An excellent test to distinguish between a true football player and a non-football player: Measure that individual’s reaction to the phrase “full pads day in mid-August.”
The thoughts of the non-football player would go immediately to dread of the extreme heat mixed with the inevitable pain associated with repeated violent collisions.
But consider the response of East Carolina senior center Branden Pena:
“There’s definitely a lot of juices flowing,” he said. “You get full pads on, you feel like you’re a kid again, you just want to go and hit something. Full pads, it’s not thud tackle, it’s not just wrap up and let the ball carrier go. It’s live, so there’s definitely some excitement behind that.”
The fifth day of Pirate preseason camp brought a new light to the eyes of purists like Pena, featuring spirited three-on-three drills, live special team situations and a live short-yardage goal-line drill at the end of the workout with incentives for the unit that prevailed the most times.
The offense was leading early, head coach Mike Houston said, which would have resulted in the defense having to run a half gasser after practice for every play it lost, but the defense came back from an early 4-2 deficit for a final score of 6-6, with no extra running for anybody.
“For a head coach, I couldn’t have asked for it to end any better,” Houston said.
After suffering season-ending injuries last year and the year before, Pena was given an extra year of eligibility this spring, and he is embracing that opportunity with gusto — appreciating every moment lined up in the trenches during the three-on-three drills and leaning into the full-on intensity that he believes will characterize the 2019 squad.
“It’s more of a mentality,” Pena said. “Just every play, hand in the dirt, we’re going to go downhill. We’ve got a big back in Darius (Pinnix), a big quarterback in Holton (Ahlers), too. It’s just downhill, ready to go.”
Across the line from Pena, senior defensive lineman Kendall Futrell is also happy to be back after being sidelined during spring practice. On Wednesday’s practice both the offensive and defensive unit matched each other’s intensity, he said, a synergy symbolized on the micro level by Futrell’s daily battles with senior receiver Deondre Farrier.
“We always work to make each other better,” Futrell said. “Out here it’s physical, it’s intense, but when we get in the locker room we’re boys, we dap it up and all that kind of stuff. It just feels good to go against somebody good, and just work hard and just make each other better every day in practice.
“We’ve got to keep working. We can’t be satisfied with just being good right now, we’ve got to be great. We’ve got to keep pushing.”
Five days of watching workouts live and studying film afterwards has helped Houston clarify two chief goals for his team as the Pirates prepare to face N.C. State on the last day of this month. If the defense can become adept at bringing opponents down as a unit and the offense can avoid losing yardage and losing the ball, ECU will have a legitimate shot in every contest, he said.
“If we can play together as a group on defense, we’ve got a shot,” he said. “I think we are becoming a better team tackling unit. It’s going to be hard for any college football player to win one on one every snap against an elite skill athlete, so we’ve got to become a great team tackling group. And on offense, I think as long as we can avoid the negative plays we’ve got a shot to be productive.”
Houston was pleased with the first day of full pads overall, he said, even if the players were challenged some in the middle and had to recapture their intensity with the goal-line competition at the end. The heat and the tempo will continue to take a toll, testing the players and creating situations they will be able to draw on when exhaustion threatens on game days.
“I promise you they’re tired right now, they’ve probably got some bumps and bruises, and we’re going to be back in full pads tomorrow,” he said. “So there is a lot of challenge physically and mentally between now and tomorrow’s practice. But I’m very pleased coming off the field today.”