On Tuesday, while the East Carolina University (3-3, 0-2 AAC) football team enjoyed a much needed week off from game action, they received a bit of welcoming news. Senior offensive lineman Cortez Herrin was granted a medical hardship waiver by the American Athletic Conference, tacking another year of eligibility onto his collegiate career.
After appearing in the Pirates’ first game of the season back in 2016, Herrin was sidelined for the remainder of the campaign with an injury. Under NCAA’s redshirt rule, one that has now been changed, Herrin would have lost a year of eligibility despite his limited action during his freshman season. With his waiver now approved, however, Herrin will be allowed to play in 2020, bolstering a deep and experienced portion of the Pirates’ roster.
“For the obvious reason, it’s going to be great to have him back for another year with all the experience he has at left guard, obviously a very high-end player,” head coach Mike Hoston said. “But even more so from a character standpoint and leadership standpoint, you can’t have enough Cortez Herrin’s in your program.”
Despite an injury-plagued debut at ECU, Herrin has evolved into a staple up front for the Pirates over the last two years. Herrin started five games in 2017 and all 12 in 2018, notching a streak of 17 consecutive starts with his first four this season. Unfortunately, the injury bug caught back up with him toward the conclusion of the Pirates’ home game against the College of William & Mary, forcing senior Fernando Frye to start in his place during the last two contests.
Nevertheless, coach Houston indicated on Tuesday that he expects Herrin and junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. to return closer to the end of the season, potentially giving the Pirates a much needed boost in two key areas.
While the Pirates entered their open date week at .500, they began conference play 0-2 after a tough 27-17 loss at the hands of Temple University (4-1, 0-1 AAC) last Thursday. With an even tougher slate of games to play in 2019, including a match-up on Oct. 19 against a good University of Central Florida (4-2, 1-1 AAC) team, Houston and his coaching staff have been working tirelessly to develop an inherited roster.
“I talked the other night after the Temple game about how excited I am about the opportunity to develop our roster,” Houston said. “We’re not just developing it for this year, you’re developing for years to come. It’s not just on the offensive line, you have the bulk of the offense back next year.”
Of the players listed on the two-deep depth chart for the Temple game, a quick count reveals only four members of this year’s offensive unit would graduate off the roster in 2020. Two of those, Herrin’s replacement and senior center Branden Pena, come from the offensive line, leaving an experienced group to block for sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers.
Aside from Herrin, who has the second most career starts on the Pirates’ roster with 21, only junior left tackle D’Ante Smith has logged more with 23 while junior center John Spellacy is not far behind with 16 of his own.
“The thing that I really challenge some of those players that have multiple years left is, you’re working to get better, not just for today, but you’re working to get better for next year, for the year after,” Houston said.
Certainly that sentiment would apply to the Pirates’ offensive line, a unit that should have good chemistry from so many games together in the trenches. This season, however, whether it be the play of the men up front or the personnel behind them, ECU has struggled to move the football and amass points on the scoreboard.
After scoring only 17 points at home against Temple, the Pirates are now averaging 20.7 points per game, placing them 11th out of the 12 teams in the AAC. Additionally, the Pirates rank ninth in the conference in passing offense (202.7 yards per game) and eighth in rushing offense (160.8 yards per game), hardly inspiring numbers for a team that wants to be successful.
With the Pirates’ change in coaching staff and shake-up at the running back position, it’s hard to determine how much the offensive line’s play has factored into ECU’s struggles this season. Entering Thursday night’s game against the Owls, the Pirates were averaging 4.5 yards per carry in the run game, but logged an average of just 2.9 yards per rush in their latest loss.
To add to that, the Pirates’ offensive line allowed three quarterback sacks to the opposing defense, bringing their total up to 11 in 2019, the sixth most in the AAC.
“I think in year one, we do have to adapt what we’re doing to a degree to fit the personnel that we inherited,” Houston said. “If we’re asking players to do something that may be beyond their ability level, then that’s on us to a degree. So we got to make sure that we’re giving guys an opportunity to play within the scheme and if we need to adjust some things we will.”
In part, that statement was aimed at Ahlers who, as Houston stated during his conference call on Monday, sometimes played out of the scheme against Temple by breaking down the pocket and scrambling before properly allowing the play to develop. Perhaps that is where some of those sacks factor in, while the strength of opposing defenses have often overmatched ECU’s front four at times.
Nevertheless, people involved with ECU’s football program knew the turnaround under the new coaching staff would take some time. Rebuilds never happen overnight, especially when the new coach, in this case Houston, is attempting to install a drastically different offensive scheme compared to what was in place last season in Greenville.
Through it all, however, the Pirates have one of the key ingredients to a good football team in the making. With an experienced offensive line, anchored by the return of Herrin next season, Houston can begin mixing and matching pieces to fit his style of coaching heading into his second year on the job.
That may not be what Pirate nation wants to hear only halfway through this campaign, but sometimes during rebuilds you just have to look forward to next year.