East Carolina starts preseason football camp on Aug. 1, looking to put the brakes on a trend that has produced four straight losing seasons.
“Probably the players and coaches are in two different spaces right now,” said first-year Pirates coach Mike Houston. “The players, this is the last week of our training. They have the run test (today). This is a very demanding week. Then they’ll get about a 10-day break.
“They have worked their tails off this summer. Where we are right now vs. where we were back in the spring is night and day. They’re probably ready to catch their breath real quick and then they’re excited for Aug. 1.
“Coaching-wise, vacations are done. Manuals are getting ready to go to print. Playbooks are going to print. Fall camp is planned. Preseason practices are put together. We’re kind of chomping at the bit and ready to go.
“I just think everybody is excited for report date.”
Preseason poll puts Pirates fifth
ECU media members at the American Athletic Conference kickoff in Newport, RI, picked the Pirates fourth among six teams in the East Division. That group was comprised of Brian Bailey (WNCT-9, Pirate Radio, Bonesville), Ronnie Woodward (The Daily Reflector) and myself. The overall AAC preseason poll had ECU fifth.
It’s not where you start, but where you end up, and the closer you get to the program, there is a sense that the Pirates have turned a corner toward better days.
“Coach Houston definitely came in trying to change negative habits to positive habits, getting everybody’s mind on the same track, bringing the team together and putting the pieces in the right place to get this season going right,” said senior slot back Deondre Farrier.
Preseason favorite Central Florida provides a role model for program recovery. The Knights went from 0-12 in 2015 to 13-0 in 2017.
Farrier is from Orlando, home of the Knights.
“They have just come together, getting the team leaders in the locker room and everybody coming together,” Farrier said as far as what he knew about the formula for change at UCF.
The Pirates are in a similar position going forward.
“Everybody needs the same mindset,” Farrier said. “Knowing what we’re going to do. Knowing what’s going to come out of it and just doing your job.”
Donnie Kirkpatrick is back at ECU as offensive coordinator after serving on Houston’s staff at James Madison in that capacity. The Dukes won the national title in the Football Championship Subdivision in 2016.
“He was here my freshman year, my redshirt freshman year,” Farrier said. “They recruited me out of high school. The man is an offensive mastermind. He knows what to call, when to call it and how to call it. … I feel like he has great, great things up his sleeve.”
Kirkpatrick was on the Pirates staff from 2005 to 2015, serving under former coaches Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill. He was associate head coach, inside receivers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2015.
His previous tenure in Greenville overlapped the careers of record-setting receivers Justin Hardy and Zay Jones. Farrier would like to be a part of such elite company.
Farrier played in seven games, starting five, before a season-ending injury in 2018. He had 30 catches for 372 yards with two touchdowns as a junior.
“I’ve got to step up and put it all together, be the man I know I can be on that field and help my team get these (wins),” Farrier said.
Reviving the run game
ECU has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Vintavious Cooper ran for 1,193 yards in 2013. Quarterback Holton Ahlers was the team’s leading rusher in 2018 with 592 yards on 119 carries.
An effective ground game would give the Pirates needed balance and take some pressure off the passing attack. ECU had to rely on its air dimension too often during three straight 3-9 seasons.
The new staff likes the straight-ahead power of 227-pound junior Darius Pinnix Jr., who is the No. 1 running back on the preseason depth chart.
Pinnix averaged 4.0 yards per carry with three touchdowns as a sophomore. He ran behind an offensive line that was decimated by injuries over the course of the year.
Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler is back for his fourth stint on the staff. Dominique Lindsay gained 1,180 yards rushing in Shankweiler’s last previous season at ECU in 2009.
Flip side of run game
The Pirates yielded 270.1 yards passing per game last year, 121st among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Rush defense was better as ECU allowed 169.8 yards a contest, which ranked 73rd in the FBS.
Senior defensive tackle Alex Turner started all 12 games last year with 18 solo stops, 29 assists and 10.5 tackles for loss.
Turner said the Pirates have undergone a mental makeover.
“There’s kind of just a change in mindset when Coach Houston took reins of the program,” Turner said. “It’s interesting to see kind of the trickle-down effect to the younger guys and the guys on our team, just the intensity and the discipline when Coach Mike Houston walked into the room. You can really feel it and you just know he’s a serious guy. He’s about winning championships and that’s what we’re trying to do in this league. … We’re trying to go to a bowl game and win that, too.”
ECU’s last bowl win was at the conclusion of the 2013 season, 37-20, over Ohio in St. Petersburg.
The Pirates will utilize a 4-2-5 base defensive alignment under new coordinator Bob Trott.
“It’s kind of different,” Turner said of the scheme. “In a way, you can only play defense in so many different ways and so many different personnel groups. It doesn’t change that much for me per se, but it’s definitely interesting. I definitely like the mindset that Coach Trott has come in with.
“He’s an older guy with a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge about the game of football. I’m excited to learn from him. My defensive line coach, Coach (Jeff) Hanson is a really technical guy, like down to every single bit of just like your stance, your hand fundamentals and everything like that. He’s a great, technical coach.”
Identity installation to continue
Spring practice got the Pirates started in new systems. The teaching process will continue in preseason camp.
“We began to develop our culture and our identity as a team in the spring, but with only 15 days you truly could not do that,” Houston said. “You’ll have 24 practices before our opener at N.C. State (Aug. 31). I think the first two weeks of fall camp are very important for continuing to establish the identity of what kind of football team we want to be, not only this year but year in and year out.
“We’re somewhere along the journey.”
Houston will be seeking development in other aspects in early August.
“The continuity on both sides of the football, we’ve got to continue to evolve that,” Houston said. “We did not get our offense or our defense fully installed in spring practice. We’ve got to continue the evolution of the install of our packages. Then we’ve got to continue to build on the physicality of our football team. We are not the style of football team yet at the end of spring practice that I want to be.
“We have to play faster. We have to play with more of an edge. We have to play with more physicality at the point of contact. Those are going to be the real stress points for the first couple of weeks of fall practice.”