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Five spring practice questions for the ECU Pirates

ECU has the pieces to make a run.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at South Florida Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

ECU enters the third year of the Mike Houston era, and so far have a 7-14 record to show for it. This spring becomes even more important, but there’s plenty of excitement on the roster. There are some battles that we’ll watch, but the steps that certain players take will be more important this spring. Expectations should be raised in Year 3, and it will be exciting to see what this team can do.

Can Holton Ahlers find consistency?

535.

498.

449.

Those are Holton Ahlers’ career highs for passing yards in a game. His best came against a Cincinnati Bearcats secondary that will put multiple players in the NFL in the next couple years. Ahlers has passed for over 350 yards seven times in his career, showing fans the ceiling of his potential. Unfortunately, he also has just as many games under 200 yards passing. In the other two games against Cincinnati, Ahlers finished 17-for-42 (40.4%) for 271 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions. The roller coaster gives fans hope, but also provides disappointment. We might not see consistency during the spring, it’s something that should be addressed by the coaching staff. We know the peaks he can reach, but they valleys he can hit can hold back the Pirates offense too.

Who replaces D’Ante Smith?

Even though Smith wasn’t protecting Holton Ahlers’ blindside, he was still the best lineman on ECU’s depth chart. Now he’s off to the NFL, and the Pirates need to fill his spot. It would be surprising if they moved Justin Chase from right tackle to left, so that could mean Walter Stribling or Bailey Malovic could be the frontrunners. It won’t be easy replacing a talent like Smith, but Mike Houston’s staff must find someone who can be reliable to protect the edge.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 07 Tulane at East Carolina
Wilson is one of the athletic players that can help ECU’s defense improve.

Is the defense ready to break out?

ECU and good defense haven’t gone together in a while, but Mike Houston’s hoping this group changes that trend. The Pirates defense returns a lot of intriguing pieces to their defense. This is a group that just needs to play more fundamentally sound, because they talent is there to make plays. Malik Fleming and Ja’Quan McMillian can be great corners and take away the passing game. The defensive line gets Rick D’Abreu, Damir Faison, Immanuel Hickman, and D’Angelo McKinnie back, but the real stars are at linebacker. Bruce Bivens, Xavier Smith, and Jireh Wilson (who’s now listed as a safety) all brought great athleticism to the linebacker position, and can be some of the best in the conference. They provide the leadership that can bring this group to the next level, and ECU’s a scary team if they can get more stops.

What should we expect from Mike Houston in Year 3?

First is a better defense. The talent on that side of the ball should play much better now that they’re experienced. Just like Tulsa did in 2020, ECU could be the team that surprises us all in 2021. If Ahlers can take a step forward, and the defense improves to even just being average, the Pirates can make a run at eight wins. If those two things don’t happen, another losing season could be in store, and then we shift the conversation to Houston’s seat heating up. Luckily, the trajectory is upward.

Will CJ Johnson bounce back?

This isn’t a knock on Johnson, but his production took a dip in terms of total numbers last year. In 2019, he caught 54 passes for 908 yards (16.8 ypc) and four touchdowns. Last year, he only caught 19 passes for 405 yards. The good thing is that he average 21.3 yards per catch and caught six touchdowns, so a “bounce back” could mean a monster year. With Blake Proehl gone, Johnson and Tyler Snead are in store for big seasons.