All is quiet on the East Carolina football front. That will be changing shortly.
“It’s spring break for the players,” new Pirates coach Mike Houston said this week. “I took a couple of days. My wife has me out on a honey-do list.”
The Houston family has moved to Greenville.
“We’re trying to get settled and get stuff fixed around the house,” Houston said. “All that, so it’s a good week to have a few days.”
Spring practice starts next week.
“After we come back on Monday, it’s full bore until July,” Houston said. “We’re going to get a little weekend getaway with Amanda and the two boys. We’re headed down to Charleston to catch up with some of our friends from our time at The Citadel.”
Houston guided The Citadel to a 14-11 mark in two seasons (2014, 2015) winning a Southern Conference championship in the process. Pirate Nation is hopeful of similar success under the new coach’s leadership.
The Pirates start spring practice on March 14. Houston will be getting to know his personnel in terms of their playing capabilities as the coaches seek to develop a winning mentality.
“I think the big thing is you want to see what you have,” Houston said. “See what kind of hand you’ve been dealt. I’ve gotten to know the players fairly well during winter workouts, but how well you get to know them as someone who is training and personally versus how they perform on the football field are two different things. Getting to know the players as football athletes is the biggest thing. Just seeing how our roster develops. How our lineup develops where different guys may fit best within the different schemes that we’re going to use in all three phases. That’s the biggest thing you want to find out..
“You want to establish your style of play with your roster this spring, the mindset of how you want to play. It’s going to be important in that opener that we as coaches as well as our fan base, that we all see a different style of play, that we all see a different mindset than what was on the field in December down in Raleigh. I think from setting a tone of how we’re going to operate and how we’re going to play on game day, that’s our first opportunity.
“Certainly, having been through this many times before at multiple, different institutions, that identity change does not happen overnight. It takes some time. My hope is that we see a lot of change in that first game, but even at JMU (James Madison), where we had a pretty quick turnaround, it really took us to midseason that first year before I felt like we were playing the way our teams traditionally played.”
Opening at N.C. State
ECU starts the 2019 season at N.C. State, an opponent familiar to the new coaching staff and to the returning Pirate players. Most of the ECU staff was at JMU last year, which lost 24-13 to the Wolfpack to start a 9-4 season for the Dukes. State clobbered the Pirates 58-3 in Raleigh to end a 3-9 campaign for ECU.
“It is ironic that for the second year in a row I’ll start off facing N.C. State and coach (Dave) Doeren,” Houston said. “Certainly, we had a great game last year at JMU, one that went down to the final couple of minutes of the ball game. Given the way the season finished off at ECU last year with the trip to Raleigh, I think this is a big ball game.”
4-2-5 defensive alignment
The Pirates yielded 114 points in the last two games of the 2018 season. ECU will look for improvement within the framework of a 4-2-5 base defense.
“It’s been what I’ve always played,” Houston said. “We are very multiple now. You’ll see us in some three-down front. You’ll see us in some 4-1 box. We use some different wrinkles against some different teams, depending on what we’re facing week to week, but our base is the four down, two linebacker box that you see with the 4-2-5.
“I like the way we play it. We’re going to be extremely aggressive up front, on the defensive front with how we attack the opposing offensive line. We’re going to play very down hill in the run game at the linebacker level. We’re very, very aggressive so you’re going to see us incorporate in a lot of corners coverage, a lot of man, a lot of man free. You’ll see us pressure both man and zone. You’ll see us disguise a good bit.
“Once we get to where our guys understand everything that we’re doing, you’re going to have the ability to show the same look pre-snap, but be playing a variety of different things post-snap on any given down.
“Really, I think that’s the key. You’ve got to keep the quarterback uncomfortable. You’ve got to show him one thing, play another, and then you’ve got to have the ability to disrupt the pocket. You’ve got to stop the run game to force the opposing offense into doing things they don’t want to do. Our style of play within that scheme is a very aggressive, in-your-face kind of mindset.”
When spring practice is complete, Houston will be going to American Athletic Conference meetings.
“Those are in May,” Houston said. “We had a meeting of all the head coaches at the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) convention. I’m sure that we’ll be hitting on some of the topics that were discussed there. The big one is what’s going to happen with the transfer rule. There’s a lot of discussion right there with that right now. I do anticipate that the rule is going to adjust some more. It will be interesting what kind of dialogue we have as a conference.
“My experience has been that each conference is going to put forth some type of proposal on what it feels like is the best way to handle some of the issues.”
Graduate transfers have become more frequent in recent years.
“I don’t think that’s the concern because I do feel like to a degree if you’re a student-athlete and you graduate from an institution, you’ve done your due diligence there,” Houston said. “I think the concern with the grad transfers is when they go in and they’re one semester kind of deal. I don’t think that’s what the spirit of the rule is. The spirit of the rule is to allow someone to get a master’s degree.
“You could see some adjustment there. How that scholarship counts — I’m speaking purely on my opinion. It’s not anything that’s a rule or anything like that yet. If they did something where you could provide a student with a scholarship for two years, but he only counts while he’s eligible so if a guy has one year of eligibility left if the NCAA would allow us to use a scholarship for two years and it only count for one year that allows the student-athlete to get their master’s degree. I think it would encourage institutions to operate a little bit more within the spirit of the way the graduate transfer rule was intended.
“I do think you could possibly see some adjustments with the transfer portal and some of the things there. … I think tampering is the big concern for all coaches. People recruiting your roster while they’re there so it’s going to be interesting to see where everything goes.”
Message at Pirate Club appearances
Houston will be making appearances at Pirate Club gatherings.
“The thing that I want to communicate, No. 1, is that I and the players, especially the players, … we’ve done a lot over the past couple of months as far as not only me implementing my philosophy on how we’re going to operate on a daily basis, I’ve had them do a lot of soul searching, a lot of dialogue to establish our goals for our program,” Houston said. “I had them do it. I could always have them sit there and I could lay out goals, but I’m not the one who will play.
“The one thing that was communicated to me very clearly is 3-9, 3-9, 3-9 — that’s not what they signed up for and that’s not what they want to be. They’re tired. They want a change. They are willing to do whatever is asked of them in order to change, the vast majority at least. For us, we’re kind of branding this as a rebirth of Pirate football. Kind of getting back to some of the philosophy and mindset and style of play that has won at such a high level here in the past.
“My question to them was simply on any given game day or in the American Conference, ‘Why can’t we be the best?’ You know, ‘Why can’t we compete for bowl games? Why can’t we compete for championships?’ And so, why not us?
“I think those kind of messages there along with some of the things I’ve mentioned with philosophy and style of play and the way we’re going to operate. That’s going to be my kind of real point of emphasis for getting out and speaking to Pirate Nation.”
Houston was asked if resources are adequate for success at East Carolina.
“I don’t think they have been,” he said. “I think there’s a renewed commitment and so I’m optimistic that we’re going to get closer. To be honest, I was really surprised at just the lack of commitment that has been there. Just with facilities, having a nutritionist, a training table, fueling stations, practice facilities, just the way you operate.
“You’ve seen things kind of get away from maybe the way they should be or they used to be when there was success at a high level.
“Saying that, Jon Gilbert (athletic director) has been at the University of Alabama for 17 years, the University of Tennessee for four or five and worked very closely with football. He fully understands what is needed when you talk about a commitment and resources. You’ve got to have those resources to delegate. That’s something that he’s working on. He fully understands and he’s fully committed to getting the football program back where it needs to be.”
South side renovation
The Pirates will host Gardner-Webb on Sept. 7, which will be the grand opening of a renovation of the south side of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“Certainly, it’s an obvious upgrade to the stadium for the game day environment and something that is a huge commitment to the fan base of East Carolina football,” Houston said. “From that standpoint, it’s going to enhance the game day environment considerably for our patrons. It is going to be a solid recruiting tool because we can talk about you don’t build something like that unless football is important.
“To me, the more important factors are the things that the student-athletes use on a daily basis. In addition to the south side project, I’m pushing really, really hard for renovations for the weight room, renovations for the existing football facility, the meeting rooms, the practice facilities, the field equipment, the nutrition, the training table, the fueling stations, the things that are important to student-athletes on a daily basis to develop them and do what they do.
“I say that because people have to understand that the South side renovation is incredible. It is a blessing. We are fortunate to have it. It is going to be something that is really great. It’s going to be really enjoyable on game day, but it is primarily for the fans. It will have a big impact on game day with the environment but the thing that’s got to be the focus has got to be the student-athletes. We’ve got to upgrade our support of the student-athletes.”
Responding to the challenge
Houston came to ECU aware of the challenges and potential of the position.
“I am honored and excited to be the head football coach at East Carolina,” Houston said. “It’s something that I wake up every day energized by. The next and that’s the reason that I’ve talked so strongly about some things is that I am committed to getting this program back to where it’s supposed to be. I’m going to push as hard as I can every single day to ensure that we have the things that are needed to put a winning football team on that field week in and week out in the future.
“I want our fans to know that I’m in this with them, that I need their support and we are going to see a different brand of football starting August 31st.”
Houston led James Madison to the Football Championship Subdivision title in 2016. His past success has generated optimism among Pirate fans. Houston is by no means intimidated by Pirate Nation’s desire to return to the levels of the program’s past glory.
“My expectations, I promise you, are higher than anybody else’s,” Houston said. “I’m O.K. with people wanting the best for our football program.”