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It was the complete opposite of a storybook ending for East Carolina’s senior class, but the players participating in their final game in the purple and gold maintained following the 49-24 loss to Tulsa in the season finale that the program is in good hands under Mike Houston going forward.
Houston’s first year on campus did represent a one-win increase at 4-8 compared to the previous three 3-9 campaigns, but overall, the Pirates still suffered their fifth straight losing season as a program, and struggled to be competitive in conference losses to Navy, South Florida and Tulsa, the latter two of which came at home at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Still, the few remaining long-term players in ECU’s senior class backed their head coach and the future of the program with tears in their eyes just minutes after playing their final collegiate game.
“There’s been tremendous progress made,” senior offensive lineman Branden Pena said. “Obviously it’s not the way we want to end the season. But I told the guys (the night before the game) when we were giving our 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.”
Senior defensive tackle Alex Turner, who was recruited and signed by former head coach Scottie Montgomery, spent his first year under Houston’s staff this season. Turner was part of a senior class that seemed to fully buy in to Houston’s staff, and he said the change was evident from the get-go.
“Quite honestly when I came in as a freshman with Coach Mo’s first recruiting class, there were a lot of issues with the program already, and I think over the years it’s built up,” Turner said. “But I think Coach Houston has done a great job coming in and making this place like a championship culture. I mean, you can look around, he’s done a great job changing the habits of players, changing their attitudes, making us just work differently than we ever have. The program’s going to turn around and I’m just glad as a senior this year I was able to have some part in that.”
The Pirates did surpass expectations in some regards, and were just a few plays away from topping Top 25 foes Cincinnati and SMU late in the year in consecutive weeks. But the result in the finale left a bitter taste in the mouth of Houston and his coaching staff going into their second year in Greenville.
“We’re all disappointed in the end of the season,” Houston said immediately after the game. “But at the same time, when given some time to reflect back, we will look back, because Tuesday is the one-year mark of when I was hired. Is it in better shape today than it was a year ago? Yes. Anybody that doesn’t see that or doesn’t say that, obviously isn’t paying a whole lot of attention. At the same time, are we where we want to be? Not even close.
“We have very high expectations for East Carolina football. This is a great place. I think we can get there, there’s no doubt. And I think we will get there.”
STILL FIGURING OUT AAC
If ECU wants to have any chance of making its way back to a bowl game moving forward, the Pirates simply have to figure out the American Athletic Conference.
The Pirates struggled to win games in the upstart league once again in 2019, going 1-7 in AAC play, with their lone win coming at Connecticut. After Ruffin McNeill went a respectable 8-8 his first two years in league action before being fired, the Pirates have compiled a porous 5-27 record over the four seasons since. Four of those wins have come over cellar-dwelling Connecticut, which is now leaving the league to go independent in football. The only other win came over Cincinnati at home in 2017.
With no Connecticut on the schedule moving forward, the Pirates could realistically be underdogs in every conference game heading into 2020 until they prove otherwise.
“I’ve got to take a look at everything we’ve done,” Houston said. “Just because it worked for us at some other place, doesn’t mean it’s what we need to do here. I do think we accomplished a lot and we grew so much, but it’s obvious we’ve got to continue to develop, not only as players, but as coaches. We’ve got to continue to develop.
“This is a highly competitive league. I’m excited to be in this league. I think that East Carolina is in the right place. But we’ve got to understand everybody in this league is very committed to playing football at a very, very high level. We’ve all got to be committed to doing the same things everyone else is doing if we want to be competitive at a high level.”
With Connecticut on the way out, ECU will be part of an 11-team AAC with no divisions beginning in 2020. The top two teams in the standings are expected to play in a league championship at season’s end going forward. Memphis, Cincinnati, SMU, Navy, Temple and UCF all spent time at one point or another in the Top 25 this season. The play on the field indicates the Pirates have a long way to go to catch up.
“The biggest thing that really stands out each week is the side and speed of the fronts, of the offensive and defensive linemen in this league,” Houston said. “It’s a big boy league. We all know the skill kids because anyone in the stands can see the skill kids and how explosive those guys are. But the fronts in this league are no different than what you’re going to see in most of the top conferences across the country.”
4 PIRATES ALL-AAC
Even with the ups and downs on the field this season, East Carolina was able to secure four players with all-conference honors.
Senior defensive end Kendall Futrell and junior kicker Jake Verity were both named All-AAC second-team selections, while freshman receiver C.J. Johnson and junior left tackle D’Ante Smith were accorded honorable mention.
Futrell closed his East Carolina career with his best statistical season, racking up a team-high 16 tackles for loss, including 11 sacks. He added 11 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Verity, an all-conference selection last season, followed that up with another strong campaign. Verity led the league in field goals made with 24, a number that also established a new program record.
Johnson led the Pirates in receiving yards as a true freshman, tallying 908 yards and averaging 16.8 yards per catch. Smith opened all 12 games as the team’s starting left tackle, helping the Pirates average 430.2 yards per game on offense.
RECRUITING TRAIL HEATS UP
In order to catch up to the rest of The American, the Pirates need to start stringing together strong recruiting classes.
Houston’s staff is off to a strong start with the early signing period approaching Dec. 18. The Pirates currently have 21 confirmed public commitments for a class that ranks 55th nationally and fourth in The American, according to 247Sports.
Pirate coaches have been on the road all this week since the season finale to shore up their commitments. Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Carolina Forest High quarterback Mason Garcia is one of the headliners of the class. Garcia is ranked the ninth-best pro-style quarterback nationally. Defensive tackles J’Vian McCray (West Brunswick High) and Xavier McIver (Cheraw High/Cheraw, S.C.) are two other key pledges along the defensive front. ECU has six defensive line commitments total.
“That’s what we have to do, we’ve got to recruit at a high level,” Houston said. “We have to develop those young men, and we have to continue to develop the players in our program.”
ECU will return the majority of next season’s starters on offense and defense, minus the defensive line, which graduates three key players in starters Jalen Price, Futrell and Turner.
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.