ECU football: Pirates prepared for new-look team, new-look conference

The college football season is a little more than one month away but the juices were flowing during Tuesday’s annual American Athletic Conference football media day in Arlington, Texas.
East Carolina football coach Mike Houston began his eight-minute question-and-answer session with a familiar opening, and shared a positive outlook for the upcoming season.
“How’s everybody doing?” Houston bellowed. “This time of the year everybody’s ramping up and getting excited. Summer workouts are done and everybody’s ready for preseason camp. Everybody’s writing their stories and making their projections and predictions and talking about the opener and it’s just an exciting time of the year.”
The Pirates will open their season at noon on Sept. 2 in Ann Arbor, Mich. against Michigan, a team that has national championship aspirations.
ECU was picked to finish sixth in the new-look league’s preseason poll. Six new teams are entering the conference and three have left. So this rings extra true: Don’t put too much stock into these polls. Just last year, the AAC conference champion Tulane was picked to finish seventh in the preseason after adding 10 wins to the 2021 win total.
Tulane received 20 of a possible 34 first-place votes to finish with 457 points in the poll, while UTSA, the 2022 Conference USA champion, was second at 440 points. The Roadrunners are among the six new members of the conference.
SMU was picked third, followed by Memphis and Florida Atlantic in the top five. ECU was sixth, with North Texas (7th), UAB (8th), Navy (9th), Temple (10th), Tulsa (11th), Rice (12th), South Florida (13th) and Charlotte (14th) rounding out the conference.
Expected to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, Houston knows that much of that projection comes from having lost most of last season’s offensive production to either graduation or the NFL draft.
“I know there’s a lot of documentation about who is in the NFL and who we lost last year and I’ve heard a lot of that this summer,” Houston said. “But I’m really excited about who we have returning. A lot of players have been waiting their time. A lot of players have been doing it out there and now they’re thrust into a bigger role. But as we stand here today, I’m as excited about the program and this season as I ever have been. So we’re ready to get started.”
Houston took three questions from the media following his opening statement. He was asked if he would reveal the players he expected to have impactful seasons and Houston first pointed to the running backs room, then noted a couple receivers and the experienced defensive line.
Tailback Rahjai Harris is returning from a knee injury that ended his season a year ago, and sophomore Marlon Gunn Jr., who saw significant time as a freshman, is back as well. Receiver Jaylen Johnson is the top returner from a position group that lost a pair of 1,000-yard pass catchers in C.J. Johnson and Isaiah Winstead.
The defense has more familiar names with Julius Wood and Teagan Wilk returning at safety, along with a defensive line that is returning just about everyone.
Houston was then asked about the quarterback situation and how the Pirates expect to replace longtime starter Holton Ahlers.
Heading into preseason camp, Mason Garcia and Alex Flinn are competing for the starting job. Houston’s response hints that Garcia might have the inside track to winning the job as the ECU coach highlighted Garcia’s potential, but the decision has not been made and both players have a shot.
“The positive thing is Mason and Alex have both been in the same room with Holton this entire time,” Houston said. “Those guys have been there at practice getting the reps and getting the same looks, but the thing you can’t replace is the game experience.
“Both those guys are inexperienced when it comes to college snaps, but they have worked very hard this offseason to prepare and they are playing as well as they ever have. Mason’s ability and the ceiling for him is pretty high and we’re all excited to see him this year and see what he does with that. But it’s going to take those same things that Holton went through my first couple years. Mason has to go through those things. … But still there’s no replacing experience.”
Tight end Shane Calhoun, one of the few offensive pieces returning, will be a safety net in the passing game for one of those quarterbacks this season. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound junior had a career high in receptions (25) and yards (202) last season and scored two receiving touchdowns.
Calhoun is expecting to have more of a prominent role in the passing game and is looking forward to a productive year.
“I’m not gonna say too much right now, but I’m expecting to step up and take more of a prominent role in this offense on this team,” he said. “In the past, I’ve been more of a lead-by-example guy. I feel like this is my chance to really step up and be that person going forward.”
But even Calhoun didn’t reveal any inside information regarding who the next quarterback will be.
Alex Flinn and Mason Garcia, they’re both great quarterbacks,” Calhoun said. “It’s going to be a challenge going to camp to see who’s going to be the guy. But we’re excited about both of them and whoever it is, we will be ready for him.”

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