East Carolina’s bowl hopes for the 2020 season hinges upon an offense directed by quarterback Holton Ahlers and one of the AAC’s top receiving corps. The defense only returns five starters where they struggled would be considered an understatement. Postseason play is in sight and potentially a dark horse run as a contender to be the champion of the American. Head coach Mike Houston will want to show some improvement on defense to compliment their high-octane offense.
Offense revolves around Ahlers
After the bye week last year, the Pirates rang up nearly 500 yards per game over the final six contests. Ahlers completed 59.7 percent of his passes with 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns with six more on the ground.
On the ground Ahlers will run, but he shouldn’t be the team’s second-best rushing option. Speedy sophomore Demetrius Mauney – who led the team with 446 yards and a score – joins the 234-pound Darius Pinnix and Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden to give the Pirates a dangerous group to take the heat off the passing game.
The receiving corps was young and needed the work, and now five of the top six pass catchers are back, starting with the duo of sophomores C.J. Johnson and Tyler Snead, and junior Blake Proehl. These three combined for 174 catches and 13 touchdowns and they should be ready to blow up.
Defense can only get better
The defense needs to show substantial improvement from last year. Blake Harrell comes in from Kennesaw State to try getting something out of the nation’s 119th-best defense. The pass defense was bad, the run defense worse, and overall the unit allowed 469 yards and 34 points per game. It all starts with getting more out of the defensive front.
At linebacker, the experienced Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens lead the way, but this unit suffered a setback in the summer with Gerard Stringer ruled out for 2020 due to injury. The secondary has solid pieces in place. Freshman All-American corner Ja’Quan McMillian is the real deal, and safety Davondre Robinson is a seasoned vet. Alabama transfer Nigel Knott is also in the mix after announcing his intention to transfer to East Carolina in May. There is a pack of Pirates pushing behind them.
This unit blocked two punts and returned a kickoff for a score, but they’re under new management in assistant Byron Thweatt. Senior Jake Verity is back after hitting 24-of-29 field-goal attempts and all 33 PATs. Punter Jonn Young and his 40.6-yard average are back, too.
The offense is good enough to get the Pirates over .500 for the first time in six years, particularly with Ahlers and Johnson making plays. If things come together on the defensive side who knows what can happen.
The Pirates will open up against UCF on Sept. 26th. The team had hoped they would have played before then but due to the coronavirus pandemic, their game against Marshall was postponed.
This team has the potential to make a sneaky run at the American Conference title with their offensive prowess. Looking at the schedule, I see a team that should have a chance to finish over .500 and if they can surprise UCF, the sky is the limit for this squad.