August is a month of forging new routines — for kids returning to school, for parents, for teachers and for East Carolina football players. During this first official game week of the Mike Houston era, the staff has been focused on maintaining intensity and consistency as the season opener against N.C. State looms larger every day.
With Houston setting the tone, game week is expected to hum along at a higher level than the game week Pirate players became accustomed to in recent years, he said.
While Tuesday was one of the best preseason practices the coaches have witnessed, the team seemed to take a step back on Wednesday, and the staff wants to make sure that such regressions are rare.
“I would be disappointed if we don’t have an excellent Thursday practice tomorrow, because Thursday should be very, very sharp,” Houston said. “What gives me reason to be concerned is we didn’t back it up today, We’ve got to learn to have consistency. Not that today was terrible, it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the practice we had yesterday. And you have to improve throughout the week, you’ve got to build towards Saturday.
“It’s just getting accustomed to whatever the expectations that are laid out by the leadership. Getting accustomed to that and being able to operate within that is very important.”
As he stressed the importance of practicing effectively this week, Houston reminded the older Pirate players of a team they saw under unfortunate circumstances on September 2, 2017 — the James Madison Dukes led by Houston. When JMU came to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the season opener two years ago the visitors stunned their hosts 34-14, but Houston wasn’t surprised. Because that was a team that understood how to optimize every minute of a practice.
“They were a very, very good defensive football team and a team that could run the football effectively,” he said. “But they practiced that way. They knew how to practice in a thud tempo, without people going to the ground, they knew how to control their bodies, they knew how to practice at a very high level. Because they hated to lose. They were highly competitive, and they wanted to win worse than any bunch I’ve ever seen on game day.”
One of Houston’s favorite questions for his team this week is, “What is your why?”
He believes they will discover that motivation in the trenches when no one is watching. Even though it’s a young team still adapting to the shift in leadership and expectations, Houston and his coordinators have plenty of optimism about the Pirates’ willingness to work hard and their understanding of what it will take to turn the program around.
“These guys have taken everything we’ve given them,” said offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick. “As hard as we’ve pushed, they’ve tried to do what we’ve asked them to do.”
The learning process has had to be even more accelerated for the seven true freshmen on the roster, defensive coordinator Bob Trott said. At one position, strongside cornerback, both of the top players are freshman — Ja’Quan McMillian and Malik Fleming. But even with no college playing experience, Trott said they have distinguished themselves with toughness and an understanding of what will be expected of them week in and week out.
Sometimes the nerves and adrenaline can be turned up to such a high level during the opening game that they become a detriment, Kirkpatrick said, but decades of coaching have shown him that such an emotional reaction is inversely related to the amount of preparation a player puts in before that opening kickoff.
“From putting in the work you should gain some confidence,” he said. “That’s what you’re trying to do. It’s like if you take a test, you haven’t studied, you’re unprepared, you’re nervous as heck. If you’re really prepared, and you’ve really studied, and you think you know it, you’re pretty confident. I don’t think the stage will be too big for most of them. The cream usually rises to the top. The bigger the event, the better the good players will play.”