East Carolina University’s (3-3, 0-2 AAC) football team features a combination of 49 freshmen and redshirt freshmen on its 105-man roster, ranking the Pirates as the 19th youngest team in the nation.
While ECU sports just a .500 record after dropping last Thursday’s prime time contest against Temple University (4-1, 1-0 AAC), head coach Mike Houston and his coaching staff have received solid production from some younger members of the roster.
The offensive side of the football is perhaps where the Pirates’ youth shows up the most. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers has started every game thus far for ECU, recording somewhat of a shaky first half to the season.
Thursday’s night 19-for-39 effort through the air for 229 yards gave Ahlers a season-high in passing despite over 100 of those yards being accumulated in the fourth quarter with his team down multiple scores.
“I thought that he played a pretty solid game against Temple. I think he needs to see a lot of positive things he did,” Houston said during the weekly coaches teleconference. “I think he’s still got to stand in there and play within the scheme at times. The other night a couple times maybe he got a little too quick to get out of there (the pocket). But I do think he played better last Thursday night than he did the previous Saturday.”
While Ahlers’ inability to throw the ball down the field has often been at the root of the Pirates’ offensive struggles, the last two games have flipped that narrative. In a 24-21 win over Old Dominion University (1-4, 0-1 C-USA) in Norfolk, Virginia, Ahlers made a 100-yard receiver out of sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl, making him the first Pirate to hit that mark this season.
On Thursday, the Pirates had their second 100-yard receiver of the campaign, this time in the form of freshman C.J. Johnson. With eight catches in ECU’s loss to the Owls, Johnson and Ahlers found the endzone twice, hooking up on the team’s first and next-to-last drives of the game.
For Johnson, he hauled in his first two touchdowns of his collegiate career and posted career-highs in both receptions and yards.
“I think he’s improving every week, I like his competitiveness. He has high expectations for himself,” Houston said of Johnson following the game. “I like the fact that you can coach him hard and he responds to it, because he wants to win. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us in time and he’s getting better every week right now.”
With their two massive games in consecutive contests, Proehl and Johnson are one and two on the Pirates’ statistic sheet in the receiving column. Proehl currently paces the team with 22 catches, 315 yards and a 14.3 yard per catch average, while Johnson has snagged 19 balls for just over 200 yards this season.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the positives of having a large crop of young players often means they are not as consistent as some of the older guys. As they gain experience and learn how to play through tough moments in ball games, that sentiment should change, but for now, the Pirates may be stuck with some inconsistent contributors. Against Temple, that inexperience reared its head pretty quickly after the first quarter came to a close.
At the end of that opening quarter, the Pirates had already racked up 77 rushing yards and over 100 yards of total offense. By the end of the game, however, ECU finished with only 98 rushing yards and 327 total yards, the majority of which came on the back of a last-minute scoring drive.
“The running game, some of the things we’re doing in the passing game, we looked like what we want to look like,” Houston said. “I think that shows some of the things we’re capable of, we just were not consistent after the first quarter offensively.”
In that run game, more inexperienced, young players can be found. Relieving injured junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. has been a trio of underclassmen in freshman Demetrius Mauney, redshirt freshman Tay Williams and sophomore Trace Christian. With senior running back Hussein Howe off the roster and in the transfer portal, those three backs have shouldered the load on the ground for the Pirates.
With over 100 yards on the ground during a week two win and 45 more against Temple to pace the team on Thursday night, Mauney jumped both Pinnix and Ahlers as the Pirates’ leading rusher while Christian and Williams are fourth and fifth respectively on that list.
Defensively, one of the most impactful players, not just among young guys but for the entirety of the roster, has been freshman cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian. Tabbed as a starter by Houston from the start, McMillian has played as well as any defensive back in the American Athletic Conference.
Four pass break-ups against Temple was a game-high for either team and gives the young corner seven on the season. Combined with two interceptions, McMillian has logged nine passes defended in 2019 for an average of 1.5 per game, tying him for second in the AAC for that statistical category.
Additionally, his two interceptions tie him with fellow defensive underclassman, sophomore linebacker Gerard Stringer, and a host of other players for third in the conference.
While individual efforts from some younger players, as well as some older guys in the locker room has been effective, it has not always translated to success for the team. As a program, the Pirates still rank toward the bottom of the conference and FBS in key statistical categories, both offensively and defensively.
“This program is not going to be like this forever, we’re going to get it turned. We’ve got good young players, we’ve got a great recruiting class that we believe in that hopefully we’re going to sign in December,” Houston said. “We’re going to grow them up, we’re going to develop them, we’re going to learn how to play the game the right way. We’ve got a great fan base and we’re determined to give them a product on the field that they can stand behind.”
Improvement in all three phases by the Pirates from week one until now can be seen pretty easily. Still, with a young roster to develop and what Houston calls bad habits to break, ECU’s football program is far from where it should be and where it has been at times throughout history.
With any rebuild, however, it takes a solid core of young players to build around and that is something the Pirates have in Ahlers, Johnson and McMillian, just to name a few. Add in what should be a strong recruiting class for next season, and the Pirates may very well find themselves back in contention for a conference title in short order.
The Pirates’ next game is scheduled to be against the University of Central Florida (4-2, 1-1 AAC) in Orlando on Oct. 19 after an open date for the Pirates. Kickoff between the Pirates and Knights is scheduled for 7 p.m.