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East Carolina will rely on new QB, WR duo in bout with Michigan

It will be an uphill battle for the Pirates.

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines welcome the East Carolina Pirates to the Big House in the inaugural game of the 2023 campaign. The Pirates finished 8-5 last season and have seen an upward trajectory over the past few seasons under head coach Mike Houston.

A high amount of praise has to go their way for how they manage to play well in big games. The Pirates nearly knocked off No. 13 NC State at home in the first week of the season in 2022 and then upset a good BYU team in Provo last season. In the last seven weeks of the campaign, East Carolina went 5-2 and didn’t turn the football over a single time.

Houston has built an admirable program in Greenville, but it’s going through a massive shift in 2023. They’ve lost a massive amount of production on the offensive end, including starting quarterback Holton Ehlers, two 1,000-yard receivers in Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson, star running back Keaton Mitchell, and four of their five starting offensive linemen. Essentially, an entirely new offense will be on the field for the Pirates in Week 1 in the Big House.

The Wolverines are expected to have their way with the Pirates in a game that is still projected by DraftKings Sportsbook to be 36 points in favor of the home team. If the Pirates are going to keep this one close, they are going to need their new quarterback and his expected top target to have a big day while having a defensive player stand out.

Here are the Pirates who will need to have a big day to keep things close.

QB Mason Garcia

While it has not been confirmed yet by Houston or the coaching staff, it is very likely we see Mason Garcia behind center on Saturday. He is a former four-star recruit from South Carolina who stands at an imposing 6-foot-5, 250 pounds.

Houston said in December before the Pirates’ bowl game that Garcia would be the starting quarterback heading into 2023. He’s got a big arm and has led a few drives for the Pirates offense that led to scores.

The problem is Garcia has been with the program for the last three years but has never seen more than 25 attempts in a single season. In his career, he’s thrown for just 179 yards, one touchdown and one interception on a 50 percent completion rating.

Suddenly, earlier this week, Houston was more reserved about who would be starting behind center come Saturday against the Wolverines. Redshirt junior Alex Flinn, who has never seen a snap for the Pirates, reportedly has fought his way into a position battle with Garcia.

This is either a ploy for a competitive advantage, or it’s a note that maybe this program is not as confident in Garcia as they once were. Either way, they’ll need to move the ball through the air to keep this one close.

I suspect the Pirates will attempt to attack Michigan through the air. The Wolverines will have some young guys with limited experience at safety and have a question mark at corner opposite of Will Johnson. East Carolina is not afraid to abandon the run. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Garcia taking deep shots early and often in the hope of generating some big plays.

WR Jaylen Johnson

On the other end of some of those passes will be 6-foot-2 receiver Jaylen Johnson. He’ll be tasked with becoming the new No. 1 option for the Pirates after the departure of three of the top passing-catching options from this offense a year ago.

Johnson was originally a walk-on with the Georgia Bulldogs and was a member of the 2021 squad that beat Michigan in the College Football Playoffs. At the time, he was a contributor on the special teams unit that went on to win the national title.

In his pregame press conference, Johnson said Georgia’s focus that week was to “out-physical” the Wolverines. Houston will assuredly bring a similar mentality into this game for his team, even with a lopsided amount of talent on either side.

It’s something Johnson embodied last season, too. He uses his size to get separation, make catches over smaller defenders and hang onto touch catches through contact.

Johnson averaged 13.1 yards per reception last season, and all three guys ahead of him in receiving yards last season averaged over double-digit yards per catch, too. Expect Johnson to see the most targets in Week 1.

Edge Jeremy Lewis

Senior edge Jeremy Lewis will be the anchor of a defensive line that has a tough matchup ahead with the Michigan offensive line. In his two seasons as a starter, Lewis has 110 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

This guy is a gritty football player. He started as a tight end before transitioning to defense and is now potentially the best player on their roster. Lewis was a large part of why East Carolina’s defense ranked 19th in the country in rush defense last season, allowing just 112.5 rushing yards per game.

Lewis is up for the challenge against Michigan in the Big House. “I think we’re very prepared as a team, the most prepared we’ve been as a team and we’ve got a chance to kickoff with a great opponent,” Lewis said earlier this week, “We’re prepared for these big-time games. We’ve been in many of them. This is by far one of the biggest. But we’re prepared for this situation.”

The Pirates bring in a lot of talent on the defensive line into this game, and Houston told reporters he plans on rotating most of them to keep them all fresh against Michigan's impressive group up front on offense.

Lewis has had games with 10-plus tackles in the past. He’ll need to have a similar performance to help keep Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards at the line of scrimmage consistently.