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Mike Houston took over as coach of a program that has experienced four straight losing seasons, including three consecutive 3-9 campaigns.
The new coach doesn’t have any magic dust to transform the Pirates into winners again, but he feels good about the direction that has been taken in East Carolina’s first spring practice under his leadership.
“We’re 13 practices in with a practice (Friday) morning and the spring game Saturday (1:30 p.m.) remaining,” Houston said Thursday. “I’m very positive about the progress we’ve made because we have made some pretty drastic improvement in a variety of areas. Are we where we want to be or need to be yet? No. We’re not anywhere close.
“Are we a lot farther along than where we were a month ago? Absolutely. It’s one where I’m pleased and yet not satisfied. I thought that Wednesday’s practice, and I spoke to the team this morning, was the first time that I felt like I saw what a really positive college football practice should look like — the first time that I really saw it. The kids, they all felt it. It’s a lot of just attitude and effort and feeling more comfortable with our coaching staff and understanding expectations of how we’re going to practice, how we’re going to do things, how we’re going to compete. I think that we’re getting there.
“I feel like we are making progress.”
Spring practice often features some degree of position changes among personnel.
Among the more famous for the Pirates are Dwayne Ledford and Vonta Lach from defense to offense, which produced NFL careers for both.
“There were some changes that they made last year with some personnel that we’ve kind of reverted back,” Houston said. “Like Xavier Smith, for example. I know he played H-back most of the second half of the season last year. Obviously, he’s playing inside linebacker for us and has had a pretty good spring this spring. D’Angelo McKinnie is another one that played some H-back/tight end for them last year. He’s back on the defensive line.”
Injuries are part of a game that has become more aware of potential long term affects from playing. A number of Pirates have spent spring on the sideline. Houston talked about when they might return to active status.
“Bruce Bivens (linebacker), he practiced non-contact on Wednesday,” Houston said. “His progress has come along steadily. He will practice (Friday) morning. He will not scrimmage on Saturday, but he will warm up with us. We expect him to be full go for summer workouts starting in May.
Bivens has had surgery for a congenital condition.
“He has had a positive recovery,” Houston said. “It was a lower extremity deal.”
“Peyton Winstead and Fernando Frye (offensive linemen), they’re both progressing along. They should be cleared to be full go sometime this summer. We expect them to easily be ready for fall camp.
“John Spellacy (center), things are progressing along. I’m optimistic that we will get him back but I would not say that he is coming back at this point. We’re making sure that we check all the boxes with making sure that he is safe to return before he does return.
“Raequan Purvis (defensive lineman from Plymouth), he was diagnosed with a birth condition … last fall. It has been recommended that it is best if he discontinues playing. He has been transitioned to a medical scholarship. He will remain with the program as a student assistant coach. I’ve known Raequan since he was in high school and recruited him, so I have a good relationship with him. He’s the kind of young man I want to keep around the program so he’s going to remain with us as a student assistant coach.
“Blake Proehl (receiver) has progressed along and practiced most of the spring, non-contact. He’s come along really, really well. We are planning on having him participate in a limited capacity in the scrimmage on Saturday. He will be in a red jersey but we do expect him to be able to participate some. He’s going to be fully cleared for the summer. He is moving along.
“Michael Swift (defensive end) is progressing along and tracking to be cleared for workouts this summer. We’re excited about that. Kendall Futrell, same as Swift, progressing along. He will be cleared for workouts full speed this summer.”
Format for spring game
An adjusted format will be in place on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“For our situation, it’s the best format possible,” Houston said. “The days of splitting up the team and having an offense and defense on one sideline and another offense and defense on the other sideline, that’s great if you have huge numbers to do that with. Given our situation with a good many guys not practicing right now and our roster size not being what it will be in the fall, we’re going to go offense vs. defense.
“The defense will be in all purple. The offense will be in all white. It will be a four-quarter scrimmage, 15-minute quarters, running clock. The clock will remain continuously running. We will operate game regulation-wise inside of the last two minutes of each half. First half, second half. We get inside the last two minutes of the half, we’ll operate under game situations, The clock will then be on the officials. That way you can simulate an end-of-the-half, end-of-the-game-type situation — trying to score, trying to run the clock out, whatever you’re trying to do right there.
“Each side has three timeouts per half. We’ll take breaks between quarters and have a 10-minute halftime.
“The scoring system, offense, you have the traditional ways to score. Touchdown, field goal, extra point. You also will get points for first downs, explosive runs, explosive pass plays. I think 25 yards characterizes an explosive pass play, 15 or more is what we characterize as an explosive run play. They also get points for crossing midfield. That’s how the offense will score.
“Defense will score, the biggest one is a turnover. I’m not allowing us to return turnovers for scores. When you get in these scrimmage situations and you get in that scenario right there, obviously you’re going to have the defense running into the offense, you’re going to be blocking quarterbacks. Offensive linemen trying to tackle. I’ve found that it’s just best to function in these scrimmages where you just kill the play as soon as the turnover has occurred. The defense is not able to score touchdowns.
“They are able to get points for turnovers. They get points for blocked kicks, field goals. They get points for sacks, tackles for loss, three and out, a forced punt and a pass break-up. I think that’s all the scoring for the defense. The turnovers are worth four points. A forced punt is worth one point. It just depends on what it is and how it’s scored.
“We will keep a running score on the scoreboard. We have found in the past it’s usually really competitive. We haven’t had many blowouts scoring it this way. We probably have run a spring game this way four or five times. To me, the advantage of doing it this way is I can control personnel a little bit easier because you have depth on both sidelines to draw from, whether it’s first unit, second unit, whatever. You can get everybody in, kind of deal.”
What’s on the line
There will be stakes (and steaks) involved in the matchup.
“We’re going to have a little bit of a wager we put on the game between the two sides,” Houston said. “We’ll have a post-spring meal on Tuesday night, which will be similar to our winners’ dinner that we’ll have after our wins this fall. It’s a steak and shrimp meal with all the sides, a big ice cream dessert bar, all the fixings for that. It’s a really nice meal. The loser will serve the winner’s dinner on Tuesday night. The winners will be treated like kings and the losers will be servants on Tuesday night. That will create some competition on Saturday, for sure. It should be a pretty good event. I really hope the weather works with us and allows this to be a great day for our alumni, fans and our players.”
The losers will eventually get steak and shrimp, too.
“I’ve done the whole beanie-weenie and the nice meal deal, but one of the things I’ve really tried to harp on this spring is trying to bring our roster together more. We were very cliquish when I got here, not bad divisions but we weren’t a very unified roster. I’m trying to get everybody feeling more like a tight-knit family, so I want to keep it a fun wager but at the same time everybody feels important kind of deal.”
Spring game preview: Part Two of Two | VIEW PART TWO