We are closer each day to the beginning of the 2023 college football season, and the hype is as high as ever for the Michigan Wolverines. Just like last year, the non-conference schedule has been heavily scrutinized as the Wolverines should ease into Big Ten play.
First off is their Week 1 opponent, the East Carolina Pirates of the American Athletic Conference. This is a team that went toe-to-toe with North Carolina State in Week 1 last year, but missed a game-winning field goal as time expired to lose, 21-20.
They’re no strangers to near upsets, but the 2023 team is far different than the group last season that nearly pulled off the feat. Let’s take a look at what’s changed over the last 365 days and how it will impact the Wolverines.
Week 1 - East Carolina Pirates
- 2022 Record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in AAC (6th)
- Head Coach: Mike Houston, 5th year, 22-24 record
- Key Losses: QB Holton Ahlers, RB Keaton Mitchell, LG Nishad Strother
- Key Additions: LB B.J. Davis, WR Jaylen Johnson
East Carolina had a surprisingly strong offense in 2022, finishing tied for 25th in the country by averaging 32.8 points per game. They achieved this because of veteran leadership on offense and taking care of the football. They gave away the ball only seven times last season, the fewest in college football. That turnover ratio was a huge reason they finished the season on a 5-2 run, but it’s extremely difficult to replicate with the amount of change going on in the program.
Mason Garcia, 6-foot-5 sophomore, will take over behind center. He has only thrown 38 career passes, so he had a lot to prove to fill in the shoes of Holton Ahlers. Last season, Ahlers had 3,708 passing yards and 28 touchdowns with just five interceptions. The gap between the two is tremendous, and Garcia will have some big shoes to fill. He threw for more than 14,000 yards in high school and is known to move the ball with his legs, so expect that challenge for the Michigan defense.
There is also room for concern at running back, as Keaton Mitchell had moved on to the next level. With more than 200 carries last season, Mitchell led the team with 1,452 yards and had 14 of the team’s 19 rushing touchdowns last season. Marlon Gunn Jr. and Rahjai Harris will take over for him; Harris is the favorite to start, but he is coming off an ACL tear from last season. Michigan will likely see a lot of both in Week 1.
The Pirates’ offensive line also took a huge hit this offseason, as starting left guard Nishad Strother exited the program via the transfer portal. He started 30 games for East Carolina before transferring to Oregon.
Now, only one starter remains from the 2022 starting unit. To make matters worse, long-time offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler retired this offseason. Michigan’s defensive line should feast against an inexperienced coach and opponent.
In 2022, East Carolina was the second-worst passing defense in the country, allowing 292.2 yards per game. Malik Fleming, arguably their top corner from that group, transferred to Houston after starting for four years. There is no indication this group is going to be any better.
However, the Pirates hope transfer linebacker B.J. Davis can help thwart some of those predictions this season. The senior started last season for South Carolina State and tallied five interceptions, including a pick-six. He also had 85 tackles in 2022 and should be a huge upgrade for a middle-of-the-pack defense, statistically.
Overall, the 2023 East Carolina team is far different from the group that went 8-5 last season. The changes being made on offense are a huge cause for concern with a vast majority of their leadership leaving the program. It’s a time of big changes at East Carolina, and a Week 1 matchup against a team that went to the College Football Playoff last season seems insurmountable.