On Friday, the NCAA Board of Directors approved an extra year of eligibility for all fall sport student-athletes. Geared toward providing relief for those players that have had their seasons canceled or pushed back to the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also takes the pressure of student-athletes to play in the face of the virus if they do not feel completely comfortable to do so.

While two Power 5 and two Group of 5 conferences have elected to not play sports this fall, six FBS level leagues are pushing forward with plans to have activities this fall, including football. The American Athletic Conference is one of those leagues, meaning all signs point toward ECU football kicking off three weeks from today.

When and if the Pirates do begin their season on Sept. 12 against Marshall in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, they will be able to take advantage of the NCAA Board of Directors’ decision and play a 10-game season without it counting against a single player’s eligibility.

For a team that has added some notable graduate transfers over the last two years and has one of the best young cores at the offensive skill positions, that only means good things.

Graduate Transfers

The Pirates currently have five players distinguished as graduate students on their roster. One — wide receiver Audie Omotosho from UCLA — came to Greenville, North Carolina last season after dealing with some injuries as a Bruin. After using one of his two years of remaining eligibility last season, Omotosho figures to see increased usage in 2020 while retaining his final year for a potential 2021 return.

Offensive lineman Fernanado Frye will be entering his third season with the Pirates in 2020 after transfering from Mercyhurst University. Frye appeared in all 12 games last season, largely filling in for Cortez Herrin at left guard. He did get a start at right guard in the last game of the season, and has been taking reps at center during preseason practice.

With the granting of an extension waiver during the off-season, Frye perhaps benefits the most from this situation. This year will technically be his sixth with a collegiate program, but if he elects to return in 2021, he will have completed seven campaigns on a football roster.

That spells good news for the Pirates who will likely use Frye at multiple positions along the offensive line this year and beyond as he has proved to be a more than serviceable lineman.

During the off-season, the Pirates made it a priority to fill some holes on their roster with graduate transfers from big-name schools. While those players do not tend to have collegiate statistics to back them up, many were highly touted prep prospects at some point.

The trio of Justin Chase, Chris Willis and Nigel Knott were brought in to compete for starting jobs right away at their various positions and generally upgrade the rooms they joined.

Chase, who has one season of eligibility left beyond this season, has been seeing reps at right tackle, while sophomore transfer from UNC Avery Jones has been playing at left guard.

Both Willis and Knott bring experience to an otherwise inexperienced ECU defense. Willis will likely get a shot at major playing time along the Pirates’ defensive line, while Knott is competing for a starting cornerback position.

Willis came to ECU with only one year of eligibility remaining, but could turn that into two by returning season. Knott has two more seasons on the books, and potentially three with the NCAA’s ruling.

While ECU could still be described as a team that is rebuilding, that may not be the case in two or three years. With the NCAA’s decision on Friday, the Pirates’ resurgence could be sped up if the aforementioned graduate transfers take advantage of their extra year and stick in Greenville.

Offense

An offense that ranked 46th in the country last season in total offense with 430.2 yards per game is returning 90.9% of its yardage for 2020. That number puts ECU inside the top-ten nationally and in a position to take a big jump forward.

What makes ECU’s offense so dangerous is the fact that all the skill players have multiple years of eligibility remaining. Even before the NCAA gifted everyone another season if they choose to take it, the quarterback/receiver combination of Holton Ahlers, C.J. Johnson, Blake Proehl and Tyler Snead had at least two more years together.

That, of course, bumps up to three seasons now, with the aforementioned Omotosho set to provide depth into 2021. As a sophomore last season, Ahlers finished 21st in the country with 3,387 passing yards while making Johnson a top-55 wide-out in the country at 908 receiving yards.

Of course, Ahlers and Johnson came to ECU having already built up a rapport as teammates at D.H. Conley High School. With Johnson having just completed his true freshman campaign, he has the chance to be a Pirate for four additional campaigns, giving him a fantastic opportunity to knock on the door of ECU’s receiving records.

Ahlers has the same opportunity in the passing department and could approach 4,500 yards passing with a hot start to the 2020 season.

In the backfield for ECU, Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden joined the program this off-season with two years of eligibility remaining. His main competition for a starting job, Darius Pinnix Jr. and Trace Christian, also have two years left, with the option for a third should they choose that route.

With under four yards per carry as a team last season, running the football will be a big point of emphasis for head coach Mike Houston this year, and he seems to have the talent available to field a productive attack in 2020.

Offensive line is another group that could stay together for the foreseeable future for the Pirates. Jones could have up to four years of eligibility remaining while D’Ante Smith, Sean Bailey, Chase and Frye will have the 2020 season together and possibly 2021 if they all elect to return.

Behind them, the quartet of Trent Holler, Noah Henderson, Bailey Malovic and Nishad Strother all have at least three years of eligibility remaining if they take full advantage of the NCAA’s ruling.

While the NCAA not counting 2020 as a season of eligibility will no doubt benefit those players primed to see the field a lot, it will also help those that would have been redshirted. In previous comments, Houston said he would like tor redshirt freshman quarterback Mason Garcia this season to fully capitalize on his time with the program.

Now, Garcia’s potential redshirt — as well as the others ECU’s coaching staff was planning on handing out — become unnecessary, meaning those players can participate in more than four games in 2020 and not lose any eligibility.

That will be huge for the progression of some younger players, but finding the right opportunity for them to get that experience still remains a challenge for coaching staffs.

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