Football coaches have a different way of evaluating the performance of their team than those of us watching from the stands and the press box.
While fans and the media are creatures of instant analysis and real-time reactions, those whose jobs depend on the outcome tend to take a much more calculated approach.
Their standard answer to most postgame questions: “I won’t really know until I have a chance to watch the tape.”
So it’s no surprise that new East Carolina coach Mike Houston didn’t offer a lot of detail in his reaction to Saturday’s Purple & Gold scrimmage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, other than to say what all coaches do at the end of spring practice — that “there’s been tremendous improvement” in his team from Practice 1 through 15.
Houston and his staff will spend the next few days watching and rewatching Saturday’s game — in which the offense bested the defense 71-36 using a scoring system few if anyone completely understood — and begin formulating a plan heading into fall camp.
Presumably starting with a depth chart.
While they do that, here is a little instant analysis and reaction to keep things interesting.
Outside of the visible improvements to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the newly named TowneBank Tower rising impressively above the South stands, the most positive impression was the play of the quarterbacks.
For all the questions that surround the 2019 Pirates and all the position groups in need of major improvement, quarterback is one of the few with which the staff can feel completely comfortable.
Not only has Holton Ahlers firmly established himself as the team’s leader and star in the making, but top backup Reid Herring also has meaningful starting experience while early-enrolling freshman Bryan Gagg showed promise in his ECU debut.
Ahlers led his offense to a pair of touchdowns and a field goal in his six possessions while going 10 of 19 for 118 yards. Herring was 10 of 18 for 100 yards and a touchdown while Gagg completed both of his passing attempts for 18 yards while rushing for an 18-yard score.
Beyond their play and the usual excellence of All-American Athletic Conference kicker Jake Verity — who make field goals of 49 and 40 yards in addition to all four extra points — the assessment of everything else that happened Saturday is a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty proposition.
On one hand, a ground game that has sputtered in recent years showed signs of life with Hussein Howe rushing for 71 yards on 15 carries and Darius Pinnix picking up 51 yards on five tries. On the other hand, there was a defense that still appears to have trouble stopping the run after allowing an average of 225 yards per game a year ago.
And while the offense accomplished Houston’s goal of improved ball protection, a defense that has had trouble creating turnovers went the entire game without a single takeaway.
There were some standouts on defense, led by reliable linebacker Aaron Ramseur with nine tackles, including two for losses. Fellow linebacker Xavier Smith, back at his natural position after being shifted to tight end last year, had six stops, as did junior defensive end Chandon Hickerson and redshirt freshman lineman Trey Love.
Those are the things that were visible to the naked eye, without the benefit of “watching the tape.”
As for what Houston might see and how he’ll react once his spring game evaluation is complete, he gave a hint in his postgame comments. While those already on the roster will be working on their strength and conditioning, he and his staff plan to spend their summer beating the bushes in search of more players capable of filling as many holes as possible.
“We’re evaluating that stuff daily,” Houston said Saturday. “We’ll spend time in the junior colleges this spring and we’ll be evaluating grad transfer options. We have specific needs and things that we’re looking for now to bolster our roster.
“I think the big thing for our coaching staff is Monday morning we’re going to spend all morning dissecting this tape. After we watch the tape, we’re going to get together Monday afternoon and do a complete evaluation of our roster, top to bottom. We probably will have some cuts, we probably are going to bring in some more players this summer. So our roster is not finalized yet for the 2019 season.”