ECU football’s Mike Houston said Thursday at the AAC’s virtual media day that the 2022 squad is the most experienced he’s had in his four years as the Pirates’ coach.
“You just really feel like, for the first time, you have great stability,” he said. “… And it’s always good when you return your quarterback.”
His quarterback is fifth-year starter and 10,000-yard passer Holton Ahlers. ECU also returns the league’s top running back in Keaton Mitchell, who became the Pirates’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2013 as a freshman last season, and classmate Rahjai Harris, who averaged almost 50 yards per game in his first year. ECU also added UNC transfer Kamarro Edmonds, a four-star recruit out of Havelock who redshirted with the Tar Heels last season.
Team-leading receiver Tyler Snead has moved on, signing with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent, and junior C.J. Johnson is still listed on the roster despite being suspended in spring for “not living up to the standards we set for our program,” according to Houston. The rest of the receiving corps is mostly first- and second-year players.
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“We do have some young guys who played some last year that’ll be in the rotation again this year but we felt like we needed some older additions,” Houston said Thursday.
He’s filled that gap in experience with a pair of transfers, one of them from the reigning BCS champion Georgia Bulldogs.
Toledo transfer Isaiah Winstead joins Jarett Garner from Duke and Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson with the Pirates this season, adding skill and maturity to ECU’s offense.
“When you start looking at those guys in addition to what else we have coming back, we feel good about our receiving corps,” Houston said.
Winstead (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) ranked second on the team with 38 catches for 520 yards last season at Toledo, with a season high of 108 yards in an overtime loss at Central Michigan.
While battling injuries at Duke, Garner (6-3, 210) played in 29 games with 23 catches for 393 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He comes to the Pirates along with outside receivers coach Re’quan Boyette, who was on Duke’s staff for a decade.
Johnson (6-2, 192), a walk-on who fought his way into Georgia’s lineup, played in 14 of the Bulldogs’ 15 games last season.
With two years of eligibility remaining, he has a lot of upside. And with ECU’s strong running game bound to take pressure off of Ahlers in the pocket, Johnson is poised to add another dimension to the Pirates’ offense.
Playing for college football’s top squad last season, Johnson held a key role on special teams, playing in all but one game and snagging three receptions totaling 29 yards as a backup receiver, including a 21-yard catch against Clemson.
But the grit he’s shown in playing his way up from walk-on status says a lot about Johnson’s work ethic and heart.
Johnson and Winstead have spent the offseason building bonds with the Pirates.
“It’s always important to have chemistry with your receivers,” Ahlers said Thursday. “We’ve got some new guys coming in that are going to play big roles for us. They’ve played a lot of snaps in college football.
“During the offseason, you just try to work on timing, anticipation. Just get a feel for where they like the ball. Do they like it on the back shoulder? Do they like to catch it on the run? Just little things like that.”
ECU football picked to finish 6th in AAC
ECU was picked to finish in sixth place in the AAC’s preseason rankings, released Thursday. Houston was No. 1 with 243 points even though No. 2 Cincinnati beat the Cougars in first-place votes 10-7.
UCF also received seven first-place votes to rank third, with SMU fourth and Memphis fifth.
Those top three teams – Houston, Cincinnati and UCF – are leaving the AAC for the Big 12 next season.
ECU had the league’s fourth-ranked offense last year, going 7-5 overall for the program’s first winning season since 2014, and 5-3 in conference to finish tied for third place in the AAC.
Ahlers threw for 3,135 yards with 18 touchdowns and a 61.8 completion percentage while running for 204 yards and six TDs.
The Pirates’ defense ranked sixth in the AAC, allowing an average of 394.8 total yards per game.
With so much talent returning to Greenville, Houston is optimistic about his team, which opens the 2022 season against NC State on Sept. 3.
“I expect us to look like a really good football team, Day 1,” Houston said.
“We expect to be playing at a pretty high level right out of the gate.”
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: ECU football bolstered by transfers and experience