I told everyone it was a mistake to part ways with Ruffin McNeill when Eastern Carolina did. McNeill, who’s an incredibly nice guy if you ever get a chance to meet him, led ECU to a 43-34 record in his six years with the Pirates including a 2013 10-3 run with wins over North Carolina and NC State. After being fired McNeill spent a year as the assistant head coach for Virginia before moving up to the same job at College Football Playoff contender Oklahoma where he’s been part of two 12-1 seasons. Eastern Carolina, in the meanwhile, went 9-27 in three years under new coach Scottie Montgomery including two losses to FCS opponents.
The Pirates now bring in Mike Houston, formerly of James Madison as the new head man in what I think is a great hire. JMU went 37-6 in three years under Houston, including two 14-1 years where the Dukes won a title and then came a play away from winning a second. One of those 14 win years featured a 34-14 thumping of ECU in Greenville.
Houston also brought DII Lenoir-Rhyne to the DII title game in just his third year there, their only appearance in program history, so he has a proven track record of winning at multiple levels.
The new OC is former ECU assistant head coach Donnie Kirkpatrick, who left when Montgomery was hired to join Houston as JMU’s offensive coordinator. Now he’s back, funny how these things work out.
The offense dealt with plenty of injuries, most notably to quarterbacks Reid Herring and Holton Ahlers. Both return for this year, but I’d guess Ahlers wins the job as the sophomore that JMU can build around for the future.
Ahlers was a high three-star prospect and as a true freshman, he threw 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions and averaged 6.8 yards per attempt (Herring averaged 5.6). He struggled with accuracy though, connecting on a horrid just 48 percent of his throws, but also showed potential in the run game as he was actually the Pirates’ leading rusher at 693 non-sack yards (6.6 yards per carry).
Top target Trevon Brown is gone but most of the rest of the receiving corps returns including Deondre Farrier, Blake Proehl, and star recruit Leroy Henley, who showed flashes as a freshman.
The run game is bad, a QB who started just five games led the team in rushing yards even if you count sacks. It won’t get much better as the top RB is gone. Junior Darius Pinnix and sophomore Trace Chrisitan will split carries.
ECU dealt with so many injuries last year that like seven different starters are back on the line. If they don’t deal with injuries again this will be a seasoned unit with good depth.
Ahlers is a good fit for Houston’s system and the offense should take a big step forward if only due to the fact that the injuries shouldn’t be as bad.
ECU was solid last year defensively, especially against the run. The new DC is Bob Trott, formerly DC at Richmond and at JMU under Houston. Unfortunately, the top player from last year’s group is gone in absolute monster Nate Harvey (14.5 sacks, 11 TFL!!) who won the AAC defensive player of the year award despite being on a 3-9 team.
Most of the rest of the defense is back though including senior tackles Alex Turner and Jalen Price (5.5 sacks, ten TFL combined). End Kendall Futrell returns (1.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL) and opposite him will start either Chance Purvis (3.5 TFL) or highly touted freshman Dorian Hardy.
At linebacker juniors Aaron Ramseur and Bruce Bivens are back (11 TFL combined). The secondary brings back three starters as well, although the Pirates were a young group and struggled against the pass last year. They get the best of the group back in corner Colby Gore.
It’s hard to bet on a team undergoing a scheme change but if the secondary can step up a little bit I think this defense could actually improve despite the loss of an All-American in Harvey.
I feel really optimistic about this team and my model backs me up, projecting a 6-6 year (5.7-6.3 technically) in the first year under a new coach. It’s very rare to see the model see a bunch of staff changes and expect a team to double their win total, but this ECU team has a lot of potential despite the loss of Harvey and the schedule works out nicely.
The offense is still pretty young so while a bowl is probably the goal this year, this team has even higher potential in 2020.
|Date||Opponent||opp. rank||Proj. Margin|
|31-Aug||at NC State||35||-14.7|
|21-Sep||William & Mary||NR||n/a|
|28-Sep||at Old Dominion||115||1.6|
Average Projected Record: 5.7 wins, 6.3 losses (3.0 wins, 5.0 losses)