ECU football experienced some unexpected turnover along its offensive line during the off-season. While center Branden Pena had exhausted his eligibility after 2019, the Pirates were in position to return a veteran group that had been part of ECU’s program for a number of years.

D’Ante Smith and Cortez Herrin would anchor the left side of the line, while Matt Morgan and Sean Bailey would protect quarterback Holton Ahlers’ right side. John Spellacy and Fernando Frye would hold down the center position.

Not long into the off-season, however, Herrin was suspended and later removed from the roster, Morgan left the program and Spellacy was forced to hang up his cleats after suffering the latest in a long list of concussions on the football field.

Those losses took a big chunk out of the Pirates’ experience up front and prompted head coach Mike Houston and his staff to bring in two in-state transfers in Avery Jones from UNC and Justin Chase from NC State. Frye was awarded an additional year by the NCAA and Nishad Strother is expected to provide depth at both guard and tackle positions.

“Fernando Frye, he’s working at center,” Houston said. “Avery Jones has been working at left guard. Justin Chase has been working at right tackle. I’ve been fairly pleased with the way those guys have come along. I think Nishad Strother, that’s a guy that has played both guard and tackle. We’ve been repping him at right guard and at left tackle. Bailey and D’Ante, they return with a little bit of experience there at those two spots, but we’ve been repping Nishad a little bit all over the place.”

Strother, who experienced action in two games last year and redshirted as a true freshman, is being used as depth should the Pirates lose one or multiple offensive linemen to injury or COVID-19 contact tracing at some point during the 2020 season.

Already, ECU has struggled keeping offensive linemen on the field during the preseason due to contact tracing efforts. For that reason, Houston said earlier this week that all linemen are learning every position should players need to be shifted in-season.

Not mentioned by Houston on Friday, but someone who figures to also be a contributor up front for ECU in 2020 is sophomore Noah Henderson. The 6’5”, 338-pound Henderson played in 11 of 12 games last season and started the final four at right tackle in relief of Morgan.

Guys like Peyton Winstead, Jaison Fournet, Trent Holler and Bailey Malovic also make up some of the returning depth Houston has at his disposal for the upcoming year.

“Trent Holler has been taking a lot of reps at center behind Fernando and then Sean Bailey is competing with Nishad there at right guard,” Houston said. “A lot of competition right there. I think we’re better, I think we’re improved from where we were a year ago.”

Houston referenced Saturday’s scrimmage as an important moment for his offensive line to showcase their ability in live game action. While you likely know what you’re getting in Smith, Bailey and Frye as they have all taken significant snaps as Pirates, putting the new transfers and some of the younger guys through their paces will be vital in their growth and preparedness for the upcoming season.

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