Continuity is one of the most important aspects of a team sport. Having experienced personnel that plays well together can make the difference between winning and losing. For ECU’s offensive line early in the season, continuity has been one of the most glaring issues.

Just two games into the season, the Pirates have started two different players at left tackle, left guard and right guard. Nishad Strother, who has started both games, found himself filling in at left tackle for D’Ante Smith after getting the nod at right guard against UCF.

Sean Bailey made the opposite transition, shifting from left guard to right guard between games, as UNC transfer Avery Jones made his first collegiate start at left guard last week.

“Nishad Strother has played three different positions in two weeks,” head coach Mike Houston said. “Just a normal person may say going from right guard to right tackle to left tackle is not a big deal. Still, it’s different and there’s different things, there’s working with a different guy. I think there’s some of that, I think there’s Avery Jones making his first college start. We didn’t play well together. I think that’s the big thing I saw.”

Fernando Frye, who jumped from the guard position to center during the off-season, and Bailey Malovic, who made his first career start against UCF, are the only two ECU offensive linemen to start at the same position in back-to-back weeks. With Noah Henderson still progressing back from an injury, and D’Ante Smith’s status up in the air for Saturday, the Pirates will likely continue leaning on more young and inexperienced players up front.

Against Georgia State, no combination of personnel seemed to work as the Pirates yielded four sacks and amassed just 50 yards on the ground.

“You had small mistakes that were causing us to get beat, when if we take the right footwork or we work better together…you don’t get beat,” Houston said. “I think there is a continuity factor, I think there is a youth factor. You don’t have D’Ante and Noah right now. That’s two or your most experienced linemen, and so you brought in guys that have not been together as much.

“Was there some of a player here or there getting beat one-on-one? Yeah, it happened a couple of times. The bigger problem was just the mistakes that I would attribute to either continuity or just familiarity with the position they were playing last Saturday.”

Sidelined with an injury against Georgia State, Smith’s consecutive starts streak of 26 was snapped. Over the last two seasons, the senior has been a mainstay and formed a solid left side of the line with Cortez Herrin.

Herrin, of course, is no longer on the roster, and neither is John Spellacy, who was forced to medically retire ahead of the 2020 season. That news ultimately shifted Frye to center and led the Pirates to pick-up Jones and Justin Chase from the transfer portal to build some depth at the guard and tackle positions.

With Smith on the sideline, the Pirates are without one of their most experienced offensive linemen and must replace him with solid players that just are not ready to be pressed into service quite yet.

“D’Ante is our most experienced lineman, so obviously not having him last week, it’s going to leave a void there,” Houston said. “Nishad Strother is a very good player, he’s going to be a really good player. I can’t say enough positive things about him, but you guys know better than I do how many starts D’Ante has under his belt, it’s a large number. Whereas Nishad, that was his second college start, and he’s started at two different positions. Just the experience factor is what you miss. D’Ante always has a high motor, so you have that too. I’ll be glad when he’s back.”

Currently, Strother and Jones are listed as the starters on the left side of the offensive line for Saturday’s game against USF. Bailey and Malovic are the front-runners to start at right guard and right tackle respectively, but Trent Holler and Justin Chase will also likely see snaps.

Through two games, ECU’s offensive line has been up-and-down with its performance. Against UCF, Donnie Kirkpatrick lauded the unit for its run blocking abilities after a 244-yard effort. A week ago, however, the Pirates struggled to run the football and keep quarterback Holton Ahlers on his feet.

With all the youth and inexperience that exists on ECU’s roster right now, it will not manifest itself on the field anymore than along the offensive line. By Houston’s own comments, everything begins and ends up front, and with a young group lacking experience, the offensive line’s play could heavily dictate how successful the Pirates’ offense is in 2020.

In a normal year, ECU’s coaching staff would have been able to get its players more reps during spring practice and the preseason. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, spring practices and the spring game were canceled and preseason practices were interrupted with isolations and quarantines.

Nowhere did COVID-19 impact the Pirates more than up front on both sides of the ball, limiting just how many reps and situations could be simulated before the regular season rolled around. Nevertheless, Houston is not in the business of making excuses, but rather will continue to push his players to improve day in and day out.

“Yeah, it screwed us a little bit, but nobody cares,” Houston said. “Once we start playing games, nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear excuses, nobody wants to hear the reasons. All they care about is you didn’t beat Georgia State. There’s lots of reasons. I’ll tell you, the one thing that really does piss me off is when people take shots at the kids. If there’s any group that it’s not their fault and they’re trying very hard to do what we’re asking them to do, they want to go out and play at a high level, it’s our players…We have a good culture in there. They’re positive, they’re going to play hard Saturday, they’re going to play better Saturday, they’re going to continue to improve.”

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