The future is bright for ECU football. While it didn’t show up in the form of a win last Saturday against Navy, the Pirates proved they had what it takes to stick with one of the more consistent teams in the American Athletic Conference.

That proof was passed along to Pirate Nation with three true freshmen occupying the backfield for ECU on Saturday. Without junior Holton Ahlers, the Pirates started Mason Garcia at quarterback, with Rahjai Harris taking the first snaps of the game at running back. It represented the first time both of those players started games at the collegiate level and was the first competitive game that duo had played together since the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas earlier this year.

“I think No. 1 this experience is invaluable for them,” head coach Mike Houston said postgame. “It’s a lot different out there than it is in high school. They’re going to make some mistakes, but I tell you, they don’t make as many as some freshmen do. I’ve been very pleased with the way they’ve executed. When they do make a mistake, they’re tough enough to be corrected. They don’t go pout, they don’t go in the tank, they’re tough-minded kids. They’re able to handle coaching and that’s the reason they’re going to improve.”

On Saturday, 100% of ECU’s passing yards were recorded by a true freshman, while 94.8% of the Pirates’ 268 rushing yards were logged by either Keaton Mitchell, Harris or Garcia, all freshmen. All of ECU’s receiving yards — save for 13 — were picked up by returning players, but over 95% of the total yards amassed by the Pirates on Saturday, as well as both of their touchdowns, were accounted for by freshmen.

Defensively, 29 of ECU’s 85 (34.1%) tackles were booked by new players to the program, including a career-best nine by defensive end Chris Willis. Safety Shawn Dourseau picked up eight tackles, while Chad Stephens made his first collegiate start and amassed six tackles.

“I think the future is bright next week,” Houston said. “This is a different locker room than the other I inherited when I got here. It’s because of those kids. The future is bright right now. We can’t wait to play Tulsa. We get a chance to catch our breath this week and really work on some things we need to work on. We’re ready to go to Tulsa next week and have another shot.”

In less than two years, Houston has made great strides in retooling ECU’s personnel and tailoring them to play a more physical and hard-nosed brand of football. Against Navy’s triple-option on Saturday, the Pirates displayed just how well they can play with proper preparation, something they were not afforded this off-season to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saturday’s hard-fought loss went a long way in erasing the memory of last year’s 42-10 blowout at the hands of Navy in Annapolis, Maryland, and instead replaced it with a glimpse of the culture shift beginning to show up on the field.

“Our kids, they believe in the way we do things and they do things right,” Houston said. “It’s in every way we operate. You’re going to compete for what playing time you get, nothing is going to be given to you. You’re going to practice everyday. You’re going to be on time to workouts. You’re going to go to class, you’re expected to perform well academically. People are going to care about you, people are going to worry about you. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there and it’s getting there pretty fast.

“The culmination is you get a group that believes in each other. You get a group that cares about each other. They believe in their coaches, they trust their coaches and they go out and they fight for each other. If they believe in you and they’ll fight, you got a shot every Saturday.”

With talented freshmen like Harris, Mitchell and Garcia and transfers like Willis and Dourseau, not to mention the cache of older players on the roster, the future of ECU football only seems to grow brighter with each passing week.

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