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East Carolina Football: 2022 Pirates Season Preview and Prediction

Holton Ahlers, East Carolina Pirates Football

Holton Ahlers and the Pirates are ranked No. 71 in Athlon Sports' Top 131 for the 2022 college football season

East Carolina took a big step forward in coach Mike Houston's third year at the helm in 2021. After going 7-14 in Houston's first two seasons, the Pirates finished 7-5 last fall. Thanks to 14 returning starters, East Carolina is poised for another winning season and will be a tough out in the American Athletic Conference. Quarterback Holton Ahlers returns to anchor an offense that also features a standout one-two punch at running back in Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris. The Pirates showed improvement on defense last year and should continue that progression with a solid core of veterans in place. 

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2022

Previewing East Carolina's Offense for 2022

Pirates head coach Mike Houston returns all the rushing attack that amassed one of the program's highest totals since 2000. Not coincidentally, ECU posted a winning season for the first time since 2014. Houston reshaped the line, introduced two-tight-end sets and has Holton Ahlers, who is just 221 yards from ECU's career QB rushing mark, running the show.

Don't worry: The once-pass-happy Pirates won't permanently swear off the aerial game, but the perennial plethora of Pirate pass-catchers has questions. Talented C.J. Johnson averaged 14.9 yards per grab but was suspended this offseason. The smart money says he'll be back, but incoming Toledo grad transfer Isaiah Winstead could help if not. Slot receiver Maceo Donald must fill leading receiver Tyler Snead's shoes, and Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson is new but has played on the game's biggest stage. Shane Calhoun and former Oklahoma TE Ryan Jones headline a group that will have a huge impact sooner rather than later.

Houston calls RBs Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris both starters. They'll run behind a veteran line anchored by tackle Noah Henderson and built around versatile, experienced pieces like Nishad Strother, Avery Jones and emerging Isaiah Foote, who has stepped right in.

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Previewing East Carolina's Defense for 2022

The Pirates disguise their defense, lining up in a polymorphous 3-4 or 4-3 with ends up or down and lots of fast edge guys making life miserable for offenses.

The big news out of spring was hard-hitting Xavier Smith moving back from hybrid rush end/OLB to inside 'backer, where he and fellow senior Myles Berry should form one of the AAC's top tandems. Smith's full-time return to the inside is a boon to the Pirates.

Reliable Rick D'Abreu, Immanuel Hickman and nose tackle Elijah Morris all return on the line. Hickman led the team with 7.5 tackles for a loss. Like on offense, Houston has made building depth and experience up front a priority. Rush end Jeremy Lewis notched four sacks and was fourth in total tackles.

All-AAC CB Ja'Quan McMillian and his five interceptions are gone, but skilled Malik Fleming and former safety Juan Powell are top shelf for a deep secondary that intercepted 15 passes. Tough-guy safety Jireh Wilson is an undersized run-stopper.

Related: American Athletic Conference Football 2022 Predictions

Previewing East Carolina's Specialists for 2022

All-AAC kicker Owen Daffer returns after hitting 19-of-23 field-goal attempts, including a 54-yarder to beat Navy. Australian Luke Larsen has a leg up for punting chores. The return jobs are wide open with the graduation of the do-it-all Snead.

Final Analysis

Houston was on a mission to rebuild the Pirates' lines, toughen them in the trenches, build depth and put some oomph in the running game. They're there. With seven starters back on both sides and experience all over, the AAC has a problem with Houston and the Pirates. They're going to run it down people's throats and get after foes with an athletic, adaptable defense.

National Ranking: 71

Podcast: Previewing and a Deep Dive + Predictions on the Group of 5 Conferences for 2022