The 2019 season may not have ended in celebratory fashion for East Carolina University’s (4-8, 1-7 AAC) football program. A 49-24 loss to the University of Tulsa (4-8, 2-6 AAC) brought to close an up-and-down season for the Pirates.
Despite only a marginal improvement in the win-loss column, the Pirates, under the direction of first-year head coach Mike Houston, made marketable strides in changing the culture and attitude surrounding the program
“There is tremendous progress made,” senior offensive lineman Branden Pena said following the Tulsa game. “Obviously it’s not the way we wanted to end the season. I told the guys last night (Friday) when we were giving senior speeches, when I look at all them, I don’t see a losing program. The record doesn’t reflect who we are and it’s not going to in the future. They’re going to get the job done in the future and their wins will feel like my wins, to me.”
With 16 seniors playing a vital role in helping to establish that progress but leaving at season’s end, the Pirates’ coaching staff was tasked with finding talented players to fill their ranks.
Tabbed as the second-best recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference and 58th nationally by 247sports.com, ECU signed a total of 25 players during early signing day on Wednesday. Fourteen of those recruits came from the defensive side of the football as Houston and his coaching staff attempt to improve upon last year’s leaky unit.
With early signing day in the books, here is a position-by-position break-down of ECU’s signees along with comments from some of the players.
Defensive Back - Five Signees
Identified as an area of weakness for the Pirates in 2019, they allowed opposing defenses to rack up an average of 261.6 passing yards per game. That number placed ECU 107th out of 130 FBS programs. With the departure of Colby Gore and Michael Witherspoon, the Pirates pulled in five defensive back commits to bolster a young defensive unit.
Nasir Clerk from Irvington High School in New Jersey has been verbally committed since February. As a junior, Clerk racked up 37 tackles during his junior year to go along with four interceptions. Tabbed as a three-star prospect by ESPN.com and 247sports, Clerk has good height for a cornerback at 6-2 and possesses the physical traits necessary to help stop the run game.
“It feels great to officially be a Pirate,” Clerk said. “When I committed I was excited but now that I signed, it just feels awesome that I am officially a part of the family and that I am a Pirate. The campus is beautiful, the football facilities as well and the energy the coaching staff had, it was nothing but positive energy. I saw that they are trying to change the culture and they are going up and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Rated as a top-50 prospect in the state of North Carolina by ESPN.com, Jason “C.J.” Crump is a local kid from Page High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. Limited a bit by a shoulder injury during his senior season, Crump still logged 16 tackles and three interceptions to go along with two pass breakups. On the offensive side, Crump caught 16 passes for 457 yards and three touchdowns, the majority of which came in the first five games of the season.
Standing 6-feet tall, Sean Tucker committed to ECU from the Washington, D.C. area and H.D. Woodson High School. Across seven games in his final season, Tucker racked up 15 tackles and an interception to go along with his seven pass breakups. During his High School career, the Warriors shoutout opponents 16 times and earned a reputation as a stingy defensive unit.
“It feels great to be a Pirate,” Tucker said. “I’m looking forward to getting on campus and becoming a Pirate. The atmosphere, the coaches, the players, just everything about the school made me feel at home.”
Also at 6-feet tall, David Laney will enroll early at ECU and be active in spring drills. A three-time Virginia State Champion at Highland Springs High School, ESPN and 247sports both ranked Laney as a top-35 recruit in the state. Additionally, Laney was tabbed as a top-135 prospect in the country by the same outlets. Laney had been committed since June 16.
Wrapping up ECU’s defensive back commits is Teagan Wilk, a 5-11, 180-pound incoming freshman from Berwick Area High School in Berwick, Pennsylvania. Wilk picked off 17 passes in his three years at Berwick while his team held opponents to under 12 points per game during his junior campaign. During that year, Wilk racked up seven interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.
“For me it’s really exciting to be a part of this program and the history behind it," Wilk said. "The coaches and the whole team really had a big part in recruiting me and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Linebackers - Two Signees
An early enrollee, Eric Doctor hails from Edgewater High School in Orlando, Florida and rated as a top-100 outside linebacker by ESPN and 247sports. The son of Eric Doctor Sr. who played Division II football, the 6-foot, 200-pound Eric Jr. played mostly the safety position during his senior season. At that position, Doctor racked up 37 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
"I can’t wait to build relationships with my new family,” Doctor said. “That’s the vibe I got from almost everyone there (at ECU). That’s what I wanted to put myself around. I loved everything about ECU. The campus was beautiful. The facilities, everything was perfect and I feel like it’ll be a great fit for me.”
From the same high school that netted the Pirates Sean Tucker, ECU was able to sign linebacker Teylor Jackson. Listed at 6-foot, Jackson finished his prep career at National Christian Academy after two years at H.D. Woodson High School. After graduating from Woodson, Jackson recorded 25 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup over the duration of the season. He is yet another three-star recruit, as ranked by ESPN and 247sports.
Defensive End - Three Signees
A junior college commit from Louisburg College, Elijah Robinson will have three years of eligibility remaining when he joins the Pirates in spring camp. In his lone year of action at the JuCo level, Robinson logged 11 tackles and a sack while maintaining his status as the No. 8 weakside defensive end in the nation by 247sports. Robinson was also the No. 1 overall junior college prospect in the state of North Carolina after booking 102 tackles during his high school career.
Recruited by the likes of Duke University, North Carolina State University and Temple University, Jason Romero is another three-star prospect to join the Pirates. From his defensive line position as a senior, Romero logged 79 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five sacks playing for Scotland High School in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He was ranked as a top-60 recruit in the state of North Carolina by both ESPN and 247sports.
“It’s a great feeling, in fact nothing but a true blessing,” Romero said. “I know my time at East Carolina will be legendary and I plan to make the most out of my next 4-5 years as a student-athlete. Most of all, I’m really banking on getting my degree to become a better son, player, and to mold a new man out of this experience.”
Another junior college transfer, Henry Garrison is a 6-6, 265-pound defensive end from Nassau Community College in Palisades, New York. In 2019, Garrison amassed 14 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. As a freshman in 2018, Garrison booked 2.5 tackles and 1.5 sacks and was ranked as a two-star recruit by Rivals.com.
Defensive Tackle - Four Signees
J’Vian McCray, one of the Pirates’ five recruits from North Carolina, is also an early enrollee who will be with the program in the spring. In high school at West Brunswick in Shallotte, North Carolina, McCray racked up better than 50 tackles for loss in three years at the prep level. As a senior, McCray totaled 51 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three fumble recoveries, solidifying his name as one of 50-best recruits in the state of North Carolina according to ESPN.
“It feels great to be a Pirate,” McCray said. “Every coach has made ECU feel like home and I just look forward to getting there and putting in work and help get ECU back on track.”
Verbally committed on Halloween, D’Anta Johnson is a 6-2, 265-pound defensive lineman from Dinwiddie High School in Dinwiddie, Virginia, officially signed. As a senior, Johnson could not be stopped as he posted 84 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. He also swatted five passes and recovered a fumble across 10 games. He currently holds his school’s record for most sacks in a game with six and was the Male Athlete-of-the-Year in 2018.
Xavier McIver played in 12 games as a senior at Cheraw High School in Cheraw, South Carolina. At 6-1 and 282 pounds, McIver racked up 73 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks during his final year in high school. McIver was ranked as a top-25 player in the state of South Carolina by ESPN and 247sports and was invited to play in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas that takes place on Dec. 21.
“It feels good to officially be a Pirate and I’m 100% locked in as long as I’m happy and my family’s happy,” McIver said. “I’m looking (forward) to getting a good education and having a great football career here and hopefully I can get to the NFL; my life-long dream.”
From Highland Springs High School in Richmond, Virginia, Suirad Ware wraps up the seven total defensive linemen signed by ECU on Wednesday. Standing at 6-feet, Ware played on both the offensive and defensive lines during his prep tenure and was rated as a two-star prospect by 247sports.
With a defensive unit that allowed 33.7 points per game in 2019, it makes sense that the majority of recruits would play that side of the football. Nevertheless, it is also true that the Pirates are so young on the offensive side of the ball that it leaves little room for newcomers.
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers finished in the top-20 in the nation with over 3,300 passing yards while freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson nearly 1,000 yards in his first season on campus. Even with a slow start to the 2019 campaign, ECU’s offensive unit still finished the year scoring 26.8 points per game, racking up better than 430.2 yards of offense each time out.
With some holes to fill, however, ECU used 11 of its signings on Wednesday to address its offense, including three signees for the offensive line and quarterback positions.
Quarterback - Three Signees
Touted as “probably the best quarterback that has ever signed with ECU” by Houston according to Pirate Radio, Mason Garcia was tabbed as a four-star prospect by Rivals.com. As a senior, Garcia passed for 2,149 yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 761 yards and another 14 touchdowns. Playing for Carolina Forest High School in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Garcia was invited to the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas and has been ranked as the 14th-best quarterback prospect in the nation by Rivals.com. Standing at 6-4 and weighing 218 pounds, Garcia has shown the necessary arm strength to be successful at the collegiate level.
A two-way player at Cedartown High School in Cedartown, Georgia, Taji Hudson committed to ECU on July 22. Despite his versatile ability, Hudson suffered an injury that knocked him out for the entire 2019 campaign.
“It feels great,” Hudson said about signing with ECU. “I’m very excited and can’t wait to be up in the 252 working.”
Despite his injury, Hudson was still ranked as the 37th-best dual-threat quarterback by 247sports, pulling down three stars in the process.
“It’s a college town,” Hudson said of Greenville. “Everyone loves ECU there. The coaches are all family and I can tell they’re going to turn it around.”
The shortest of ECU’s quarterback signees thus far, Ryan Stubblefield is a 5-10 guy with a big arm. Out of Foster High School in Richmond, Texas, Stubblefield posted a 3,181-yard passing effort as a senior, a number that included 36 touchdowns. In addition to his arm talent, Stubblefield racked up nearly 400 rushing yards and two touchdowns with his legs. With those numbers, Stubblefield was ranked as one of the top-100 pro-style quarterbacks in the nation by 247sports.
Offensive Line - Three Signees
Isaiah Foote played both lines as a senior at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, Maryland. On the offensive side, Foote opened holes for a rushing attack that garnered 170.3 yards per game during his final prep season. Defensively, Foote anchored a defensive line by racking up 46 tackles, six tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. For his efforts, Foote pulled down First-Team All-Southern Maryland Football Coaches Association and All-Calvert County distinctions. Tabbed as a three-star prospect by ESPN and 247sports.
Committed on April 2, Jaquaez Powell was also a two-way starter. At Southwest Edgecombe High School in Pinetops, North Carolina, Powell racked up 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack on the defensive side of the football. Also added 17 “pancake” blocks to his record as a senior, according to ECUPirates.com and ranked as the 12th-best center in the nation by ESPN.
“I am honored to be a part of this class of 2020,” Powell said. “We have a great group of individuals coming in. For me, I’m going to out-preform any defensive tackle in front of me.”
Listed at 6-6 and 310 pounds, Walt Stribling is another Pirate signee that will participate in spring drills. Playing for Fluvanna High School in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, Stribling was a two-time All-Jefferson District selection despite moving around on the offensive line. Tabbed as a three-star prospect by 247sports and ranked as one of the top-70 recruits in Virginia.
Running Backs - Two Signees
A highly decorated running back at the prep level, Keaton Mitchell is one half of a talented duo of running backs to sign with the Pirates on Wednesday. In his final two seasons at Eagles Landing Christian High School, Mitchell racked up 4,347 rushing yards and 88 touchdowns. During his senior season alone, the 5-9 speedster logged 1,838 yards on the ground and found the end zone 39 times. For his efforts, Mitchell was named the Class A Region 5 Player-of-the-Year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and earned three stars from ESPN and 247sports. Mitchell was also 26th-best all-purpose running back in the nation by 247sports.
“I feel great that it’s finally official and I can say all the hard work has paid off,” Mitchell said. “I’m looking forward to turning this program around all the way and with the 2020 class we have, I think we can do it. This is a highly talented group of guys and I’m excited.”
Playing for Byrnes High School in Duncan, South Carolina, Rahjai Harris posted nearly 1,500 yards on the ground and 21 scores during his senior season. That number broke down to 131.4 yards per game and better than 8.5 yards per carry as the offense totaled 40.6 points per contest. He racked up a 300-yard performance and a five touchdown performance as a senior, ranking as the 17th-best recruit in the state of South Carolina by Rivals.com.
Wide Receiver - One Signee
Tyler Savage is another ECU signee that missed their senior campaign with an injury. Out with a fractured collarbone, Savage relied on his 40 catches, 521 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior to earn his three-star prospect status. Nevertheless, Savage has something the Pirates need out of their receiving corps - size. Standing at 6-3, Savage could very well provide that for ECU moving forward.
Tight End - One Signee
The final of ECU’s 25 signees on Wednesday, Shane Calhoun racked up 408 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 30 catches during his senior season. Over 25% of those yards came in a 157-yard performance while Calhoun finished his prep career ranked as the 23rd-best tight end in the country at ESPN. At 6-2, Calhoun could possess the ability to play more like a tradition wide receiver, especially in a physical conference like the American Athletic.
“It feels great,” Calhoun said about joining ECU. “I love the atmosphere around and I can’t wait to get up there and start a new chapter in my life.”
Punter - One signee
An early enrollee, Luke Larsen is a graduate of St. Bernard’s College in Keilor Park, Victoria, Australia. The 6-3 Larsen will be 28 years old at the start of the 2020 campaign and will represent the third Australian-born punter in ECU program history.