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It’s the Trenches Dummy! Easy to ID Needs, Hard to Find & Build Talent

Every year, it seems, in the run up to the ECU football season, fans will engage in conversations asking, “will the Pirates finally compete?” or “Will ECU have a winning season?”

There is usually no shortage of big names to be enamored with each season and when you have a quarterback like Holton Ahlers and a receiver like C.J. Johnson, it is hard not to envision the scoreboard in DFS lighting up like a pinball machine. They are two legitimate top talents. Throw in a group of talented receivers like Blake Proehl and Tyler Snead along with emerging monster tight end Zech Byrd and there you have it…an annual conversation about ECU’s potential.

Smith is the premiere offensive lineman for the Pirates.

There is a quicker albeit less enjoyable discussion that will give you an idea of how the Pirates will do in any given season. You have to check the Offensive and Defensive lines. It’s all about the trenches and at ECU, if you want to understand why we had 3 straight 3 win seasons before Coach Mike Houston was able to up that by a single win in 2019, you can skip the ScottieMo conversation and look at the Pirates in the trenches. Ugly.

I’ll write posts in the near future about other position groups, but today, I’m taking the short path and I am honestly, having a hard time figuring out how we win four again this season.

Lets assume that our new Defensive Coordinator somehow makes the Pirates a strong defensive unit (not 2008/2009 strong, but drastically improved). That might make for close games, but you have to be able to score points and while we definitely have skilled skill players, the state of the Offensive Line is, well, it’s not very promising.

Of the 20 offensive linemen on the ECU roster, half have virtually ZERO experience…nada. Of the remaining 10 on the roster, several more – while promising – have scant collegiate experience. That leaves, really, a handful of truly experienced players and of that group, there are some serious questions that must be answered if ECU is to have even a competitive starting 5.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Insufficient recruiting to start with. In the 2016-2020 recruiting classes only 21 Offensive Linemen were signed, including 6 transfers. The most important, arguably, position on the offense brought in the same number that were signed to play receiver, despite the attrition rates on the OL being higher and more impactful than that of receiver, which is notable IMO.

Add to this that retention has been a problem. Consider that of the 20 OLs on the current roster, just 11 were recruited, signed, and offered a scholarship to play for the Pirates. Along the way, the roster saw the other recruited OLs evaporate for various reasons: Quit football, retired from the game, arrested/dismissed, transfer and early graduation among the reasons.

I have had a variety of football coaches explain to me that if you can get 2 years out of an offensive line recruit, the scholarship money was very well spent. To prepare an OL for the rigors of the college game takes that RS season plus two more before you get return on the investment so losing so many makes it an easy calculation in terms of predicting success regardless of who you have running, throwing, and catching the ball.

You can see a shift under Coach Mike Houston. While he only signed 4 prepsters, he also inked 2 transfers in the 2020 class. And, equally telling, he brought in a whopping 6 defensive tackles in the 2020 class. He is properly focused on rebuilding in the trenches. But, he has been here one season and has only one class on his ledger. If he is still shaking the transfer portal, I sincerely hope it is to find a few more OLs.

What to Expect

My expectations are very low for this season based solely on the OL. Coach Steve Shankweiler has a job that no one would envy in regards to having to build a line that can allow the skill guys to light up that scoreboard. Consider this. If the season started today (and remember, there was no spring and there is likely to be a truncated fall camp) the OL would look something like this:

  • Right Tackle: Noah Henderson (back up: Bailey Malovic)
  • Right Guard: Sean Bailey (back up: Jaison Fournet)
  • Center: Peyton Winstead (back up: Trent Holler)
  • Left Guard: Fernando Frye (back up: Jaison Fournet)
  • Left Tackle: D’Ante Smith (back-up: Justin Chase)

Ok, so there is some name recognition there and some veteran experience, but man, it is a stitch job, at least on paper. Consider what the two-deep would look like had ECU not been fortunate to receive not one, but two NCAA extra year designations (one medical hardship waiver and another extension waiver). Without that (which is never a sure thing), this line would not have its only elite lineman in Smith but it would also be sans Frye.

It is not pretty. And worse, there is scant little depth.

Ok, for sure, Smith is a stud at Left Tackle and could be an all-AAC player with NFL potential. He is the only lineman that is a bonafide, you-know-what-you-got player. Frye is a scrapper and hard worker who took the starting job in 2019 as a fill in and then would not give it up, starting the last 8 games. He is a guy who can hold his own.

Then, things trail off quickly with a lot of open questions that will determine if this OL can even be solid or average. For example, Winstead had a tremendous freshman season, where injuries saw him tossed into the starting center job where he showed glimpses of future multi-year starter. But, it came at a cost…lost seasons of development and injuries. His injuries resulted in a RS season in 2019. Yes, he is expected to win the job at center because of that prior experience, but that was two years ago followed by rehab. While he may be a lock to be the center, what level of play will it come with?

Bailey started 8 of 9 games last season before injuries shut him down but before last season, he had very little game experience. Will the injury step him backwards this season?

Finally, there’s Noah Henderson, a RS SO, who played in all but one game in 2019, starting the last 4. He is a high-potential lineman, but young and consequently, has the job of ensuring that Ahler’s doesn’t get beat up from the blindside. Potential indeed, but a stretch to expect him to be a seasoned vet come fall. Has he improved a lot in the off-season? Can he be a solid right tackle?

More scary than what you have read to this point is that the experience cliff after these five players is as steep as it can get. As in, almost zero. And before you say, “hey, we just got a pair of stud transfer OLs…,” I’m just going to have to stop you right there. Ok, Chase comes in as a Graduate Transfer from N.C. State with 1 year of eligibility remaining. Yes, you expect a graduate transfer to be on the depth chart if you are going to bring him. However, Chase has played in only 2 games while at N.C. State. Kind of scratching my head on this one.

As for Avery Jones – a former 4-star prepster – his upside is undeniable and he will have 3 seasons to become that stud OL. And, yes, if he gets a waiver to play immediately, he has potential that would at least give reason to think he could help at guard, but also remember that he has all of 1 game of collegiate experience…yes, 1…against powerhouse Mercer.

From my perspective, this unit needed a spring camp more than any in recent years. I can’t see anything beyond a miracle that leads me to believe we will, one, be able to run the ball down anyone’s throat, regardless of having a healthy Darrius Pinnix and a new-comer smasher in former Razorback Chase Hayden or, two, afford Ahlers the time needed for him to put on an air show week in and week out. I just can’t see it based on what we have on the roster.

A very good Offensive Line can make a marginal RB look like a Heisman contender. Unfortunately, a sub-par or thin OL can reduce bonafide star caliber skill players to unproductive, non-notables.

I am worried about this group…I can’t see the talent and more importantly depth there. The starting 5 has potential to be good, but given the injury history across the group, it is not likely that they will make it through the season much less having to take almost all of the snaps given lack of experience behind them. The ray of hope here is that college offensive linemen and their effectiveness is more a result of training and coaching once they arrive at the college than it is about projected talent (an interesting article here). So, Coach Shank can make an impact on the outcome for this group providing the players have been putting in the work in the weight and film rooms respectively.

Please tell me I am wrong on this.

Seeking feedback to ease my concerns!

Go Pirates.

2 comments on “It’s the Trenches Dummy! Easy to ID Needs, Hard to Find & Build Talent

  1. Thanks for the dose of reality Ron. Kind of a bummer, but you’re dead on about where our fortunes will live or die….at the line. Coach Houston has his work cut out for him. I remain eternally optimistic that we will get back to the promised land. There is still something very special about ECU, and “I believe” (as we use to say during the magical ‘91 season) that we’ll turn the corner soon. We sure couldn’t ask for a better leader than the one we have now. Let’s keep the faith.

    Let’s go Pirates!!! Arghhhhhhhhh!!!!!

    Btw Ron -The Joneses have recently moved out of Lincoln. We went to three seasons of Huskers’ games. They’re my Big10 team now. Great town though. I still commit to traveling to Omaha when the Pirates finally make the tourney. They were 2 outs away from it a couple years ago. Be good my friend.

    • I’m with you on Coach Houston…he will get it done for sure. And, gonna hold you to Omaha…Robb as well, when it happens. Best to you and the family.

      Go Pirates!

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