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Headlines I’d Love to See this Season; Fantasies, Nightmares, and Realities

If the college football season gives any fan a guarantee, it is this: For most of August, all of our teams are UNDEFEATED…unblemished by the sadness and humiliation of a defeat.

It is the time each year where you can really let loose your handle on reality for your team. You can deny all the things your pragmatic self tells you and dream a bit…or a lot.

Such has been my existence over the last few weeks…bordering on letting my mind go a little. So here is what I call the, “Pure Fantasy, Pure Nightmare, Likely Reality” blog post for the preseason speculating on a trio of scenarios for a few topics.

So here we go.

HEADLINE: “Ahlers Running Less, Throwing More, Completing Most”

Ahlers running the ball
Ahlers was very good at this in ’18…but needs to improve his completion consistency in ’19.

What 2018 showed us: SO QB Holton Ahlers definitely is a talent who displayed has a true “Beast Mode” – see UNC game – that included along the way, some games where he passed the ball pretty well. More than that, he demonstrated a slew of intangibles including understanding how to lead and pick up his intensity when needed. But then there is that awful 48.3% pass completion rate which translates to losses if you are ECU. Hard to get past that number. First ECU QB in awhile south of 50%.

Pure Fantasy: Coach Mike Houston’s offensive system, taught to Ahlers via Coach Donnie K yields an accurate, controlled passing offense that spreads the ball around. This in combination of the game “slowing down” for the young QB and Ahlers pushes his completion % into the mid 60th+ percentile. His running becomes strategic, not workshouse-like and the Pirates return to the dangerous offense that fans are accustomed to watching in DFS. Offense pushes up to 450 yards per game in a 60-40 split between pass game and run game and hello! Wins follow and losses are tight.

Pure Nightmare: The numbers be what the numbers be because the player is a runner not a passer in college. The college game sorts QBs quickly and high school numbers become contextualized super fast. That 48.3% completion percentage really jumps out, particularly against the backdrop of the cadre of previous ECU QBs.  Ahlers can’t push that completion percentage up to the mid-50s in the new system. Reduced to a rusher and keep ’em honest only passer and team lacks ability to be two-dimensional and coaches must consider multi-QB approach again in 2019. As the old football adage goes, paraphrase here, “if your playing two quarterbacks, its because you don’t have one.” One meaning, a good one. If this happens, well then, 3 wins is our daisy.

Likely Reality: Ahlers has the toolkit, he does. I’m thinking he takes a big step forward this season in a highly-managed (think Donnie K holding the reigns of a thoroughbred) passing game, full of what Lincoln Riley always called the routine catches. In 2019, the completion mark moves closer to 60% than 48% with his running ability and his competitiveness, that would be more than enough to stabilize a once proud offense at ECU. Consider Pinkney took us to the promised land with a completion rate of 61.4% (120 plus pass efficiency). Hoping for a Sophomore Surge, hoping against a Sophomore Slump, but expecting a significant Sophomore Step forward. Ahlers can begin an assault on the ECU record books as a junior.

HEADLINE: “ECU Seeing More Jersey Fronts, than Jersey Backs”

state scores on ecu
Far too often, the Pirates Defense sees opponents completing plays against them.

What 2018 showed us: A defensive unit that finished the season 101st (that’s out of 129 teams) in the country. A unit that gave up 439.8 yards per game and allowed nearly 5 TDs a game – that’s not total points, that is just good ol’ 6-pointers. And scary as it seems, this was a DRASTICALLY better campaign for the defense compared to the 2017 campaign where the Pirates finished dead last in the country. We also saw a unit on the field way too often (thanks O) and one that lacked the fundamentals as well as preparedness.

Pure Fantasy: Coach Bob Trott has some secret sauce that uncorked in the spring and has transformed the unit into a Top-25 caliber run-stopping, pass-denying group of disciplined, assignment-sound, tackling machines. The result, a drastic improvement nationally, say +70 spots. Opponents know they were in a dogfight when the game is over win or lose. We witness that it was not a talent and depth issue but truly a horrible coaching job by the former staff combined with an offense not able to give the group a break or two in the game. And the unit can impact the scoreboard not just protect it.

Pure Nightmare: We are what we are and we there ain’t much good Xs, Os, and one off-season can do to make up for the talent, depth, and old fashioned know how. Having veterans back doesn’t mean much if those veterans have never played on a unit to better than 101st in total D in a season. Despite the efforts of a capable coaching staff, the Pirates players just can’t get any better…they topped out and a bunch of new and inexperienced young guys play all season getting marginally better (if not beat up) in hopes that defense can emerge in 2-3 seasons. The pain of more double-digit losses particularly early in the season switches the kids from bought-in to checked-out mentally and the wheel keeps turning as is.

Likely Reality: The ECU defensive staff re-installs discipline, assignment-sound, and fundamentally sound habits to the unit. Meaning that guys know where to be, how to read, what to do, and won’t get beat without a fight. This should translate into a team that looks like it knows what to do and has a plan to execute. Expecting that the Defense will not set the world on fire but with an above average offense in place, should be able to make each game competitive. May still be a year or two away talent-wise, but discipline and strong fundamentals combined with guys who compete can close talent gaps at times. The unit becomes able to hold its own. Maybe a move to more around the 68-72 area of the country in total defense and we control bad to maybe a little better than good and hope our offense can outshoot teams who out-talent our defense.

HEADLINE: “Pirate D Sees Football, Wants Football, Takes Football”

Gore pass breakup
So close here, but consistently – sadly for ECU – the ball ends up with the bad guys.

What 2018 showed us: A continuing trend of lack of ability to cause turnovers. The defense managed to force just 11 turnovers (6 FRs, 5 INTs). There are a lot of facets to forcing turnovers, you know, pass rush, tackling, positioning, and well, er, trying maybe? There is no secret to why our defense has sucked at generating turnovers: The previous coaching staff didn’t teach it, didn’t preach it, and didn’t set the unit up to create turnovers even if the kids had been taught or nurtured into it. Consider that Coach Mo’s teams produced 11 turnovers in 2018, 11 (4 FRs, 7 INTs) in 2017, and a whopping 8 (3 FRs, 5 INTs) in 2016. Juxtapose that with Skip Holtz’s last squad at ECU in 2009 who produced 34 TOs – yep that if four more than all of those produced in Coach Mo’s tenure. Good news is that this is thing that is coachable and quick to remedy if the players buy in.

Pure Fantasy: If nothing else (and there are lots of other strong qualities to talk about), DC Bob Trott has a legacy of teams that force turnovers, something his JMU units did quite well. Trott teaches and preaches and the light bulb goes off for this unit and they become ball hawks of all varieties, demolishing any memory of the past three years en route to generatng 2-3 TOs a game along with a defensive score now and again. The TO Margin shoots up along with it and the offense sees short fields on the quick change and like most teams who have a + TO margin, the Pirates see that in the resulting scores. Ball hawking D translates to opportunistic O and Bada Bing! Joy again in Mudd…errrr…Greenville.

Pure Nightmare: It doesn’t take…just doesn’t take. Say what? The kids don’t get it, can’t get it and the trend stays cemented into the psyche of the team. Once again, the D can do little more in terms of taking the ball away than they have for the last three seasons, meaning less than a turnover per game. The result, lopsided losses mount. Defense remains an afterthought of an Offense that must be perfect to win games.

Likely Reality: Honestly…this is an area I think we see monumental change…a flip of the script if you will. Look the D can’t do much about whether or not the offense protects the ball, but they can do a lot about taking the ball away. Trott is a master at teaching this and reinforcing it into the culture. The team rips, strips, and picks the ball at any opportunity there is and the the INTs and FRs should mount for this defense – if in no other way than compared to the dismal numbers of recent. I would expect to see more like 2+ takeaways a game on average from this unit this season.

HEADLINE: “ECU Learns Life is Good when More is…well…More”

snead td v uconn
Snead was a welcome surprise at the end of the season adding another to a strong group.

What 2018 showed us: Having a dominant WR doesn’t necessarily do much more for a team but give the fans something to follow when the team overall ain’t so good. Learned this also in 2017. Trevon Brown was a dominant receiver cracking the 1,000 yard mark for the second time in as many seasons. Zay Jones two years removed…same thing and broke a national record. Problem is, the teams were just not good and less was NOT more for the Pirates where less means, fewer weapons used. A pass-catching posse is more valuable than an awe-inspiring hero in the passing game IMO.

Pure Fantasy: Ahlers channels Shane Carden’s senior season in 2014 and spreads the ball all across his talent. Yes, Justin Hardy was the “it guy” but man, there was also guys like Cam Worthy, Zay, Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams, Bryce Williams, and yes, a young guy named Trevon all getting their big bites out of Carden’s 4700+ passing yards. So, Ahlers decides to attack by committee to what could be a very talented group of receivers (tight ends and backs inclusive). The numbers allow for high completion rates and Ahlers runs become back-breakers for opponents. Defenses can’t double for fear of being picked to pieces and the Pirates air attack reverts to its once deadly position in college football as a whole.

Pure Nightmare: The perceived talent in the vaunted ECU receiver pipeline has actually dried up. Till this season, there has always been an easy to detect NEXT STAR UP in the ECU receiver pipeline and hence, the torch was easily passed and every QB knew if all else fails, eye up your hero. Seriously…Dwayne Harris gave way to Justin Hardy who gave way to Zay Jones who gave way to Jimmy Williams who gave way to Trevon Brown. Each time the next guy had a great coming out the season before. This time…not so evident. Deondre Farrier is not a lock for consistent go-to status. Blake Proehl hasn’t been healthy, Tahj Deans is not on the team any longer. Tyler Snead may have it but just got here. Mydreon Vines has shown flashes, so maybe. Leroy Henley…perhaps. Nightmare scenario…none of them find consistency and we have a collection of “Meh” rather than “Wow!” As a result…it is a sequel season of Run, Holton…run!

Likely Reality: I am really excited about this receiving crew and Coach Kirkpatrick knows how to make receivers and utilize them schematically. Likely result is that these receivers will get open and be open and will catch the routine pass. If Ahlers can make the routine throws, the passing game should flourish and the offense should be reliable. Of course, one or two of the receivers may emerge as big-play guys, but that is to be expected in a talented group. Expect to see a better passing attack with a variety of weapons doing the damage.

HEADLINE: “ECU Runs Over…Anybody [insert opponent here]”

8 man sled
John Madden gave a great case on HBO’s Hard Knocks series for why any team that wants to be successful better have their OL hitting the eight-man sled…ECU are you listening?

What 2018 showed us: When you are a passing offense that suddenly can’t pass, well then your already non-existent running game ain’t going to do much for you. Yes, Ahlers rushing numbers were great. Oh wait, he was the QB. He lead all rushers. We were bad not just last season but for awhile. In the past – save the Skip Holtz tenure – the running game when it was good was designed to feed off the passing game. Guys like Breon Allen and Vintavious Cooper were dangerous because they could hit the hole quick and hurt teams on their heels due to our passing attack. Then we shifted our recruiting to bring in more between the tackles guys but didn’t improve, well, between the tackles for the run game.

Pure Fantasy: OL Coach Steve Shankweiler gurus the shit out of it and somehow converts the offensive line unit into some badass downhill blockers who can also do the pass blocking dance. As he is preaching, even a pass block now begins with pushing the DL back first. Like that. Dream sequence is that Darius Pinnix – a power back who can catch the ball too – has room to run between the tackles. Pinnix on a safety or a corner is a big win every time. Pirates are able to run to pass allowing the defense ample time to ready up between drives. Control the clock and ease up or apply the air game gas as needed. Test opponents depth by pounding week spots. We become that team that opponents really just don’t want to compete with even if they have more talent.

Pure Nightmare: Shank can’t get the OL ready quick enough to spark even a semblance of a running game. We are one-dimensional for a QB who we don’t need having to carry the team with his legs but we DO need him to have some of the pressure taken off of him by a running game. Teams load up, we lose, and we don’t get better in the process.

Likely Reality: IMO, the offensive line position is the hardest position on the team to not only learn but execute at a high-level consistently. What these young men have to be able to do – many of which while carrying about 30-50 pounds of non-natural weight on their bodies – is incredible to understand and fathom. A very good offensive line can elevate a moderately talented running back or quarterback to a day 1 pick in the NFL draft. A sub par OL costs you games and ends dreams for skill players. The running game will take a step forward this season, meaning that it will be reliable in some situations, but will not likely carry its weight in a balanced attack. Coach Houston and his staff simply need to bring in more players built for their scheme. That said, the guys in the front line right now do have potential to be a solid line. Hoping that the Pirates have an 8-man sled and are using it a lot because the success of this line this season, IMO, relies on chemistry ahead of talent and each guy doing his thing in coordination.

HEADLINE: “Dowdy-Ficklen Full and Letting Opponents Know It”

empty dowdy ficklen
Not what most of us recall life being like inside of Dowdy-Ficklen.

What 2018 showed us: If you destroy it, no one will come. Thank you Jeff.

Pure Fantasy: Ticket sales continue to rise and the Pirates show enough success on the field that momentum builds through the season and into the off-season where the ECU ticket returns to being a one worth the price.

Pure Nightmare: Success comes too slow and the momentary bump in interest brought on by the new coaching staff wanes fast and negativity returns with a heavier anchor, emptying out the stadium even more than 2018.

Likely Reality: While I personally like the home schedule because it gives the Pirates a chance to win at home (I see all but one of the games as a potentially winnable for us), it is not the type of home slate that will pull in the fringe fans or general college football wonks. That said, I think the interest is currently trending up and since winning is more fun than losing (and more important now than ever), there is a chance that attendance rises throughout the season if the Pirates take care of business on the field.

HEADLINE: “Pirates Beat N.C. State”

td big man ncstate
N.C. State found several ways to rub salt in last season, like this OL rushing TD to go along with a linebacker returning a kick and calling time out to try to ice the game ending FG.

What 2018 showed us: The Pirates were a rudder-less, beaten up team mailing it in against a in-state team that has struggled to beat us in the recent past and came ready to exorcise years of anguish at the hands of ECU.

Pure Fantasy: The Pirates have righted course and not only win in Raleigh but beat down the Wolfpack.

Pure Nightmare: The Pirates get handed another lopsided loss and all buy-in to the new system is put on shaky ground with a whole season to go.

Likely Reality: A juiced up Pirates team puts on a more than respectable game with a team that, at least defensively, is probably better than us right now. Outcome more likely to go their way, but either way, the game is winnable if not won by the time the clock shows 0:00.

Would love to hear your dream / nightmare scenarios for any face of this year’s program. State game can’t get here soon enough for me!

Go Pirates!

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