirt freshman Traveon Freshwater needs to become what everyone thought he was as the top recruit in his class. Rick D’Abreu, who impressed as a freshman, will again get a lot of work, and senior Hozey Haji-Badri steps into the middle. Junior college transfers Henry Garrison and Elijah Robinson can help, too.
At linebacker, experienced Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens lead the way, but this unit suffered a setback in the summer with Gerard Stringer ruled out for 2020 due to injury. The secondary is solid. Freshman All-America corner Ja’Quan McMillian is the real deal, and safety Tank Robinson is a seasoned vet. Alabama transfer Nigel Knott is also in the mix after announcing his intention to transfer to East Carolina in May. There is a pack of Pirates pushing behind them.
Previewing East Carolina's Specialists for 2020
These units blocked two punts and returned a kickoff for a score, but they’re under new management in assistant Byron Thweatt. Senior Jake Verity is back after hitting 24-of-29 field-goal attempts and all 33 PATs. Punter Jonn Young and his 40.6-yard average are back, too.
Houston, we have fewer problems. The coach is doing what he has done everywhere he has been — building a winner. The offense is good enough to get the Pirates over .500 for the first time in six years, particularly with Ahlers and Johnson making plays. If things come together on the defensive line, count on the Pirates hoisting the Jolly Roger again.