ECU head football coach Mike Houston spent the off-season lauding the depth and overall talent level of his running back room. While the Pirates returned their top rusher from a season ago in Demetrius Mauney and an experienced back in Darius Pinnix Jr., Houston pulled in two very promising recruits in Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell.
“I’d said one of these weeks that you recruit them and you know they got talent, if you can judge talent and if you can’t judge talent, you wouldn’t be in this business very long,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said earlier this week. “You don’t know how quickly, though, they’ll be able to show that.”
Both very accomplished players at their respective high schools, Harris and Mitchell worked themselves into prominent roles within the Pirates’ offense with a strong preseason camp. Against UCF in the season-opener, Houston used multiple ball-carriers, including Mitchell who paced the team with 66 yards on eight rushing attempts.
Harris soaked up 12 carries against the Knights, ripping off a 14-yarder and getting his first collegiate touchdown called back on a holding penalty.
“I thought early in the Central Florida game that both of those guys showed that the stage is not too big, and they continue to show me that,” Kirkpatrick said. “They have the qualities that good running backs have to have. They know how to set-up blocks, they know how to run behind blocks, they know how to find the holes, they both have good enough speed.”
At 5’10” 228 pounds, Harris has drawn comparisons from ECU’s coaching staff to Jerome “The Bus” Bettis. Last week, the freshman showcased why those comparisons are warranted with his 115-yard, two touchdown effort in the Pirates’ 44-24 win over USF.
In a game started by Mitchell, the Pirates leaned heavily on their true freshmen backs to the tune of 34 carries for 157 yards and two scores. Harris’ career day resulted in the most single-game rushing yards by an ECU true freshman running back since Chris Johnson’s 158 against Tulane in 2004.
“Like I say, Rahjai is The Bus, he’s the next Jerome Bettis,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s got unbelievable feet. The thing is, wow is he fun to be around. A lot of people don’t like practice that are probably great players, but he acts like he likes practice. That makes a coach’s job so much easier. I think we got a good tandem going there.”
Harris was named to the American Athletic Conference Weekly Honor Roll for his performance and vaulted to the top of ECU’s rushing leaderboard. In fact, he and Mitchell are one and two on that list with a combined 59 carries for 266 yards.
Through three games, the Pirates have racked up 504 yards on the ground on 127 carries and average better than 165 rushing yards per game. Those cumulative yards are the second-most through three contests in program history since 2001, while the carries stand as the most in the first trio of games since 2000.
At the head of that attack are Harris and Mitchell who account for 46.5% of those carries and 52.8% of ECU’s total rushing yards at this point in the season. Nine times Harris has ripped off rushes of at least seven yards, while Mitchell has picked up five yards or more on a carry 11 times.
While it usually takes freshmen a year to adjust to playing at the collegiate level, both Harris and Mitchell have fit right into Houston’s vision for how he wants his running back room to operate. Already light years ahead of a typical freshman in terms of understanding the offense and what is expected from them, that duo seems poised to take over the bulk of ECU’s rushing duties moving forward.
Nevertheless, Houston is likely to keep the running back competition open for the entirety of the season, but after overcoming some initial soreness from their increased workload, the Pirates’ freshman running back tandem is prepared once again for Saturday.
“They’ve had a great week,” Houston said. “I’ll say this — and it reminds me of when I was playing in college — you go from playing in high school and then you play a little bit and then that first game when you play a large number of reps, the next day you feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck. Sunday they knew they had played a college football game on Saturday. That was something they had to get used to, which is the reason we do some of the things we do on Sunday. Came back, had a really solid week. Excited about those guys and they’re ready to go on Saturday.”