First-year football coach Mike Houston and staff have made many adjustments aimed at turning around a program that has been through four straight losing seasons. Houston moved East Carolina’s media day from the beginning of preseason camp to the end of the of the sessions as classes began this week.
It was an astute change and made the interviews more meaningful in terms of where the program stood with the approach of the season opener at N.C. State on August 31.
Houston has taken ownership of the program, reaching out to former coach Ruffin McNeill and posting on Twitter about the unselfishness of former Pirate receiver Zay Jones, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills.
Recruiting looks very promising, but the immediate key is how effective the new staff can be in transforming personnel that remained in the program after a 58-3 loss on the road to the Wolfpack ended the previous coaching era.
The pending trip to Raleigh certainly represents a measuring stick for the improvement thus far under Houston’s leadership.
Bob Trott on pass defense
The pass defense struggled last year, finishing 11th among 12 teams in the American Athletic Conference in terms of yards allowed per game (270.1). The Pirates were 126th nationally in turnover margin, managing just five interceptions in a 3-9 season. ECU had five interceptions in winning the 2008 Conference USA championship at Tulsa, 27-24.
Defensive coordinator Bob Trott, who came in with Houston from James Madison, talked about taking control of the airways again.
“It should be very interconnected,” Trott said. “The front is the key. They’re the foundation of any defense. Our whole approach is things that cause us to win. Good pass defense depends on the front and for the front to get pressure, you’ve got to cover somebody.
“So it’s so interconnected. We’ve been fortunate the last few years. We’ve had a lot of turnovers. We’ve had a lot of sacks. We always pointed out — the reason you got this sack was so and so did this. The reason we got this interception was so and so did this.
“The players understand how important their job is. Sometimes it’s as simple as get your hand in the quarterback’s face, which will cause a bad throw or cause an interception.
“We work really hard on catching the ball. We catch a lot of deep balls. We work to that end to play better pass defense.”
The Pirates will use man and zone coverage in the secondary.
“We do both,” Trott said. “We try to mix it up. You want to get good and efficient at certain things and we talk about it all the time. Let’s stop the things that defense is supposed to stop. It sounds pretty simple but that’s hard. Kids have to learn that if they throw a post, they’re not supposed to catch it. That’s how you build a good team. Stop what you’re supposed to stop. Then you can build on that.”
Kirkpatrick on running game
Donnie Kirkpatrick is back at ECU, this time as offensive coordinator.
ECU’s 129.7 yards rushing per game last year was 112th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That element of the offense is moving to the forefront.
“It’s going to have to be more productive,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s not any kind of shot at anybody or whatever because we’re going to start it with the run game. Our whole offense will be based around being a team that can run the ball. Defensively, we’ll be based on being able to stop the run. I don’t think you can win at the championship level unless you can do that.
“That’s not saying we’re not going to throw the ball. Our throwing game will come off of our running game by way of play-action pass, what everybody is calling RPOs (run-pass option) right now. We’re just going to have to be a little more patient with it sometimes. Our run game will be a lot different than what they did last year and the years before that in that we’re just a little more committed to running the ball.
“We have more schemes. We’re not just a zone-running team. We’ve got more gap schemes and stuff like that so you have more selection of things. I think we’ve got some talented running backs so we believe in those guys. The offensive line is progressing pretty well. We’ve got a couple of guys still competing for some jobs up there that we’ve got to make decisions on.”
Kirkpatrick worked with some ECU greats as a receivers coach on the staffs of Skip Holtz and McNeill.
“The offense is designed to be balanced where a lot of different people touch the ball,” Kirk[patrick said. “But basically this is the same offense that we were running here when Dwayne Harris, Justin Hardy and Zay Jones excelled and did catch so many balls. I think the game has a way of finding the good players. The ball has a way of getting to the guy who gets open. The quarterbacks start to develop that confidence in the guy that they know is going to make the play.
“You start off wanting the offense designed to be multiple and to get everybody involved in the game because it’s harder to defend it when you do that. You can just double cover one guy if you don’t have other weapons, but I do see that we have a couple of receivers that I’m really excited about. Blake Proehl has had an unbelievable camp. C.J. Johnson, the freshman, every day he takes a stride toward becoming that elite-type player.
“We got a new transfer we just got in. We’ve got some plans for him. We call him Audie (Audie Omotosho). … (August 17) was his first day in pads so he hasn’t really gotten worked in there a lot. But what we’ve seen is he does have elite-type talent. He can maybe be that type of guy as well. It will emerge but we will start out trying to get a lot of guys involved.”
Coach Mike Houston said the Pirates did their homework on Omotosho, a 4-star recruit out of Plano (TX) East, who came to ECU from UCLA.
“There’s a wide receiver coach at UCLA that has a connection to our staff,” Houston said. “That’s kind of what started it. He’s a kid that was not graduating until the beginning of August. Most everybody has already kind of solidified their stuff. We were looking for someone like him. He’s a weird kind of deal. He graduated from UCLA but he’s still very young. He had an injury there so he didn’t play. We got tons of practice films. We saw what he is capable of. He’s got two, maybe three years of eligibility left here. He’s a talented player, great young man and he gives us depth and a little bit of experience, but he still has a good bit of time with the program.”
Houston has had multiple game films to evaluate in putting together a game plan for the season opener. He coached James Madison in a 24-14 loss to the Wolfpack and a lot of the Pirate personnel was involved in ECU’s season-ending loss in Raleigh.
“I think you have to look at both,” Houston said. “(JMU) played them the first game of the year so all the scouting reports were based on the year before. We do definitely look at that game. I think you look at a lot of their late season stuff. They’ve had transitions on their coaching staff, a new coordinator on offense, new defensive coaches on the other side of the ball. I think you’ve got to take all of those things into consideration when you start breaking them down.”
Ahlers notes changes
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers was named the starter this week. Ahlers noted the program has been through meaningful changes.
“It’s way different,” Ahlers said. “It’s night and day. Just the time of the offensive experience I had, even with the guys, relationships that we’ve built during the offseason. Just stuff like that. It’s a different program now as well. It’s way different than anything it was last year.
“Everyone is buying in. We’re excited for this season. We can feel the excitement by the fans. … At the end of the day, we’ll be prepared. We’ll be excited.”
Ahlers missed the resounding loss at N.C. State last season.
“Obviously, none of us liked it,” Ahlers said. “We remember that every single day. Every single day we’ve had apart from football games, we remember that. We’re excited that’s our first game this year, but we’re going to focus on us because it comes down to us. If we do our job, we’ll be in the game. We’ve got the coaching staff to win this thing now.”
The new staff has encouraged Ahlers to dial back his inclination to take on defenses.
“I’m just not going to force anything,” Ahlers said. “Don’t force any runs. Don’t force any throws. Let the game come to me. I trust in them. They’re great coaches. Put the ball in the right people’s hands at the right time. Me and Coach Houston have talked about it. Coach K (Kirkpatrick) has talked about letting the game come to me and just kind of taking what the defense gives us.
“Last year, I was a true freshman but I didn’t think of myself as that. I knew I had to come in and play and that’s what I did. This year, with a year under my belt, I feel like there’s a lot of stuff I’ve worked on in the offseason. Hopefully, a lot of people will see that I’ve gotten better. The whole team has really worked hard this summer, so we’re excited.
Pinnix has slimmed down
Darius Pinnix said his weight went up to 250 pounds after he fractured an ankle and missed the State game last year.
“I’m at 223 now,” Pinnix said. “I’m in the best shape of my life because of Big John (Williams Jr., new director of strength and conditioning). He’s been pushing me and keeping me focused each and every day.”
Pinnix remembers last Dec. 1 at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“It hurt me a lot because after practicing with my team, I love being on the field and I love to compete,” said the junior running back. “That’s one thing about me, I’m a competitor and it hurt me the most, not being to compete with my brothers.”
How much difference will nine months under new leadership make?
“This year and last year is two different teams,” Pinnix said. “You could look at our spring game and tell that we’re a lot different team. Our camp was great and we’re just going to keep pushing each other. … The offensive line has been competing each and every day and they’re getting better. They’ve been opening holes for me. They challenge me and I challenge them. We just have fun out there.”
Turner on turnaround
Noseguard Alex Turner appears refreshed with his senior season at hand.
“We’re real excited for this year,” Turner said. “You can just see the excitement from everyone. It’s kind of mind-blowing just how much we’ve changed over a couple of months. Coach Houston has come in. You can see the change in mentality that the players have and just the change in energy. It’s a different vibe, a different level of accountability and determination.
“You can really see it in guys’ hearts. … I have just 100 percent belief in our defense and know we’re going to be great this year. We’ve definitely improved in our football intelligence due to Coach Trott’s staff. I mean those are some great defensive coaches. They know exactly what they’re talking about. They know what they’re doing. We’ve learned so much from them. We’re just real excited to show out for Pirate Nation, to show out what we can do.”
New Xs and Os for Xavier Smith
Xavier Smith had seven catches for 81 yards as a tight end in 2018, but he has returned to linebacker for 2019.
“They put me back at my natural position,” Smith said. “Of course, I’m going to be more excited playing a position I’m used to playing and am comfortable at. I’m really liking the way this defense plays. It’s a lot less thinking. You can play really fast and that’s just my style of play, fast and aggressive so I really like that.”
His time on the offensive unit gave Smith a new perspective on defense.
“It definitely helped me blocking-scheme wise,” Smith said. “Like how they fit things. So I know now on defense how to beat the blocks and get over the top and stuff like that.”