East Carolina University football has a promising young roster full of talent and a proven head football coach, but there are still a few small adjustments that need to be made to get back to where Pirate football once was.
There are three stages of fan grief that dictate a college football program’s image and sometimes success. The first, ECU experienced over the second half of former head coach Scottie Montgomery’s tenure where fans just want to see the coach go. This first stage is dangerous.
In 2016 when Montgomery’s Pirate team scraped by North Carolina State University 33-30, many Wolfpack fans were calling for the firing of NC State head coach Dave Dorian. After the 2016 season, Dorian led the Wolfpack to two straight 9-4 seasons in 2017 and 2018. The 2017 Wolfpack season ended with a 52-31 victory over Arizona State University in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. There is no bowl victory had Dorian’s fate been left up to the fans.
With the second stage, Pirate football dealt with in the final years of former head coach Ruffin McNeill’s tenure where the thought of most fans is that it’s not the coaches fault entirely, but the roster isn’t up to par. This happens when an experienced roster graduates a group of seniors that fronted most of the team’s production when on the field like when McNeill lost former ECU quarterback Shane Carden and former Pirate wide receiver Justin Hardy.
After losing one of the greatest duos in ECU football history, McNeill still led the Pirates to a 5-7 season in 2015 that could have easily been an eight win season as the Pirates lost three games by one score or less. Still, McNeill was fired at the end of the 2015 season and the Pirates have yet to recover as a result.
Currently, ECU football and Pirate fans are or should at least be convinced by someone watching from the outside that they’re experiencing the third stage of fan grief. The third stage ultimately, is delusion with a splash of pickiness. Fans in the third stage should be complaining of minor issues with scheme or personnel after losses like Saturday’s season opener against the University of Central Florida (UCF).
As it stands right now, ECU football has a proven head coach with championship pedigree and a roster that is full of all-conference talent at nearly every position. There are no problems with current head coach Mike Houston or the talent on his squad’s roster. The problems are with just a few of his and his staff’s choices as the head coach of the Pirates.
To start, running back by committee doesn’t work. The zone blocking scheme that offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s offense put on display against UCF requires a running back that can find whatever hole is available. Every running back that played against the Knights on Saturday appeared to have a fair understanding of that as the zone blocking scheme is something that has seeped into even high school football over the last few years.
The problem with Houston and Kirkpatrick’s running back by committee approach arises when the fourth running back to take the field for the Pirates in a single drive has no rhythm or understanding of how the opposing team’s front seven is approaching the lateral blocks from ECU’s offensive line.
There are cheaters on every defense and playing one or just two backs as opposed to three or four can be a huge advantage. More consistency at the running back position allows for the back to read how the defense is approaching the blocks up front and after a few carries, intuitively hit the right holes and break out to the second level wherever defenders have been guessing holes.
The same way ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers might recognize a safety cheating shallow or left or right in coverage, a back that gets to see the field more can approach the defense appropriately and have more success running the football.
Pirate running backs fumbled three times against UCF and lost two of them. Sometimes, this is evidence of over use, but clearly it’s not about over use for the Pirates as the ECU running backs group saw 13, 12, nine and eight carries go to the four different running backs that played Saturday. They didn’t fumble because they were tired, they fumbled because they haven’t seen any consistency in their touches. Football feels foreign to them.
Next, Ahlers is being pressured too much and it’s killing the passing game. Some of this could be fixed by leaving junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. in the backfield to help protect Ahlers from blitzing linebackers and stunting pass rushers. This one is simple, play Pinnix. He’s six feet tall and 224 pounds, he can take most defenders head on and give Ahlers plenty of time to get the ball out.
Third, stop forcing Ahlers to roll out right. He’s left handed, this is basic stuff. On Ahlers’ lone interception of the day, the play call was a designed rollout to the right. That’s great if he’s right handed, but he’s not and asking Ahlers to roll out to the right is asking him to throw across his body. That’s the first thing they tell you not to do when you pick up a football.
Saturday wasn’t the only time a designed rollout took Ahlers to the wrong side of the field, it happened all year last year and it looks like Pirate fans are going to see a lot more of it.
This ECU football team is incredibly talented as is the coaching staff leading it, but it all has to come together if the Pirates are going to win any games this season. Pick one running back so the run game has an identity and can grow and learn. Give Ahlers an extra blocker from time to time, especially on the deep throws downfield and don’t forget that he’s left handed.
Improvement and success will come around for Pirate football over the next few weeks, fans just have to remember that the biggest problems right now are not world-ending and can be fixed over a few film sessions between coaches and players.