As the Pirates Head Towards Fall and Camp, Let’s Talk Positional Battles

Note: If you would rather talk Defense, go here.

Oh Yeah!

It is that time of year again…you probably smell it every morning, particularly on Saturdays. Probably feel it, too.

Houston & Gilber give the hook

Coach Houston, left, and Gilbert have in short order, lifted the spirits of Pirate Nation.

We are on the fast downhill slide to August and that means the Pirates open up their battles for starting positions and begin the build up to the start of the 2019-20 season. Following 4-straight losing seasons – the last three of which were 3-9 campaigns where many of the losses were blowouts – there is finally feelings of hope in Greenville. That hope comes in the form of a proven winner in Coach Mike Houston – who brought with him well known (to ECU fans) and highly successful OC Donnie Kirkpatrick – and AD Jon Gilbert who hit the ground with his sleeves rolled up and his lunch pail in hand.

Almost instantly, the vibe changed in Pirates Nation…a new mojo emerging despite how hard we all try to suppress rapidly rising expectations.

AAC Media Days are completed and the Pirates as expected are picked to finish last in the East – well, actually 2nd to last, but since UConn is leaving the conference (good riddance) and none of the voters actually consider UConn as a football program, we were basically picked to finish behind a group of teams that prior to AAC inclusion we simply owned on the field (save USF). Low expectations from our opponents is a vital part of any turn around we might see in Houston Year 1. Hopefully, they will never see us coming.

But before we get to that opening game in August against an N.C. State team that thoroughly thrashed the Pirates a year ago, many camp battles must be waged and those young men who might lead a turnaround must then gel.

And, yes, there will be some good battles this fall and a good dose to dish about throughout the 20+ practices. Expectations are high among the coaching staff and Coach Houston – not one to write checks he can’t cash – didn’t mince words when he indicated that his players are miles from where they were at the end of spring. He now has something to work with to begin the process of turning the program around. Will we pull a UCF going from 0-13 to 13-0 in two seasons? Don’t know, but the possibility does exist.

Let’s talk positional battles this fall! We’ll start with the O.

Note: These are just opinions based on what I have seen, some additional analysis and conversations with others. Beyond that, it is simply speculation.

Quarterback

Setting the Stage: So it is the passer – Jr Reid Herring – vs the run (dual) threat Holton Ahlers (true So.).

Holton Ahlers

Ahlers is the undisputed leader of the offense. His growth as a QB is critical to improvement.

While the Pirate Nation sat in awe as the true freshman wowed everyone with obvious leadership, fleet feet, and grit, it is easy to forget that Herring was at the helm for two of the teams three wins, including another blowout victory over UNC-CH (yes, I know, Ahlers was also a big part of that win as a change of pace runner). Alternatively, it is hard to imagine anyone under center to start this season than Ahlers whose athleticism is obvious and potential seemingly endless. And, he is a leader without question.

 

Tipping the Scale: 50 is an interesting number to consider. Consider this, one of the ECU’s QBs completed more than 50% of his passes and one did not. If ECU hopes to win games this season, that number has to be north of 50 and really more into the 60s. Herring completed 53.5 percent of his passes. Ahlers, 48%. It is this number that is really the only eyebrow raiser in this competition. And right now, Ahlers has to push north of that to lead this team to victories. Stats mean little if they come in a loss and Ahlers has only one win as a starter despite his exciting and explosive plays. There are no others in this competition.

Likely outcome: That said, is there really anyone who believes that Ahlers will NOT be under center when the Pirates open the season. The case is already compelling. His leadership alone is contagious and evident and he is dynamic. And his passing progressed as the season went – his TRUE freshman season. His completion mark will push up towards 60% this year and his running game will be under control…making it more dangerous in the overall scheme. Barring injury, this should be a noticeably better Ahlers in the 2019-20 campaign, and that gives the Pirates a chance.

Group Think: If Herring can stay focused and not let ego into the equation (and by the looks of it, he is not an ego kind of guy), then the Pirates may quietly have one of the best QB rooms in the league. Further, IMO Herring is the kind of guy who could thrive in the hero-off-the-bench role if needed. All indicators pointing upwards for ECU’s QB situation.

Running Back

Setting the Stage: There are names of note here…Darius Pinnix Jr. (JR), Hussein Howe (SR), Trace Christian (SO), Tay Williams (FR-RS), Demetrius Mauney (FR). Pinnix and Howe bring game experience with varying levels of success, Christian and Williams bring potential not yet realized, and Mauney is considered a future stud. All are talented backs – pending a solid offensive line.

Pinnix

If ECU has a back who can go “Beast Mode” it is undoubtedly Darius Pinnix.

Tipping the Scale: It appears, really, to be a two-man battle between Pinnix and Howe. Their styles contrast for sure, with the former being the banger and the latter being the elusive guy. The commentary on both are that they are both good runners, good receivers and good blockers…so what differentiates the two? For starters, Pinnix has emerged to be a leader, both by play and vocally and that cannot be discounted. Further, Pinnix also appears to have that special sauce…a will to succeed. Howe is smooth, tough and an efficient runner who can succeed.

Likely Outcome: Yes, there is competition this fall. No, there is not debate. Pinnix brings something special to the table that cannot be taught…he is such a strong leader and runs with purpose and a chip. Yes, he is not a burner and perhaps Howe comes in for change of pace, but if there is going to be a primary back, it is Pinnix. And, the guy catches the ball extremely well despite lacking that receiver-like smoothness. He also has a nose for the endzone.

Group Think: Honestly, there are six or seven teams in the league to think of before ECU when it comes to the running back position. This is largely due to two things: 1) Whatever is left of ECU’s offensive profile is that it is a passing team that runs to keep you honest; 2) The ECU O-line has not been stable or even solid in the run blocking phase of the game. Yet, ECU has two talented backs that can present – with a solid O-line- different poisons for a defense. With Ahlers being a threat to hurt an opponent with his legs, this tandem of backs should have more room to run. A solid pair here who can have some success this season.

Offensive Tackles

Setting the Stage: Oh boy…if O-line Coach Steve Shankweiler has ever met a tall task, it will be this season with the O-line and particularly at tackle. One extremely good veteran and then a slew of potentially good, unknown, and so far…meh candidates to bracket the left and right sides of the OLine. Of course, there is JR D’Ante Smith, the 6-4, 295 pound top level left tackle leading the group. Good news…outstanding lineman, bad news…with a left-handed QB, the RT position becomes the backside protector and D’Ante plays on the left. Worse news…the RT position is up for grabs in a battle between a young guy with some experience, but not proven effectiveness yet in Matt Morgan (SO), followed by big frame, but lighter-than-you want JUCO Transfer Bailey Malovic (6-6, but only 260 pounds) and JR Jack Doyle, who has seen scant action so far in his career. That is a scary prospect heading into the season. Behind Smith at LT, is FR-RS Noah Henderson a former invited  walk-on who has shown a lot of potential but has no action to date.

Smith

With all of the OLine questions ECU faces, Left Tackle D’Ante Smith is not one of them. Stud, Leader.

Tipping the Scale: Left Tackle – check. Smith is the unquestioned starter at LT and rightly so…he is very good and will compete for all-league honors. Henderson, his back-up, would be hard-pressed to jump in should Smith go down. Fall will not change this order. Over at RT, it should be a fierce battle pitting all three named players against one another for Depth Chart positioning. It will likely come down to whomever has the best footwork as no doubt Ahlers will mostly open up with his back to the RT and whomever wins this will be the guy who can protect the franchise QB. Morgan has the most top division experience, but will have to show a ton of improvement over what was seen a year ago. That said, given where his competition sits currently, it is still likely Morgan’s position to lose. Keep an eye out also for Fernando Frye (SR) who played in the final six games of the 2018 season. Though he is not on the DC coming out of spring, he has experience and can play tackle or guard.

Likely Outcome: Your LT is Smith. Your RT is Morgan. It has to end this way if the Pirates are to compete this year. Otherwise it would be that one of our tackles, or both, would be first years with little experience and that never goes well for a team.

Group Think: The Pirates need to improve this position if the program ever hopes to do what they want offensively. The guys may be on the roster, but there is a lot of work to be done to elevate the group of bookends. Smith is the leader, but behind him is youth, inexperience and guys in need of making big steps fast.

Offensive Guards

Setting the Stage: There is a much better mix at the Guard position (compared to the Tackle position) but the rub here is how the Center position plays out. There are two veteran guards in the mix, some guys with game experience, and some young guys with strong potential. However, one of those veteran guards, Branden Pena (SR) is currently atop the DC at Center. The other Cortez Herrin (SR) brings consistent, high-level play to the LG position. Also in the battle for DC positioning will be high-potential, but low experience Sean Bailey (JR), JUCO bruiser Jordan Johnson (JR-TR), Donovan Noel (FR-RS) and Peyton Winstead (SO) has experience at guard as well. For competition purposes, I am going to assume that John Spellacy (JR) returns to compete at Center (see more on this below), thus opening the door for Pena or Winstead to move to guard.

HerrinCortezODU18RGa

Interior Wrecking Machine: Cortez Herrin has locked down the Left Guard position.

Tipping the Scale: At LG, Herrin is going to be awfully hard to dislodge from the top spot, particularly by a Henderson, an inexperienced player. Herrin was a lock-down LG and teemed well with D’Ante Smith to give the Pirates a real strength on the left side of the line. The tandem should be all-league caliber this year (barring injuries). Henderson couldn’t ask for a better situation to get spot play behind a vet who can help him adapt to game speed and situations. For sake of argument, it is very tempting slide Pena back out to the RG slot where he looked pretty solid as the starter in 2018 until a season-ending injury knocked him out of the line-up for the year. His size (6-2, 288) is a better fit in the middle and currently, Bailey’s progress has been so promising that the coaches are eager to slot Pena at center (pending Spellacy’s comeback results). If Bailey can lock down RG, his size (6-6, 328) is exactly what you want begin a rebuild on the right side of the line. Johnson is a bit of a wildcard, possessing great size too and ability to play Tackle or Center if needed. He didn’t get much action in 2018 mostly because he was a late add coming in from Garden City Community College as a JUCO Transfer. Then there is Winstead who has played guard and could be relocated to the position should he not push into the two-deep at center.

Likely Outcome: On the left side, it should turn out exactly as you would hope with Herrin retaining his starting position at LG backed up by any combination of players including Henderson or Winstead or Johnson or even Pena. If Pena is thrown back into the RG competition, it will be a battle to the end for top spot, but I get the sense this staff really wants to see Bailey win the job, so i am going to go that way with Bailey slotting at RG backed up by either Pena or Johnson (though I can see Johnson sliding out to RT for obvious reasons noted above).

Group Think: Even if Pena and Winstead stay at Center, the Guard room is pretty solid and distributed better than the Tackle room. Herrin (and Pena) are vets who can lead and there is very good realizable talent and potential for this staff to have solid player stacks on both sides. Still thinner than you want, but not one injury away from catastrophe.

Center

Setting the Stage: This could be the best of times or the worst of times really based on two guys. The conversation starts with John Spellacy (JR) and not only will he return (which it now looks like yes) but will he return at his previous level of play. Spellacy won the starting job as a true freshman and held it until an injury ended his sophomore season in 2018. He was a very capable starter who was growing into his position quite nicely. There was discussion that his football career had ended, but then word came down he was returning to active status. If he can return to the form he was at pre-injury, it would be an absolute game-changer at center and would have a ripple effect across all OL positions, changing the dynamics of each group. The second guy, is Winstead (SO) who is recovering from an injury that ended his season last year. Winstead came to ECU as a Center and it is the position he is best at. Having him in the fold creates more opportunity to shift others to other positions based on outcomes of the positional battle this fall. Currently Pena sits atop the DC where his size and starting experience made it an easy choice for the staff while the two aforementioned players made their way back to the roster. Also in the battle is Jaison Fournet (JR) who saw action last season at guard due to injuries to Spellacy and Winstead.

SpellacyJohnNCAT18RGb.jpg

Center John Spellacy’s return to the active roster could be a game-changer for the OL, Pirates.

Tipping the Scale: Experience matters at Center, particularly starting experience and that is what Spellacy brings back to the table following his return. If he is fully healed up and mentally ready to go, he has the starting experience that could give him a real edge in setting the DC for this position. Likewise, Winstead was progressing nicely until his injury stopped him and he is natural center. If the coaching staff wants to bolster the guard position, then then a Spellacy-Winstead battle could free the staff up to move Pena back to guard and let him fight with Bailey for the starting position. But then again, Pena impressed enough at center to now be in the discussion for starter’s dibs.

Likely Outcome: I think Spellacy retakes the No. 1 spot on the DC with Winstead OR Pena in the back-up role. Pena will not sit idle either way as he will see action where needed if he doesn’t win the RG positional battle.  It is a nice luxury to have, but the red flag of course is that injuries have seriously impacted this position over the past two seasons and that could be the key to very good play at Center vs. a liability in the middle.

Group Think: This is going to be a very interesting battle but one where the competitors really will help one another improve. Winstead is a guy you want in your positional group…perhaps one of the strongest ambassadors in the program who on one hand wants the No. 1 job, but on the other, wants to outright win it rather than be given the job because of his team first intangibles. Spellacy – young as he is – is already a seasoned veteran and Pena is a tough guy who also is battle-tested. This is a solid group with potential to be one of the better groups in the league (barring injuries of course).

Tight Ends

Setting the Stage: It wasn’t long ago when TE wasn’t really even part of the nomenclature at ECU. Sure, people referred to Bryce Williams as a TE, but he really wasn’t one…not in the classic sense, so from a program perspective, this is a position making a comeback. As such, the past couple of seasons have been about figuring out guys who could even fill in while the program tried to add some true TEs to the mix via recruiting. The previous staff really didn’t quite know how to use TEs and so this will mark the first season in awhile that a TE could impact the offense significantly. There is the SR in Anthony Whatley who showed some promise in his four starts a year ago. Behind him is potential but not much in regards to predictive output. Jaray Sampson (SR-TR) is currently 2nd on the DC, but has very little experience with the Pirates to date. And that leaves incoming JUCO Transfer Zech Byrd (SO) as the new kid in town to throw into the competition. And throw in true freshman Jeremy Lewis into the mix too, considering his prowess as a HS TE who generated more than 2,700 career receiving yards in HS. The TE position will be critical as Ahlers continues his growth as a QB.

Whatley

Tight End Anthony Whatley has all the tools to be a receiver/blocker threat for the Pirates.

Tipping the Scale: Whatley looked pretty good in his four starts, making at least one reception in each contest. He’s got good size at 6-3, 240 pounds and has good hands and can block like traditional TEs need to be able to do. He seems to have distance over Sampson in terms of performance and experience. The wild card is Byrd who at 6-7, 265 pounds is an intriguing prospect with tremendous upside potential. His JUCO was a run-heavy offense so he has experience in the blocking game, but wowed in HS as a receiver (enough so that ESPN rated him a 4-star prospect). Lewis has great hands, though as a true FR, he needs to bulk up if he is to stay at TE.

Likely Outcome: Whatley has too much experience and reliability not to at least start the season atop the depth chart. The real competition will be how quickly Byrd acclimates to the offense. If Byrd is anywhere near what expectations are, he will also see the field a lot this season. I would guess Whatley followed by Byrd and then Sampson/Lewis.

Group Think: The unit is still a work in progress. If Byrd comes in and is effective then the makings of a strong unit in the future are there only to improve as Houston recruits start to stream in.

Outside Receivers

Setting the Stage: Each season, it seems, the deepest talent pool at ECU on offense is at the receiver positions and this year, it is business as usual. The ORs break down into two primary outside positions – the “X” and the “Z” slots. Both groups have studs to choose from so the battles are less about who sees the field and who doesn’t but moreso about starting spots and game changing opportunities. If there is a veteran in the group – if a SO can be a vet – then it would be Blake Proehl (SO) who has fought through some injuries and is proven sure handed receiver who makes plays look routine. Tahj Deans (JR) has flashed big-play potential as has fellow JR Mydreon Vines and SO Leroy Henley. Andre Pegues (FR-RS) has been talked about as high potential while JR Johnathon Johnson brings size and deep-threat speed to the battles. And, keep an eye on true FR C.J. Johnson. Not only is he talented, he and current starting QB Ahlers were a record-setting pass-catch duo in high school and have an already built-in rapport.

ProehlBlakeNCAT18RGd

Blake Proehl is primed for a breakout season from the outside receiver position this year.

Tipping the Scale: At X, Proehl brings too much talent and football IQ for me to see anyone knocking him out of the starting spot. Deans will get his reps and will thrive with those he gets and Peagues will also see opportunities. At Z, the coaches are very high on Henley who showed flashes of real, real talent last season. Vines is solid and I really think there is a chance for C.J. Johnson to find a spot on the DC. The hope might be for Jonathon Johnson to have a break out season ala Cam Worthy years back because Johnson has the size at 6-3 and sprinter speed to really do deep damage if he can pull it all together.

Group Think: When you have a room full of talented players, chances are they will be a strong group for the team. With Proehl and Deans in leadership roles, it is hare to imagine divisiveness in the form of selfishness surfacing in this group. The primary reason being that the pipeline over the years has proven that if you trust the process and work, you will earn you day atop the DC.

Inside Receivers

Setting the Stage:  AKA, the “H” position, like the OR position, the IR position is stocked with proven talent and potential talent. SR Deondre Farrier took a big step during the changeover in coaching staffs not particularly on the field where he has always demonstrated start potential, but moreso in terms of leadership and focus on team. He was rewarded by Coach Houston with an invite to the AAC Media Days as a player Representative and anyone who has heard his interviews this season, since a very different player – one who has emerged and who also feels the need for everything to finally fall into place in his final season. Redshirt Freshman Tyler Snead shocked the Pirate Nation last season using his four opportunities to literally make play after play after play. The diminutive receiver (5-7, 166) simply knows how to get open and make difficult catches. True freshman Jsi Hatfield (an early enrollee) was nothing short of impressive in the spring practices serving notice that he expects to play this fall as well. Redshirt FR Maceo Donald (who also got into four games last season) rounds out the field for the position.

Farrier

If Deondre Farrier has indeed got it all together for his SR year, he will be a special one to watch.

Tipping the Scale: Snead was shockingly efficient in his sneak preview debut in four games last season recording 15 catches in four games including 4 TDs and if you watched those TDs, they were impressive catches. The guys is talented in a secret sauces sort of way. The question is was this a preview to consistent output or a catch fire moment only. Either way, he is going to get plenty of opportunities because of what he has already shown. Alternatively, Farrier sounds like a guy who has figured it all out and is poised to have a special season. The two will get the dominate share of snaps. Donald and Hatfield will get their chances to contribute as well, though ideally Hatfield will only see the field in four games or less to retain his RS.

Likely Outcome: I’m hopeful that Farrier wins out because it will me that he is locked in and a locked in guy with his talent could be a special one. So, I go with Farrier winning it in the fall, but Snead chomping at his heels all season. Snead just has that something special which you can explain but sure are glad he is in you colors.

Group Think: The maturation of Farrier and the play of Snead are a great start to setting the tone for the future of this position group. Coach Fontel Mines seems to be a players coach and has solid talent to work with to ensure that from a pass catching perspective, the QBs can truly spread the ball around all 5 pass receiving position groups.

So, friends, there you have my swing at the offensive fall camp battles heading into August. I will post a defensive focused post next.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the positional battles, information about players that may have changed, insights, speculation, best guesses. Anything to help the time pass as we all look forward to the first season of the Mike Houston era kicks off.

Cheers all and Go Pirates!

 

 

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