Spring game preview: Part Two of Two | VIEW PART ONE
Mike Houston promised position competition when he took over the East Carolina football program the week after the Pirates finished 3-9 for the third straight season.
As the Pirates head into a potentially-rainy spring football game this afternoon, Houston stopped short of saying rising sophomore Holton Ahlers from nearby D.H. Conley had nailed down the starting job at quarterback.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to say that just yet,” Houston said Thursday. “He’s certainly had a solid spring. He is obviously a pretty talented player. He is a very talented runner. He is a fierce conopetitor. He has all the intangibles that you want in a leader but he is learning to be a good quarterback. That’s the best way I could characterize Holton at this point. He has got to learn to be more than just a really good athlete that has a great competitive spirit. He’s got to learn how to be a really high-end college quarterback, which he can do, there’s no doubt. He’s just young.
“I don’t know that I’m ready to name a starting lineup anywhere today. Will he be with the first offense Saturday? Yes. He has earned that right. Do I expect him to probably win the job? Yes. But I still think he’s got a lot of growth and maturation that we need to see before we get to August 31st.”
ECU opens the season at N.C. State on Aug. 31.
Running back situation
One of Houston’s goals is to establish an effective running game. He talked about the ball carriers.
“I think Darius Pinnix has had the most solid spring of all the running backs,” Houston said. “I like the way he comes to practice every day. I like the way he competes. He’s a hard-nosed, physical running back. He has some speed. He’s done a really good job with ball security. He is a really, really good blocker. I like the fact that he takes great pride in being a great protector in pass protection. He has really been a pleasant surprise this spring. He’s kind of set himself apart to a degree from the rest of the room.
“Hussein Howe has come on here of late. I would say in the last week and a half Hussein has played at a much higher level than he did in the first half of the spring. I think Hussein is doing a really good job of cleaning up some things in his personal life and academics and is really a little more serious about everything than he was maybe when I first got here. I’m pleased with his progress.
“Trace Christian, he will miss the scrimmage Saturday. He had a decent start to the spring but really we needed to see more. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to with a minor injury. We’ll look to get a better look at him during fall camp after summer workouts.
“Tay Williams, we’ll see. I think he’s a guy that had a bad start, a real bad start to my being here and had to be suspended for a little while. I think when it came to the possibility of all this being taken away from him, it kind of hit home of ‘I better get my butt in line.’ So he has been steadily working his way back into good graces. He is not allowed in the locker room right now. We’ll see how he finishes up the spring, if he’s going to be allowed to start dressing with the team again. We have a couple of guys in that situation, but I have seen some positive improvement with him as of late. So I’m not ready to sit here and say that he’s going to be a solid contributor for us, but I’m not ready to sit here and say that he’s not either.”
There is not a returning receiver who is established to the degree that Justin Hardy, Zay Jones or Trevon Brown have been in recent years. But Houston likes the upside of the pass receivers.
“I think there’s some potential in that group,” Houston said. “I don’t know that we’ve seen a real leader emerge. I think Deondre Farrier has — over the last scrimmage and Wednesday’s practice — I think he’s starting to show more and more bright spots. I think he’s worked really, really hard to improve his blocking and to become a more physical player. I think maybe he’s progressing at a little higher rate maybe than the rest.
“Blake (Proehl) has been slowed with an injury but certainly I think he’s he’s improved as of late with how he competes so I think there’s potential with those guys.
“I think there’s a lot of potential with the rest emerging but I can’t say this guy’s going to be a starter, this is a guy who can contribute heavily. We don’t know just yet. (Andre) Pegues is a great example. He looks like everything you want at wideout and he’s had a great attitude. He’s worked really, really hard, but he’s really, really young and raw. I think he’s going to be a guy that can contribute for us this fall but he’s got to really push himself to continue to improve.
“I think (Mydreon) Vines is another one that had a rocky start to the transition, who has really got things turned around and is doing a great job in every aspect of his life right now and wants to be on the field so we’ve got to continue trying to develop him.
“Taj Deans has all the ability. We’ve just got to get him on the same page with everybody else. I think he wants to be. He’s breaking some really bad habits. In one-on-one meetings, he’s been fantastic. He is struggling with a hamstring deal right now so I don’t know if he’ll practice on Saturday, but I think he has a chance also.
“Tyler Snead, I think has shown himself to be a really solid competitor. I think he’s learning how to be a guy we can count on in the slot. How big of an impact he’s going to be this fall, we’ll see.
“I think Leroy Henley has been the most solid guy from the standpoint of coming ready to practice every day and trying to establish a little bit of a leadership role with the group. He had a real bad injury before a I got here. I think he’s all the way back healthy. I think he’s a guy who will be a solid guy in the rotation. As to what depth, starter, back-up, I don’t know that just yet but I think he’s definitely going to be in the rotation.
“Jsi Hatfield, the high school senior, had a rocky start from the standpoint of making the adjustment from high school to college. That’s anybody. I couldn’t imagine — I told him my senior year in high school I don’t know if I could do what he is doing. It was rough going there early on, but he had a big play Saturday in the scrimmage, about a 45-yard touchdown catch from Reid Herring. He had some solid plays in Wednesday’s practice. He is going to be a really, really good player here. I mean one day he will be an all-conference caliber wide receiver here. Is that going to be this fall? No. Do I think he could play this fall? Possibly, but I’m not going to play him unless he’s ready to play. I think he’s coming on pretty quick here at the end.”
Former ECU coach Scottie Montgomery set a goal last season of averaging four yards per carry. Former Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney was hired to direct the blocking corps. The Pirates averaged 3.6 yards per rush.
Houston did not hear inspiring stories about the offensive front when he arrived from James Madison. The unit dealt with numerous injuries last season.
“As a group, I think that they have made steady progress,” Houston said. “When I was first hired, I think there was a lot of concerns put in my head by everybody around the program just from what last year ended up being. I think given what those concerns were and how I feel about our offensive line today, there’s a drastic improvement.
“I think the left side of our offensive line is very solid with Cortez Herrin and D’Ante Smith. I think center, Branden Pena and Jason Fournet, haven’t played a whole lot in the past. Those two guys have done an adequate job this spring. Obviously, without (John) Spellacy and (Fernando) Frye and (Peyton) Winstead practicing, you don’t know how that’s shaking out right there at center so you don’t know who the starter is going to be. I think that’s something we’ll have to develop this summer and into fall camp as to the way it’s going to shake out but getting that solidified will help us in other places because if somebody isn’t starting at center then maybe we can move them to guard.
“On the right side, Matt Morgan and Sean Bailey, have been taking a lot of first-team reps. Both have incredible attitudes. They have some toughness about them. They’re still young players. They’re still coming along. I’ve got hope for both of them that they’ll be solid guys that can serve as a starter.
“As far as depth, we are developing a little bit of depth. Jack Doyle is going to be kind of the utility man that’s going to play a lot of different positions, kind of the next man in. Bailey Malovic, we’ve got to continue to develop his body. He’s certainly extremely athletic and can run. Donovan Noel and Noah Henderson are big bodies that are really young and really raw. We hope those guys will develop and come along in time.
“Offensive line, I feel decent about at this point in time. I think that based on some of the fears I had given to me by everyone outside the program when I took the job, I feel really good about it because it’s certainly not what I had been told things were last year. That’s a credit to the kids and their work ethic and their attitudes and Shank (offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler) and the job he’s done developing that group this spring.”
New scheme on defense
The Pirates will have a 4-2-5 base defense. The unit is a work in progress.
“It’s like anything else the first half of spring,” Houston said. “There was a lot of confusion. Confusion leads you to play slow and make really bad mistakes. That’s what we looked like. I think that the last week and a half we’ve seen steady progress. I thought that last Saturday was a really positive scrimmage for the defense.
“We’re starting to play together better. We’re starting to compete better. We’re starting to play with better physicality and better effort. I thought we had a solid day Wednesday. We’re nowhere close, we’re not even in the same realm as to what I’m accustomed to. I think we will get there. I hope it’s pretty quickly.
“We don’t have our full package in yet. We just have not been able to go as rapidly as we will be able to go in coming years because really, fundamentally, we were not real good. Taking on blocks, tackling, playing sound pass defense in the secondary, how to drop off certain receivers, how to play man-free coverage.
“Fundamentally, we were not great so we spent a lot of time trying to establish a foundation of fundamentals this spring. Measuring what we have in, I feel really good now versus a week and a half ago, but have so much that we have not touched on this spring that will be a part of our package come fall. It’s still a work in progress but we’ve seen some bright spots in the past week and a half.”
What Houston wants to see
Scrimmages have their limitations. If the offense performs, then the defense may struggle and vice-versa.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for is I want to see us play with some passion and energy and I want to see us compete,” Houston said. “If we’ll do those things and we can become a team that does those things then we can get this thing turned around. We’ve got to learn how to do those things.
“Those are the things that I had not seen before Wednesday. … I hit stuff every single day at meetings and they want to, but it’s learning how to be a positive leader, learning how to play with confidence, what it means to compete, what it means to play physical. That’s more than running into somebody. You’ve got to learn how to play fundamentally with a physical nature. Learning how to dig deep and compete when it’s difficult — when you’re tired, when you don’t have the momentum, when your back’s against the wall. Learning how to play together.
“Those are all the things we have been trying to develop. We saw some bright spots of them on Wednesday. I want us to come out and compete in a game setting for an entire scrimmage the way I saw the last half of practice on Wednesday.”
What Houston wants fans to see
Houston knows the fan base has been disappointed in recent years.
“The biggest thing I want fans to see is I want fans to see a change,” Houston said. “I want fans to see a difference between what has been here the last couple of years and what we are now. Beyond that, I want to see fans leave here with optimistic hope, belief that East Carolina football is going to get back to what it always has been traditionally and that is a hard-nosed, chip-on-your-shoulder, … tough football team, one that is going to compete every single Saturday no matter who the opponent is, home or away, and get back to the winning tradition that I remember about East Carolina football.”
Among the early enrollees, there are some who could have an impact in 2019.
“I’d say there might be several,” Houston said. “Alex Angus, Juan Powell, Ja’Quan McMillian (defensive backs) — those three all had reps with the first-team defense at various parts of time through the spring. They’re all three going to be really, really top-end players for us here. I think you could see them on the field as either a key backup or as crazy as it seems now, you could even see one of those guys starting.
“Jsi Hatfield, maybe not quite as sure that he’ll play significantly this fall. That’s got to do more with other players on offense being there and being established and being not quite as great in some spots defensively there. Bryan Gagg has done a really good job coming in, but quarterback is a completely different animal. I don’t think he’s going to be a guy who’s going to be ready to play this fall, but he’s working and progressing every single day.
“Patrick Nations has a big leg. He’s going to be a really good specialist for us down the road. I feel really, really good about our specialists. Jake Verity has had a great spring. He’s an incredible kid. I’ve really enjoyed my time with him. He’s a great competitor. Sometimes you don’t see that with a kicker but he certainly is. Jonn (Young) has done a great job handling the punting duties and has adapted well to our schemes that we’re going to use. He’s his own worst critic. He’s done a good job of excelling this spring.
“I feel really good about our specialists so Patrick may not play a ton this fall. We could still use him because of his ability but I think we’re just solid right there going into the season.”
Montgomery presented awards at halftime of previous spring games. That won’t happen today.
“No,” Houston said. “I think our fans kind of identify with this about the way I go about my business, the way I run the program. I’m not into fake stuff. We’re not where we need to be yet. If we’re going to stand out there and have awards and stuff like that, we better be playing at a pretty high level.
“We’re still trying to get from point A to point B right now and get the program back in a situation where we’re going to be highly competitive.
“The awards we’re going to give out are going to be we’ve earned the right to put the decal on the side of our helmet. Until we get to the point that we’ve got the Jolly Roger on the side of our helmet, I think giving out any awards or stuff like that, would be a little fake.”
Work to continue
The new ECU coaching staff will continue working to rebuild the program after the last snap today.
“This is a great place,” Houston said. “I am beyond excited to be here and be the head football coach. I can promise you, our staff, we’re going to work tirelessly until we get this thing turned completely back around and go full throttle with it. We’re working as hard as we can. It’s going to turn and you’re going to see a different team on the field starting August 31st.”
Spring game preview: Part Two of Two | VIEW PART ONE