Numbers can often tell a story, and that certainly applies to East Carolina offensive recruiting for the Class of 2022.
Of the 11 players who inked a national letter of intent with the Pirates in December or during Wednesday’s traditional signing day, six of those are offensive linemen. The additions spoke to a program’s need for depth, experience and immediate assistance for a blocking corps that surrendered 35 sacks last season. The sack total was second-worst in the American Athletic Conference.
But the returning offensive linemen combined with the signees have ECU head coach Mike Houston feeling better about the blocking corps than ever.
“That position (offensive line) has been an area that when I got here was not in good shape,” Houston said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We’ve tried very, very hard to address that. You’re finally sitting here going into the spring feeling pretty comfortable with the quality and depth you have at that position.”
Houston may not be done adding to the offensive line corps or other areas of the roster. The Pirates now have signed 21 players for the Class of 2022 with 11 of those already enrolled. Houston, however, said Wednesday he expects to pick up more players between now and the end of the signing period on April 1.
“We’re far from done,” Houston said. “You’ll see us sign, probably a couple of guys, in the immediate future. You’ll also see us, probably, sign a few guys in May and June. So, yeah, I think this is the new norm for college football. But we still have quite a bit of work to do to solidify our roster for the 2022 season.”
All of that should add up to an interesting spring as East Carolina continues to build on the success of its 2021 season. The 7-5 overall finish and 5-3 record in the American Athletic Conference were the program’s best since 2014.
Looking ahead to spring and how the recruiting Class of 2022 might fit into the program, we present our annual position-by-position grades for the offensive signees. In addition, we’ll project the best organizational profile we can and look ahead to the recruiting needs as the coaching staff pursues the Class of 2023. These are all projections based on the final depth chart from last season and other information we’d gathered by press time, but may be altered by position changes during spring practice, or program defections or additions.
QUARTERBACK: No grade
WHAT THEY NEEDED: ECU wasn’t seriously in the market for a quarterback during this recruiting cycle. The quarterback room is well stocked for next season and beyond with four of the five scholarship players listed as either sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshman on the current 2022 roster. Because there was no need and no one signed, there’s no grade. ECU has been fortunate — so far — that none of the young quarterbacks have followed the trend of entering the NCAA Transfer Portal that has impacted the depth at other American Athletic Conference schools. Seven AAC QBs were looking for or had already landed new homes via the transfer portal as of January 18, while three others had committed to join AAC programs for the 2022 season.
WHO SIGNED: No one. There was simply no need to waste a scholarship here with so much young talent already on the roster.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: By not signing a quarterback, the Pirates were able to use those scholarships at other positions where the need was greater.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU really didn’t miss on any “big catch” at quarterback. The Pirates extended an early offer back in June 2019 to New Jersey’s Donovan Leary, the younger brother of N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary. They also targeted Georgia’s Holden Geriner, the 2021 Atlanta Journal Constitution’s AAAA Offensive Player of the Year, with an offer in May 2020. But neither seem to have serious interest in ECU. Leary cast his lot with Illinois, while Geriner chose Auburn.
WHO’S BACK: Does it seem like Holton Ahlers has been around forever? Well, he kind of has, and ECU’s program is better for it. The lefty passer announced in early December he’s returning to Greenville for a fifth season, which he’ll enter as one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks. A starter since the second half of his true freshman campaign, Ahlers has 2022 appeared in 42 games with 37 starts during his ECU career. With 10,228 career passing yards, Ahlers is poised to overtake former Pirate great Shane Carden in that category sometime next fall.
Although clearly QB1 for ECU, Ahlers won’t be without competition. Sophomore Mason Garcia has emerged as the heir apparent to Ahlers after seeing action in six games as a redshirt freshman in 2021. Garcia now has nine total games of college experience under his belt, including a start against Navy during his true freshman year. Garcia is blessed with a rocket arm and is fairly nimble for a quarterback his size. Now, after two years in the program, he also has a solid understanding of ECU’s offensive system. He’ll be ready to step in next fall if Ahlers needs a break, and the staff will likely utilize his abilities in certain packages or situations.
Sophomore Alex Flinn and freshman Ryan Stubblefield didn’t see action in 2021, but finished the year as co-No. 3s on the depth chart. Flinn lost out to Garcia last preseason in the competition to become the backup to Ahlers. But Flinn’s grasp of the offensive system entering his fourth year in the program makes him a valuable asset and a threat to challenge Garcia for the No. 2 spot again this spring. Stubblefield has impressed the ECU staff with his big arm and mobility since arriving in the spring of 2020. Like Flinn, he’s yet to take a snap in a real game, but has displayed the ability in practice and intrasquad games to run the offense effectively.
Walter Simmons III, a redshirt freshman, may be the best athlete in the quarterback room. He’s talented enough to make a contribution at another position for ECU, but has opted, so far, to remain at quarterback. The coaching staff worked on tweaking his throwing mechanics last season, so improvement in that area this spring will enhance his ability to move up the depth chart.
Overall, East Carolina has one of the most talented and deepest quarterback corps in the AAC, and maybe the nation.
WHO’S GONE: Ahlers could have jumped ship, but decided to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to players due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So the Pirates didn’t lose anyone from their quarterback corps to graduation or transfer.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Barring injury or transfer, signing quarterbacks doesn’t appear to be a priority for the Class of 2023. Still, the Pirates extended offers in January to a pair of Georgia passers in four-star Dylan Lonergan from Snellville and three-star Colin Houck from Lilburn. Just about the whole Southeastern Conference as well as national powers such as Ohio State, Oregon and Penn State have offered the 6-2, 215-pound Lonergan, who passed for 3,392 yards and 32 touchdowns as a junior. The 6-2, 175-pound Houck threw for 2,163 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2021 and includes Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt among his offers.
A quarterback who attended ECU”s Beast of the East 7-on-7 event was Amari Odom (6-4, 170) from Panther Creek High Schook in Cary, NC. Odom, who passed for 3,729 yards and 40 touchdowns as a junior, received an offer from ECU following his performance at the Beast of the East. His only other offer at this stage is UNLV, but because of his potential to play other positions — possibly outside linebacker or receiver — his stock is expected to rise dramatically in the coming months.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Holton Ahlers, Greenville, NC(6-3, 230) Senior
Mason Garcia, Myrtle Beach, SC (6-5, 241) Sophomore
Alex Flinn, Asheville, NC (6-1, 235) Sophomore OR
Ryan Stubblefield, Richmond, TX (6-0, 205) Freshman
Walter Simmons III, Orange Park, FL (6-2, 194) Redshirt freshman
RUNNING BACK B+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The majority of ECU’s running back corps are underclassmen, including the trio that headed the depth chart when the 2021 season ended. Although they’ll be sophomores in eligibility, the top two are entering their third year at ECU and therefore the possibility of leaving early for the NFL Draft will come into play after the 2022 campaign. That possibility was reason enough for the Pirates to secure at least one running back in the Class of 2022. Because they went above the need, the Pirates receive an above average grade.
WHO SIGNED: From South Carolina powerhouse Dillon High, the Pirates landed Nemo Squire. As a four-year varsity starter for the Wildcats, Squire racked up 4,510 yards and scored 73 touchdowns rushing. Along the way he earned all-region and all-state honors, and as a senior was selected to play in the prestigious Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game before it was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Squire chose ECU over offers from Air Force, Army, Eastern Michigan, Georgia State and Western Kentucky.
The Pirates dipped into the Louisiana talent pool to secure Marlon Gunn Jr. from Scotlandville Magnet School in Baton Rouge where he produced 2,719 yards and 32 touchdowns rushing over a three-year varsity career. California, Florida State, Louisiana Tech, Purdue, SMU, TCU, Toledo, Tulane and Virginia were among the suitors for Gunn.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The Pirates added some quality depth to their running back corps and insurance for the future just in case Keaton Mitchell or Rahjai Harris opt out after 2022 for the NFL.
You might mistake Squire for a bodybuilder if you saw him in street clothes. He is a physical dynamo packed into a 5-foot-6 frame. A powerful runner between the tackles, Squire also has better-than-average speed that can quickly turn any handoff into a long gain. I compared him during the early signing period review to ECU’s all-time rushing leader, Junior Smith, who was a smaller back who achieved greatness with the Pirates. Squire has similar potential.
Gunn is a slightly taller back, but shares many of the same talents as Squire. He also has excellent hands, which makes him a potential asset in the passing game as well. Although Squire will get to Greenville first as an early enrollee, it was Gunn that Houston mentioned as a possible immediate contributor during the early signing period in December.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: One of the nation’s top running backs in the Class of 2022 played less than a mile from East Carolina’s campus. The Pirates were naturally among the first to offer four-star Michael Allen from Greenville’s Rose High following his sophomore season. Allen made some early visits to ECU, but was never really a strong candidate to sign with the Pirates. He wanted to play his college football away from home and ultimately decided on N.C. State.
So in reality, ECU signed the top two running backs on its recruiting board, meaning no big one got away.
WHO’S BACK: All-American Athletic Conference first team honoree Keaton Mitchell and 2020 AAC Rookie of the Year Rahjai Harris are one of the nation’s top backfeld tandems. Mitchell led the AAC last season in rushing (1,132) and all-purpose yards per game (115.83). He became the 17th ECU player overall and the first since 2013 to crack the 1,000-yard barrier while scoring nine times. Harris followed up his stellar freshman campaign with 583 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Although Mitchell started all 12 games in 2021, the duo ended the season listed as co-No. 1s on the depth chart and should continue to share the primary rushing duties for ECU in 2022.
Redshirt freshman Joseph McKay got his feet wet last season when he logged four carries for 14 yards in the Temple game. McKay is a physical runner who ended last season as the third-string running back and could see more action next fall in short-yardage situations.
Converted wide receiver Maceo Donald, a junior who appeared in 11 games mostly on special teams and Marshall transfer G’Mone Wilson (3 games on special teams) round out the returnees at running back.
WHO’S GONE: Walk-on backs Derrick Alston Jr. and Asa Barnes both entered the NCAA Transfer Portal following the 2021 season. Barnes announced on signing day his commitment to NCAA Division II Winston-Salem State. Neither Alston nor Barnes ever played a down for the Pirates. A third non-scholarship player, West Virginia transfer Lorenzo Dorr, completed his eligibility after playing in 11 games for ECU last season. Dorr’s contributions were mainly on special teams and he didn’t log a rushing attempt.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Even if Mitchell or Harris decide to make the jump to the NFL after the 2022 season, ECU’s needs at running back should be minimal. McKay, Gunn and Squire will be more than ready to step into the breach by the ’23 season, but signing at least one running back to fill any potential gap on the depth chart would seem a reasonable goal.
Two offers have been publicly reported by running back prospects from ECU. North Carolina’s top rushing prospect, Daylan Smothers from Charlotte’s Chambers High, has the Pirates among his 25 major-college offers so far. Best bet for ECU, however, may be 5-10, 175-pound Aronne Herring, who plays just down the road from Greenville at New Bern High School. Herring piled up 1,547 yards and scored 16 touchdowns as a junior to secure an offer from ECU in September. Charlotte has also since reached out to Herring.
Two running back offers went out in January to Montravius Lloyd (6-0, 205) from St. Petersburg, FL, and Keyjuan Brown (5-9, 200) from Atlanta. Brown piled up 2,757 yards rushing and 38 touchdowns as a junior to earn scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Kansas State, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Purdue, USF and Wake Forest in addition to ECU. Lloyd, who had 647 rushing and 11 scores last season, also has Coastal Carolina, Florida State, Wake Forest and West Virginia on his offer list.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Keaton Mitchell, McDonough, Ga. (5-9, 188) Sophomore OR
Rahjai Harris, Duncan, S.C. (5-10, 224) Sophomore
Joseph McKoy, Phenix City, Ala. (6-0, 209) Redshirt freshman
Maceo Donald, Beaufort, N.C. (5-8, 171) Junior
G’Mone Wilson, Clemmons, N.C. (6-0, 184) Sophomore
Marlon Gunn, Baton Rouge, La. (5-10, 201) Freshman
Nemo Squire, Dillon, S.C. (5-6, 189) Freshman
WIDE RECEIVER B-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The transfer portal and extra year of eligibility granted players due to the COVID-19 season kept the wide receiver positions in good shape talent and depth-wise. But with five members of the group listed as seniors or juniors heading into 2022, signing two or three to begin the process of replacing them seemed like a reasonable target. ECU missed the mark on numbers, but scored high on the quality meter with the two it did sign.
WHO SIGNED: Brock Spalding enjoyed an incredible career at South County High in Lorton, VA, amassing 175 receptions for 3,522 yards and 51 touchdowns over his final three varsity seasons. Army, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Connecticut, Duke, Liberty, Marshall, Maryland, Old Dominion, Toledo and Tulane were among his suitors.
ECU received a bonus in January when a member of Georgia’s national championship team decided to join the Pirates as a graduate transfer. Jaylen Johnson earned a spot on the Bulldogs’ roster as a walk-on out of Peachtree Ridge High in Duluth, GA. After a redshirt freshman year in 2018, Johnson became a valuable member of Georgia’s special teams over the next three seasons, in addition to working as a backup receiver. He played in 14 of 15 games last season and appeared in the national title win against Alabama. Johnson, who had five catches for 49 yards at Georgia, will have two years of eligibility remaining.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Spalding is one of those rare playmakers, who can turn a jet sweep into a 30-yard run or pull up and toss a touchdown pass. He’s also the guy who’ll go up in a mass of bodies and come down with a pass just when his team needs it. Because he’ll get an early start learning the offense after enrolling for the spring semester, don’t be surprised if Spalding works his way into the receiver rotation next fall.
Johnson is a jack-of-all-trades guy who has competed on the highest level of college football. His experience, versatility and opportunity to prove himself in a more prominent role at receiver should make him a valuable asset immediately for the Pirates.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Kaleb Webb from Powder Spring, GA, would have been the highest rated player in ECU’s recruiting class. Awarded four-star status by both 247Sports.com and Rivals.com, Webb was offered by ECU in early June, took an official visit to campus on June 25 and gave the Pirates a verbal commitment two days later. But his stock rose dramatically after a huge senior season at McEachern High, which attracted the attention of schools such as Louisville, Michigan, Mississippi and South Carolina. Webb eventually backed off his pledge to ECU on Dec. 5 and signed with Tennessee during the early period.
WHO’S BACK: Only three players who logged receptions last season at the receiver positions are scheduled to return in 2022. Junior C.J. Johnson enters his fourth straight year as a prominent member of the receiver corps and is a legitimate all-conference candidate. Johnson has 108 catches for 1,833 yards and 11 touchdowns in 33 career games with the Pirates (24 starts). ECU desperately needs Johnson to return to his rookie year form when he had 54 catches for 908 yards and four scores to earn freshman All-American honors.
A top contender to join C.J. Johnson at one of the outside receiver positions is junior Jsi Hatfield. Hatfield ended the 2021 campaign as the co-No. 1 on the depth chart at the X spot and was eighth in team receiving with 15 catches for 294 yards and three touchdowns. A triple threat performer who is dangerous as a receiver, runner or on kick returns, Hatfield is a strong choice for breakout performer in 2022.
Sophomore Tyler Savage, with one catch for 13 yards, is the lone remaining returnee who logged a reception last season. Savage played in 11 games and made two starts at the Z outside position, finishing the year at No. 2 on the depth chart there behind Johnson.
Five others who have seen game action at the college level, but haven’t recorded a reception are sophomore Taji Hudson, junior Andre Pegues, sophomore Jhari Patterson, freshman Kerry King and freshman Ray Rose. Pegues, who sat out last season, is the most seasoned of those players, having appeared in 18 games with the Pirates. But the bulk of Pegues’ playing time has been on special teams. Hudson saw the field in all 12 games a year ago and completed the year No. 3 on the depth chart at the X outside receiver spot. Patterson, a Marshall transfer, played last season against Charleston Southern and King against Temple. Rose, a transfer from North Carolina, is a former four-star prospect who played in one game for the Tar Heels as a true freshman in 2020.
Beyond that are some young, but talented receivers who’ll need to step up in 2022. Those include Virginia Tech transfer and redshirt freshman Tyree Saunders, redshirt freshman Troy Lewis, redshirt freshman T.J. Lockley along with walk-ons Terrance Copper Jr. (freshman), redshirt freshman Josh Murphy and sophomore Cole Burgess. Saunders, the son of former Florida State defensive back Troy Saunders, has great speed (4.4 in 40) and athleticism that could move him up the depth chart quickly this spring. Copper is the son of former ECU and NFL receiver Terrance Copper.
WHO’S GONE: ECU loses its top two receivers from 2021 in Tyler Snead and Audie Omotosho. Snead closed an amazing career that began as a walk-on by leading the Pirates with 67 catches for 855 yards and four touchdowns last season to earn second-team All-AAC honors. He announced in early January he wouldn’t be returning to ECU, where he had two years of eligibility remaining, and would instead enter the 2022 NFL Draft. Snead ranks fourth in career receptions (201) at ECU and with 2,385 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Omotosho enjoyed a breakout season in 2021 after mediocre results in his first two years with the Pirates. The UCLA transfer caught 40 passes for 487 yards and three touchdowns playing mostly at the X outside receiver position.
Also exiting was senior Cam Burnette, who made four catches for 69 yards coming off the bench in nine games during the 2020 season for ECU, but did not play in 2021 due to injury. Walk-on Cole Burgess, who would have been a sophomore, also left the program in January.
NEEDS FOR 2023: The Pirates are always going to be in the market for one or two receivers in each class. Although there are no seniors eligibility-wise in the ECU receiving corps, solid 2022 seasons for Johnson or Hatfield, or both, could result in early departures. So getting at least two potential game breakers at receiver would be prudent.
The state of North Carolina is deep with wide receiver talent in the 2023 class and the Pirates would like nothing better than to land one of the top four. Noah Rogers from Rolesville High and Christian Hamilton of Hickory Ridge are both four-star prospects with more than 20 offers each, including from the Pirates. Just behind those two in the ratings are Nathan Leacock from Raleigh Millbrook High and Kevin Concepcion of Charlotte Chambers.
Que’San Brown from East Forsyth High in Kernersville also received an offer from ECU in January. A receiver similar in size to Tyler Snead, Brown attended the Pirates’ Junior Day in late January. He’s a multi-purpose player who had 1,001 yards receiving, 130 rushing, 486 on kickoff returns and 183 on punt returns as a junior. Charlotte, Coastal Carolina and Duke are others involved with early offers to Brown.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
*Note: Outside receiver positions are interchangeable and those players may work at both X and Z positions.
Outside receiver (X)
Jsi Hatfield, Graham, NC (5-9, 179) Junior
Taji Hudson, Cedartown, GA (6-3, 202) Sophomore
Tyree Saunders, Jacksonville, FL (6-0, 199)
Ray Rose, Belmont, NC (6-1, 207) Freshman
T.J. Lockley, Daytona Beach, FL (6-0, 181) Redshirt freshman
Josh Murphy, Myrtle Beach, SC (6-1, 179) Redshirt freshman
Outside receiver (Z)
C.J. Johnson, Greenville, NC (6-2, 222) Junior
Tyler Savage, Aldie, VA (6-3, 226) Sophomore
Jaylen Johnson, Duluth, GA (6-2, 193) Junior
Andre Pegues, Raeford, NC (6-3, 204) Junior
Troy Lewis, Chesterfield, VA (6-3, 190) Redshirt freshman
Inside receiver (H)
Jhari Patterson, Asheville, NC (6-0, 194) Sophomore
Kerry King, Highland Springs, VA (5-10, 169) Freshman
Terrance Copper Jr., Grifton, NC (5-11, 190) Freshman
Brock Spalding, Lorton, VA (5-10, 180) Freshman
TIGHT END D
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Filling at least one or two spots at tight end with three members of the position group on tap to complete their eligibility between 2021 and 2022 looked like an important goal for the ’22 recruiting cycle. But despite extending offers to a half dozen or more tight ends, ECU came up empty in this area. Hence, the less than average grade.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates drew a blank on the tight end position during this recruiting cycle.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: It hasn’t, so far.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU cast a wide net in the Southeast trying to land a tight end during the 2022 recruiting cycle. They had reported offers out to at least six players in the regional footprint of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, but none expressed a strong interest in the Pirates.
WHO’S BACK: Well, here’s the good news about tight end. East Carolina returns one of the AAC’s best in senior Ryan Jones. Even though he didn’t start a single game, the converted Oklahoma linebacker ranked third in team receiving last season with 37 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns. Next to Tyler Snead, Jones wound up being ECU’s most consistent receiving threat over the final eight games when he collected 36 of his receptions.
Sophomore Shane Calhoun’s blocking skills earned him the start in all 12 games over Jones in 2021. Calhoun was also a valuable asset in the passing game, making 18 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
The Pirates received a bonus when former Temple transfer Aaron Jarman decided to take advantage of his extra year of eligibility and return for 2021. Jarman, who has the best size among the ECU tight ends, played in all 12 games last season and got the starting nod against South Florida.
Behind the top three tight ends are converted quarterback Bryan Gagg, a sophomore, redshirt freshman Jacob Coleman and freshman walk-on Joseph Samson.
WHO’S GONE: Zech Byrd was a valuable asset to the offense during the three years he spent in Greenville after transferring from the junior college ranks. A large body (6-7, 281) who was essentially an extra offensive tackle when he was in the lineup, Byrd played in 25 games and made five starts.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Jones and Jarman depart after the 2022 season, leaving the Pirates with three scholarship tight ends on the roster. Calhoun is still young and has all-star potential, but the Pirates are going to need some insurance in this area for the future. They need to sign at least one and possibly two tight ends during the 2023 cycle.
There’s a four-star tight end prospect virtually in ECU’s backyard that the Pirates would love to sign. Javonte Vereen, a 6-4, 205-pounder from Havelock High, caught 31 passes for 985 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior. N.C. State is also among the serious suitors for Vereen.
ECU has also reportedly offered 6-4, 225-pound Anthony Miller Jr. from Duluth, GA.
One of several January offers made by ECU went out to 6-5, 225-pound Vance Bolyard from Northern Guilford High in Greensboro. Bolyard, who made 21 catches for 267 yards and four scores last season, has other offers from Appalachian State, Boston College, Coastal Carolina, Eastern Michigan, Louisville, Maryland, Ohio, Rutgers and Virginia Tech.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Shane Calhoun, St. Augustine, FL (6-2, 243) Sophomore OR
Ryan Jones, Charlotte, NC (6-2, 247) Senior
Aaron Jarman, Kinston, NC (6-6, 263) Graduate student
Bryan Gagg, Sarasota, FL (6-3, 230) Sophomore
Jacob Coleman, Chesterfield, VA (6-4, 212) Redshirt freshman
Joseph Samson, Cary, NC (6-2, 268) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Center didn’t originally look to be an area of need when the recruiting cycle started, but the Pirates went out and landed a quality prospect anyway. And it turned out to be a valuable addition with two centers deciding to hit the transfer portal.
WHO SIGNED: Okay, I know Ethan Lang is listed as an offensive guard on the list from the early signing period. But Lang even has “[email protected]” as a tagline on his Twitter page, and why wouldn’t he. The 6-2, 310-pounder handled the snaps as a senior for one of the nation’s top prep programs at IMG Academy. Lang received offers from Arkansas State, Florida International, Georgia State, Liberty, Middle Tennessee State, UAB and Western Kentucky before picking ECU over Marshall.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Lang may very well start his ECU career at guard, but it’s nice to know he could easily shift back to center if the need arises. His addition, at the least, provides some quality depth at center.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: With potential centers in both Lang and Omari Allen secured early in the recruiting cycle, ECU really didn’t hotly pursue any other players at the position. The Pirates did offer Coltin Deery, a three-star center prospect from Malvern, PA, but never seemed seriously involved with the eventual Maryland signee.
WHO’S BACK: Junior Avery Jones moved over from left guard where he started eight games in 2020 to man the center position for most of the 2021 season. The Pirates moved Jones to the pivot spot during spring practice last year when injuries and other circumstances sidelined two of the top returnees at the position. He went on to start 11 of 12 games there in 2021 and now looms as an All-AAC candidate for 2022.
Competing to back up Jones will be sophomore Grant Copeland, a former Shrine Bowl all-star pick who came to ECU as a preferred walk-on, and Lang. Lang is a January enrollee and was mentioned by head coach Mike Houston as a potential “travel” player during his early signing period press conference.
WHO’S GONE: The Pirates suffered three big losses that impacted the center position. First, Fernando Frye, who started nine games at center in 2020, completed his eligibility. Frye was a starter at guard last season, but was also the backup center.
Trent Holler, who began 2021 as the backup center to Jones, had his ECU career end abruptly in October when he was dismissed for violating team rules. Although a redshirt freshman eligibility-wise, Holler had played in 17 games and at one point was considered the Pirates’ center-of-the-future. He wound up entering the transfer portal and has since landed at Marshall.
Jaquaez Powell was another promising center prospect, who had been an all-state performer at nearby Southwest Edgecombe High School. Powell played in one game in 2020, but didn’t see any action last season. Powell opted in December to enter the transfer portal and hasn’t reported any new home to date.
NEEDS FOR 2023: A big season by Jones could hasten his departure from ECU to the next level, so as insurance the Pirates should attempt to sign at least one potential center in the Class of 2023.
They’ve already targeted a pair of three-star center prospects in Connor Lew from Kennesaw Mountain High in Acworth, GA, and Cal Grubbs from Maryville, TN. Both have reported ECU offers fairly recently with Lew’s coming in early November and Grubbs picking his up in mid-January. Grubbs (6-4, 290) is the top center prospect in Tennessee and an 6-A All-Region and All-State pick as a junior. Lew (6-3, 280) has accumulated 18 offers already after earning Class 6-A All-State honors from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Aaron Feinmore (6-2, 275) is a center-guard prospect from Sharpsburg, GA, who gained an ECU offer in late January.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Avery Jones, Havelock, NC (6-4, 290) Junior
Grant Copeland, Clemmons, NC (6-3, 281) Sophomore
Ethan Lang, Pine Brook, NJ (6-2, 310) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: East Carolina already lacked depth at the guard positions, and then lost players with starting experience following the 2021 season. So the need to add two or three in the ’22 class was significant. The Pirates signed two (or two if you count Lang as a guard) with potential and one who’ll likely make an immediate impact.
WHO SIGNED: We discussed Lang above with the centers, although he may begin his career at guard because the need is greater. The Pirates also landed a project in 6-4, 299-pound Omari Allen from Henderson, NC. Allen was a two-way star at Vance High School where he earned All Big 8 3-A Conference honors as a junior and senior. ECU was his first and only scholarship offer.
One day before the traditional signing period in February, the Pirates landed graduate transfer Ben Johnson (6-3, 282) from Football Championship Subdivision Marist. Johnson, from South Williamsport, PA, was a two-year starter at tackle for the Red Foxes and was a second-team Pioneer Football League pick last season. He’ll have two years of eligibility at ECU.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Allen has really dedicated himself to re-defining his body over the last two years, losing nearly 60 pounds. That work ethic, and what his prep coach called a “nasty attitude” on the playing field could make him a valuable contributor on ECU’s offensive line, although it won’t be immediate. Allen also has experience at center, which will help the Pirates’ depth at that position as well.
Johnson will be an immediate contender for playing time at guard simply because of his experience. But Johnson is also an excellent athlete and true student of the game.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU pursued a handful of talented prep guards, but its biggest miss at the position occurred with a transfer portal prospect. Cade Briggs, a 6-3, 295-pounder, was a three-year starter who played both guard and tackle at New Mexico. Briggs took an official visit to East Carolina just before the early signing period in December and came away impressed. But after another official visit to Central Florida, Briggs wound up committing to Texas Tech, despite never having visited the campus.
WHO’S BACK: Three players who took snaps at guard last season are back. Nishad Strother is a well-tested veteran despite his sophomore standing eligibility-wise. Strother has 17 career starts at guard under his belt and made another six starts at left tackle in 2020. He was in the starting lineup nine times in 2021 at the left guard spot.
Sophomore Isaiah Foote is entering his third year in the program and has played in six games. He appeared in the final five contests last season and should be in contention for a starting role in 2022.
Junior Robin Van Der Laan got into three games in 2021 after transferring to ECU from the junior college ranks. Van Der Laan is like many Pirate offensive linemen who can play multiple positions, so he also might be a factor at tackle as well.
The remainder of the guard corps are untested. Sophomore Keziah Everett, who was a highly regarded defensive tackle when recruited, shifted to guard last spring and spent a lot of time working with the second-team unit. Redshirt freshman Richard Pearce and Allen are the only scholarship guards heading into spring barring any position changes.
Rounding out the guard contingent are walk-ons Grayson Lewis, a sophomore, junior Nick Bernhard and freshman Gabe Militello.
WHO’S GONE: Two highly experienced players were lost at the guard positions in Fernando Frye and Sean Bailey.
Frye made an impact at both guard and center during his ECU career. But as a graduate student last season he was an anchor on the line at guard, starting once at left guard and eight times at right guard before completing his eligibility.
Bailey started 23 games for the Pirates between left and right guard, including six last season. He made two starts at left guard and four more at right guard.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Just based on the low number of scholarship players at guard, this will be a high priority in the Class of 2023. Signing two or even three players would help fill the gaps on the depth chart.
The Pirates jumped in with January offers to four-star Brycen Sanders from The Baylor School in Chattanooga, TN, and three-star Nathan Efobi from South Forsyth High in Cumming, GA.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Nishad Strother, Havelock, NC (6-3, 318) Sophomore
Keziah Everett, Farmville, NC (6-1, 329) Sophomore
Grayson Lewis, Harrisburg, NC (6-3, 298) Sophomore
Gabe Militello, Raleigh (6-2, 260) Freshman
Robin Van Der Laan, Orinda, CA (6-5, 301) Junior
Isaiah Foote, Prince Frederick, MD (6-4, 328) Sophomore
Ben Johnson, South Williamsport, PA (6-3, 282) Junior
Richard Pearce, Hueytown, AL (6-3, 322) Redshirt freshman
Omari Allen, Henderson, NC (6-4, 299) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: With D’Ante Smith’s departure after the 2020 campaign and Justin Chase leaving following the ’21 season, the Pirates needed to sign at least two tackles to start grooming replacements for that pair. They more than exceeded that goal by snaring two quality prep prospects and adding immediate help through the transfer portal.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates inked a pair of potential studs in Jacob Sacra from national prep powerhouse Saint Francis Academy in Baltimore, MD, and Eli Samples from North Forsyth High in Cumming, GA. Both were three-star rated prospects and Sacra was among the top 100 offensive tackles in the Class of 2022. Sacra entertained offers from Boston College, Liberty, Maryland, Old Dominion, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Virginia before choosing the Pirates, while Samples fielded offers from Georgia Southern, Troy and UAB among others.
The big recruiting coup at tackle, however, was landing West Virginia transfer Parker Moorer, who played his prep football at Charlotte power Mallard Creek. After redshirting as a true freshman, Moorer saw extensive action with the Mountaineers. He played in 10 games during the 2020 season and 10 in 2021, making five starts at right tackle during the latter campaign.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Both Moorer and Sacra are already enrolled at ECU and will have the benefit of participating in spring practice. Moorer will have three years of eligibility left and should contend for a starting role immediately.
Samples and Sacra played for major prep programs and are used to a high level of competition. Because of that, expect both to become factors at tackle sooner rather than later.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: He really wasn’t a big one in terms of recruiting stars, but Chester, VA, tackle Tyler Leinberger was a promising prospect with a lot of growth potential when he made a verbal commitment to ECU last July. But after sticking with that pledge for almost five months, Leinberger announced in mid-November he was backing off the commitment. He eventually signed a national letter of intent with Massachusetts.
WHO’S BACK: Junior Noah Henderson returns after appearing in 21 games, including 14 starts, over the last two seasons. Ten of Henderson’s starts came last season at right tackle after an injury sidelined Bailey Malovic.
Malovic, now a senior, was expected to be one of the team’s top blockers last season, but a knee injury suffered in the season opener against Appalachian State sent him to the sidelines for the year. Malovic’s status for spring practice is unknown, but based on how early his injury and surgery occurred, he should be ready when the 2022 season gets underway.
Sophomore Walt Stribling is another veteran, who appeared in 12 games in 2021. He started once at left tackle and will contend for playing time there again. Senior Robin Van Der Laan is expected to see most of his action in 2022 at guard, but is also capable of playing tackle.
Sophomore Hampton Ergle and redshirt freshman Canaan Clark round out the tackle contingent. Neither has played in a game for ECU.
WHO’S GONE: Justin Chase immediately became one of ECU’s most reliable offensive linemen after joining the Pirates as a transfer from N.C. State. Chase played in nine games, starting two upon his arrival in 2020, then made 10 starts at left tackle last season. Don’t be surprised if Chase’s name is called at some point in the 2022 NFL Draft.
NEEDS FOR 2023: Malovic exhausts his eligibility after the 2022 season and Henderson may or may not stick around for a sixth year. But with an abundance of young talent at tackle still on hand, signing big numbers won’t be necessary. But getting one or two tackles should still be part of the plan.
Almost a dozen offers have already been reportedly extended by ECU to tackle prospects, including four-star Olaus Alinen from Windsor, CN, and Lucas Simmons from Clearwater, FL. Closer to home, the Pirates have reached out to 6-5, 330-pound Jamaal Garrett from Greensboro’s Grimsley High and 6-5, 290-pound Sam Pendleton from Reagan High in Pfafftown.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Parker Moorer, Charlotte, NC (6-4, 313) Sophomore
Walter Stribling, Palmyra, VA (6-6, 308) Sophomore
Canaan Clark, Cumming, GA (6-6, 310) Redshirt freshman
Jacob Sacra, Madison, VA (6-5, 315) Freshman
Noah Henderson, Bennettsville, SC (6-5, 301) Junior
Bailey Malovic, Irmo, SC (6-6, 286) Senior
Hampton Ergle, Lexington, SC (6-6, 307) Sophomore
Eli Samples, Cumming, GA (6-3, 283) Freshman
WHAT THEY NEEDED: ECU had the first-team All-AAC kicker in 2021 and signed another in the recruiting Class of ’21. Both are underclassmen, so there was no need to use a scholarship on another placekicker. Still, the Pirates added a quality leg to their placekicking stable as a preferred walk-on to establish a grade above average grade at this position.
WHO SIGNED: The Pirates didn’t actually sign a kicker, but did offer preferred walk-on status to Andrew Conrad from East Forsyth High in Kernersville, NC. Conrad converted 18 of 26 field-goal tries during his prep career, nailing a long of 50 yards as a junior. He was a first-team All-Area selection by the Winston-Salem Journal as a senior.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The climb to the top of the placekicking ladder will be a long way up for Conrad. But his leg strength, plus his ability to punt, is good insurance for ECU in case of injuries to the front-line players.
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU never offered a scholarship to any placekicker, so nobody fits this category.
WHO’S BACK: ECU’s placekicking didn’t miss a beat in 2021, even after the loss of record-setting Jake Verity. Owen Daffer, who entered the program as a preferred walk-on, stepped up in a big way, knocking down 19 of 23 field-goal attempts (82.6%) and converting 39 of 41 point-after tries. The performance earned Daffer first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors.
Redshirt freshman Laith Marjan should enter the spring as the backup to Daffer, while walk-ons Sully Hardin and Carson Smith are other kicker candidates.
WHO’S GONE: The Pirates didn’t lose any of its placekickers from 2021.
NEEDS FOR 2023: There really isn’t one with Daffer, Marjan and now Conrad with multiple years of eligibility left.
PROJECTED ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
Owen Daffer, Wilmington, NC (5-10, 173) Sophomore
Laith Marjan, Cary, NC (6-3, 184) Redshirt freshman
Andrew Conrad, Kernersville (5-10, 160) Freshman
Sully Hardin, Myrtle Beach, SC (6-1, 180) Redshirt freshman
Carson Smith, Belmont, NC (5-11, 169) Redshirt freshman