Pirates motivation in place for spring football
East Carolina Share

Pirates motivation in place for spring football

New ECU coach Mike Houston understands sting felt from NC State embarrassment

Photo: Mike Houston

My News & Observer story

By Tom Shanahan

An early task first-year coaches contemplate is identifying a rally cry that bonds players and coaches new to each other, but East Carolina’s Mike Houston took over with that check-list item gift-wrapped.

The final chapter to ECU’s 3-9 football season that created the job opening was N.C. State whipping the Pirates 58-3. The Wolfpack added insult to injury, handing the ball to center Garrett Bradbury for a 1-yard a late touchdown run. If that wasn’t enough salt in the wound, guard Terronne Prescod grabbed the ball and booted it into the stands.

Not that ECU needs added motivation to face N.C. State, but Houston soon learned the sting still burns upon fielding his first question from fans in February at the Pirate Club Suite in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“Will you have the team ready for Aug. 31?”

“Absolutely,” Houston said. “We are enthusiastically looking forward to playing N.C. State in Raleigh on Aug. 31.”
It’s not often a new coach rapid-fire lists the opponent, location and date.

With ECU's spring ball opening Friday, here are five things to watch for between now and the spring game on April 13.

ECU was 3-9 in each of the past three seasons under Scottie Montgomery (although Montgomery was fired before the ninth loss in 2018). In American Athletic Conference play, Montgomery’s teams finished 4-20.

Houston, 47, turned around losing programs at Lenoir-Rhyne University and The Citadel in addition to lifting James Madison University to another level. His JMU teams were 37-6 in three seasons with back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision title game trips, winning the 2016 crown and settling for runner-up in 2017.

“We’re going to get East Carolina back to where it belongs playing for AAC championships and bowl games,” Houston said that February evening.

Sophomore Holton Ahlers doesn’t have to earn the job. He enters spring drills firmly ranked atop the depth chart.

In Ahlers’ first career start at midseason, the dual-threat QB rung up 475 total yards while flirting with scaring UCF. ECU trailed 23-10 as he drove the Pirates 98 yards to the 1-yard line. But one play from a TD making it 23-17 with 10 minutes to play, Ahlers’ third-down fumble was returned for a touchdown. UCF took a 30-10 lead en route to a 37-10 victory.

The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder’s total yards broke down to 406 passing and 69 rushing. The next three games he totaled 556 (449/57) against Memphis; 427 (360/67), Tulane; and 372, Connecticut (242/130).

But ECU notched only one victory, the UConn game, due to Ahlers running for his life behind an injury-plagued offensive line, dropped passes and a minus-11 turnover ratio.

Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick runs a similar spread offense, but he wants a reliable run game. The experience of Ahlers and redshirt junior Reid Herring, the Millbrook High alum that started the first half of the season, helps.


The NCAA granted a bonus to rebuilding the offensive line with a fifth-year medical redshirt for starting guard Branden Pena. He started four games before a season-ending injury. Thus, the only position without a player that has started is right tackle. Matt Morgan backed up graduate student Garrett McGhin.

At center, John Spellacy started six until a concussion ended his season and possibly his career. True freshman Peyton Winstead of Leesville Road High finished the season.

Seniors De’Ante Smith and Cortez Herrin are back at left tackle and left guard after starting all 12 games.


The Pirates are hoping for another favorable fifth-year NCAA ruling regarding a defensive end Nate Harvey (6-1, 225), the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He led the nation in tackles for a loss (25.1/2.1 per game) and finishing third in sacks per game (1.2).

Houston and defensive coordinator Bob Trott use a similar 4-2-5 scheme, meaning Harvey can rejoin three other returning senior starters up front, defensive end Kendall Futrell (6-2, 230), nose tackle Alex Turner (6-2, 293) and defensive tackle Jalen Price (6-2, 297).


Houston’s first recruiting class includes two junior college linemen brought in to play right away. Three-star offensive lineman Bailey Malovic (6-7, 290) and defensive tackle Hozey Haji-Badri (6-3, 270) are both enrolled early for spring ball.

Among the 20 high school recruits, six are enrolled early for spring drills: DB Alex Angus, QB Bryan Gagg, WR Jsi Hatfield, DB Ja’Quan McMillan, Athlete Juan Powell and PK Patrick Nations.

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.



Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.






David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."

Click here for the link to order from August Publications


Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."