Mike Houston’s second recruiting class as ECU’s top man is signaling a shift in philosophy along the defensive line. Under Scottie Montgomery, the Pirates opted for smaller, quicker and more athletic defensive tackles that would be adept at running down a ball carrier or quarterback.

With Houston in charge, the era of big, strong, physical defensive linemen is coming back to Pirate Nation in abundance.

After losing all four starters along the defensive line over the off-season, Houston and his staff invested heavily in that position group and currently have north of 15 defensive linemen on their roster, according to the online version. Early in the preseason, new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell installed his multiple scheme through walk-throughs and team film sessions, but only recently has the Pirates’ defense got to practice it at full-speed.

A week into camp, Houston’s feedback on the young position group has been a mixed bag of positive plays and big busts as the inexperience has shone through in spots. Nevertheless, Houston has expressed excitement in the group and loves the sheer size that is now present up front.

“It’s going to take a little while with them, but at the same time, we saw some huge positives from some players,” Houston said after practice on Wednesday. “I’m hesitant to brag on young kids too much too early, because most of the time as soon as you pat them on the butt, they go the other direction. I think just the size of some of those guys — Xavier McIver, Jason Shuford — they’re large human beings. (Jason) Romero has a great motor and has a lot of toughness. Elijah Morris, young kid from Fayetteville, has been really, really solid here early on. All that you’ve got to kind of take in perspective because there’s a big difference between a third- and fourth-year guy and a first-year guy. I still really like that group.”

While the Pirates do have a sprinkling of experience along their defensive line with some returning upperclassmen, JUCO players and an Appalachian State transfer in Chris Willis, it remains a group that will be green in 2020. Still, it is now a group that possesses the size Houston wants up front and that is needed in order to compete in the American Athletic Conference.

McIver, Shuford and J’Vian McCray all register at over 300 pounds with Morris not far behind at 283. That quartet of players is made up entirely of freshmen who figure to play an important role in the depth of the Pirates’ defensive line in 2020 and beyond.

Just to put into perspective how Houston has transformed the look of ECU’s defense up front, the main four starters for the Pirates last year in Kendall Futrell, Jalen Price, Alex Turner and Chance Purvis did not have a single 300-pounder.

While the Pirates have gotten bigger up front, that does not mean Houston and his staff sacrificed athleticism. For the most part, this crop of defensive linemen move well and should be around for the next handful of years to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

“I talked to them last night (Wednesday) — just them,” Houston said. “I think they’re going to be really good and I think you’ll look up two and three years from now and you’ll just say — ‘wow, what a solid group.’ We’ve got to grow up and develop them, but we do really like the group.”

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