Mike Houston likes to run the football. Everywhere he has been in his coaching career, gaudy rushing numbers have accompanied him.

At The Citadel, Houston had their option offense humming, churning out well over 4,000 rushing yards in 2015. A year later, Houston was at the helm of a James Madison squad that produced 4,125 net rushing yards en route to a FCS Championship.

That year, the Dukes were led on the ground by a three-headed monster in Khalid Abdullah, Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp. Abdullah paced that group with over 1,800 yards, while Johnson and Sharp each eclipsed 615 yards as JMU averaged 275 rushing yards per game.

With his running back room, Houston loves to have depth, and when that is present, it usually means success is not too far behind. In his second year at ECU, the veteran head coach is looking to recreate that three-headed monster from his days at JMU.

“Ideally you want three (running backs to rotate),” Houston said. “You look back to ‘16, we ran for 4,000 yards or something like that. We two 1,000-yard rushers and another kid that ran for like 900. You’d like to have that three-headed monster where you have guys that you keep fresh right there, that’s ideal. I think we got the opportunity to possibly have that this year.”

Last year, the Pirates did not have anything to write home about regarding their rushing efforts. As a team, they averaged less than four yards per carry, and were left mixing and matching after Darius Pinnix Jr. went down with an injury early in the season.

With Pinnix on the shelf, the door opened for freshman Demetrius Mauney to lead the team with 446 rushing yards as no Pirate eclipsed the 500-yard mark in 2019. Trace Christian perhaps performed the best of any ECU running back last season, averaging 4.2 yards per touch, but was handed the ball only 64 times.

Needing to bolster the room heading into the 2020 campaign, Houston and his staff brought in transfer Chase Hayden from Arkansas and impact recruits Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris from the prep ranks. That added depth, along with ECU’s returners in the running back room, have continuously impressed the coaching staff during preseason practice.

“I think our running back room, you just have a tremendous amount of competition,” Houston said. “If one guy has a bad day, I promise you somebody else is going to have a great day. It’s made it to where you got to bring it every single day in that room, because if you don’t bring it, you’re going to stick out or not stick out while others do.”

In comments made earlier in the preseason, Houston said he views the running back room as five-deep. Hayden, Mauney, Pinnix, Mitchell and Harris have all rotated reps during the Pirates’ scrimmages, while Christian also figures to remain an important factor in ECU’s ground attack.

Embedded in that depth are different run styles that will allow the Pirates to throw competing looks against opposing defenses. Mitchell possesses some of the best speed on ECU’s roster, while Pinnix and Harris are physical backs with the ability to run defenders over. Hayden and Mauney are closer to all-purpose backs, with Chase bringing the experience of playing in the SEC with him to Greenville, North Carolina.

With a nice mix of skill-sets in the room, the Pirates seemingly have the foundations of a multi-headed ground attack under Houston. Still, 2020 will likely be a year of growth for a young team that will lean heavily on the left arm of quarterback Holton Ahlers as the running backs work to find their way.

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