They got No. 4!
The Pirates’ win against hapless UConn wasn’t a blowout…was even a big step back in level of play from its previous two outings in narrow losses to Top 25 teams, but it was as important a win in ECU football program history as any.
By winning its 4th game, the team can mentally discard the baggage of three-straight three-win seasons and look to cap the season with a win over a beatable Tulsa club who visits for the finale this weekend.
It will be a tough game, but to come out 5-7 on the season with a two-game win-streak, will represent a major improvement and a chance to finally start looking up the ladder rather than at it.
Tougher than that challenge, though, may be winning the recruiting battles that loom over the next two weeks plus for ECU.
Pirate beat writer Stephen Igoe has a very insightful piece over on Hoist the Colours about this very critical and timely topic, and how Coach Mike Houston and his staff come through the next few weeks will help spell whether or not the coach continues his successful program building career here at ECU. In the piece, the coach indicates that he and his staff know that they must not waiver in their intensity over the last few weeks before the December 15th signing day if they are to land this promising group in whole.
While it may not seem like a big deal, the fact that Houston has pulled together a commitment list that is deemed the 53rd best in the country and more importantly, the 2nd best in the AAC, it is no small accomplishment. And, of course, many a slip ‘twixt cup and a lip often unfortunately does occur, this staff’s ability to keep these kids committed to this point is monumental for the program.
It demonstrates that the staff can identify, connect with, and keep talent interested in the Pirates program, despite a team that will again punch out with a losing record for the 5th season in a row. No doubt, hard work and skill has gone into pulling this commitment class together, but I suspect there is more at play here.
This may have started in earnest two years ago.
If ever anyone needed an understanding of how teams can become really good, really quickly and start to flip high-level recruits at a school that is NOT a name brand, perennial winner, look no further than current starting QB Holton Ahlers’ path to ECU and more importantly, his impact on recruiting since he came aboard the ship.
Ahlers held offers from the likes of Georgia and Florida, current AAC East Champions Cincinnati, and N.C. State among a host of others. But, he committed to ECU – the local kid whose father works for the university and a childhood spent gazing into the Pirates athletics program. He was vocal about his desire to play at ECU with no misgivings about the chances of success at the struggling program.
From the jump, Ahlers (and others in the class like Peyton Winstead) went about the business of talking up their team and working on recruits who had not yet committed to the 2018 class, but had shown interest in ECU. They were very, very vocal and their messages weren’t just about football, but about ECU in general and the friendships that they, themselves had formed on the recruiting trail.
And, for Ahlers, down the stretch to signing day, other powerhouse programs came calling – just like what some of the kids in this year’s class are experiencing. Imagine, a high school football player telling Alabama Coach Nick Saban, “hey, thanks for the interest, but I’m sticking with ECU.” But that is effectively what Ahlers’ did when ‘Bama showed interest late in the run-up to his signing with the Pirates.
Ahlers is that special turning point player. He chose ECU not because it was the best offer he had at the time, but because he wanted to be here and so much so, he wanted others to be here too. What is the impact? Well, for example, it probably isn’t a stretch to think Ahlers had an impact on luring C.J. Johnson to the Pirates. Another player with a lot of options. Johnson basically turned down the ACC – all of them frankly – to join Ahlers, his high school QB the year prior.
There is a cascading affect when you get a high-profile player who loves his school thoroughly. In Ahlers, he had the pedigree to get people to listen and now, he has the numbers as a true Sophomore, to validate his decision-making and his call to arms. The Pirates are on the climb.
In order to keep this class together for the home stretch, they need more Ahlers cheerleading on the team and I think they have it. Starting with Ahlers freshman class through Johnson’s to this class with kids like Mason Garcia and Teagan Wilk (gotta tout the PA kid since mine is on his journey in the keystone state – class of 2023) taking to social media to let the world – and their classmates know – that ECU is their team now is probably the biggest asset in keeping the group together. Troll through their Twitter accounts and you see ECU everywhere…would look silly not to sign now.
It comes down to personalities. Ahlers was more interested in making a team great rather than jumping on the coattails of an already great team. Johnson as well. That level of self-confidence and desire to drive the car rather than hopping in the open seat is special and what is needed right now if Houston is to land this class and deliver on a rebuild. Take Garcia, for example. Not saying he won’t bail at the last second, but he seems to be ready to get to Greenville. He is a highly-touted QB committed to a team that has a firmly entrenched young starter in Ahlers. Garcia’s self-confidence is critical to ensuring that the team can plan for the future now.
The two-deep is packed with young players and this talented class has to see that there is a chance to play early if they follow-through with their commitments. They also have to see that Houston is on to something, building it quickly, based on how this team is trending (defensive growing pains aside).
If the balance of the commitment class shares the same mindset and enthusiasm of Wilk and Garcia, the Pirates not only will maintain most of this class, but should flourish going forward as the team puts more Ws on the ledger.
Here’s the current class list. We will know soon enough (December 15th) if it will be a good Christmas in Pirate Land.