Running the football was a big part of what ECU tried to do offensively in 2019 in the first year of Mike Houston’s tenure as head coach. By the time the Pirates’ 4-8 season came to an end, they had rushed the ball almost as many times (449) as they chose to pass (451).

Of course, the second half of the 2019 campaign saw the offense figure something out through the air, with quarterback Holton Ahlers finishing the season with four consecutive 300-yard passing games. That run included a program-best 535-yard performance against Cincinnati, followed up by a 498-yard effort a week later against SMU.

With that success carrying them to near upsets against back-to-back nationally ranked opponents, Houston, who has found success with run-heavy schemes at other schools in the past, recognizes the weapons ECU possesses offensively heading into 2020.

“We are very talented at the receiver position, we’re very talented at the quarterback position,” Houston told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Monday. “We’re going to be able to throw the football very effectively. If we can run the ball the way we want to, then I think we have a chance to be pretty explosive offensively. You want balance, but you obviously have to take advantage of the weapons that you have. I really like what we have offensively coming into the season.”

Those weapons include perhaps one of the best underclassmen wide receiver duos in the American Athletic Conference in Tyler Snead and C.J. Johnson. Both freshmen last year, that pair combined for 120 receptions, 1,667 yards and nine touchdowns through the air.

In a supporting role, then-sophomore Blake Proehl caught 54 balls and ended the season third on the roster with 670 yards.

One of the defining characteristics of ECU’s offensive resurgence in the latter half of 2019 was its deep-play capability. The trio of Snead, Johnson and Proehl all eclipsed 11.5 yards per catch last season, with C.J. topping the group with 16.81 yards per reception. That number ranked 58th in the country while Johnson’s 10 catches 20-plus yards downfield ranked second among all freshmen pass-catchers.

With 908 yards under his belt in his initial year on campus, the sky is the limit for another budding Pirate wide receiver.

“I would hope that he could build on last year,” Houston said of Johnson. “I think that C.J. has an opportunity to be a special player. He has an opportunity to go down as one of the better receivers in the history of this program. What he did last year is what he did last year. Hopefully he can build on that and live up to his potential. I think he’s got a shot to be one of the best receivers in this league this year.”

From last year’s offensive outbursts, ECU will no doubt take some things under consideration when drawing up game plans for this season. Johnson and Ahlers both share a connection dating back to their time as teammates at D.H. Conley High School in Greenville, North Carolina and were afforded the opportunity of getting some reps in during ECU’s voluntary workouts earlier this month.

Even while Snead, Johnson, Proehl and others form one of the best receiving corps in the AAC, Houston is not going to let that hold much sway over his decision-making process.

“You want to be able to do what you want to be able to do,” Houston said. “You want to be able to run the ball when you want to run it, you want to be able to throw the ball when you want to throw it. A lot of that is predicated on how people are going to defend us.”

Taking what the other team gives you and capitalizing on it is the mark of any good football team. With the addition of Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden to a running back room that already includes Demetrius Mauney and Darius Pinnix, the Pirates will not be lacking in the ability to ground and pound opposing teams.

Opening up the running game will only make the passing game harder to defend for opposing defenses and should allow Johnson, Snead and company to have big years once again.

Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Mike Houston that first aired on 94.3 The Game on Monday below:

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