Mike Houston loves running the football and maintaining balance within his offense. In his first year in Greenville, North Carolina, the Pirates attempted to strike that balance and largely came […]
Mike Houston loves running the football and maintaining balance within his offense. In his first year in Greenville, North Carolina, the Pirates attempted to strike that balance and largely came up short.
On two occasions last year, ECU rushed for over 200 yards as a team, with both of those coming against FCS opponents in Gardner-Webb and William & Mary. Overall, ECU found 1,696 net yards on the ground in 2019 on 449 attempts, a number that shakes out to just 3.8 yards per carry.
Demetrius Mauney paced the Pirates with 446 yards, while quarterback Holton Ahlers and Darius Pinnix finished second and third on the team with 359 and 289 yards, respectively. Sensing the need to upgrade the running back room, Houston and his coaching staff went out and pulled in two impact backs from the prep level in Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris. To complement that duo, Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden was brought in to offer some much-needed experience and leadership.
“You look at the room as a whole, there’s a lot of competition going on there,” Houston said earlier this week. “Very pleased with the young backs, Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris. They’ve been very solid everyday. Certainly Mauney and Pinnix and Hayden all have experience, some of them a little bit more than others. I think they’re all different, but they all give us something a little bit different in the run game and in the pass game. Very pleased with them. Trace Christian is competing, got a couple of other guys, but a room that was very, very thin last year all of a sudden has a tremendous amount of depth.”
At the end of July, the Pirates began conducting full-speed practices for the first time since last year as the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated spring practices and the annual spring game in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. After a week of various levels of padded practice, Houston and his team held a 94-play scrimmage on Saturday to simulate live game action with officials present.
While the day was good in a lot of ways, Houston said he will use the film to evaluate his running backs for something he believes separates solid backs from truly great ones.
“That’s the most extended live contact session that we’ve had so far during fall camp,” Houston said. “The key really is — for a running back is — there’s going to be ‘X’ number of yards that are just there because of how the o-line and tight ends and receivers, how they block everything up. The key to a great running back is, what does he do after contact, what yardage does he get after what was already there. An average running back is just going to get the yardage that’s there, and that’s all they’re going to do. I think that’s a big evaluation piece.”
During the scrimmage, ECU ran 46 rush plays and, much like they did at every other position, rotated all their running backs through. With Hayden, the Pirates are getting a solid all-around back with three years of experience playing in the country’s top college football conference, while the guys behind him have contributed heavily to past ECU teams.
At 5’10” and 210 pounds, Hayden has the ability to shed blockers and run them over if necessary. Both Pinnix and Harris, who are listed at north of 220 pounds, will likely serve as the Pirates’ power backs on third down and goal line situations.
Nevertheless, Houston is far from committing to who will take the first hand-off out of ECU’s backfield when the 2020 season gets underway.
“Certainly we have some guys that run with some power,” Houston said. “I think that we have a lot of depth in that room, and I think that we have a tremendous amount of competition. This is a deal right now where I couldn’t sit here and tell you who’s going to be the starter game one. I think there are a lot of candidates. I think some of the guys that people assume may be, well I wouldn’t count some of those other guys out either. I think very much what I said earlier last week — I feel very, very good about that room five-deep and I think there was a lot of competition out there today (Saturday).