At the one-third mark of the season, a football team is finding its rhythm, clarifying the depth chart and getting used to practice and game day routines. But even as some aspects of the season become more comfortable for the East Carolina players and staff, they travel to Old Dominion this weekend with a handful of questions that need answers:
How will the new quarterback lineup respond?
When backup quarterback Reid Herring announced on Monday that he was entering the transfer portal, the coaches weren’t taken entirely by surprise, offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said, but the timing was unexpected.
“This portal, this is like ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’” Kirkpatrick said. “You go into this thing. I don’t know where they’re going. To the Enterprise, or something, or the dreamland.”
Herring will certainly be missed, Kirkpatrick said, but the coaches have spent the past two days of practice helping true freshman Bryan Gagg get up to speed on the offense so that he could step in as needed. It helped Gagg that he reported in the spring and took the second-team reps during spring practice when Herring was injured, but after that he returned to third string and lost some of that early momentum.
“It’s put us in a bind a little bit, that we would be very inexperienced at quarterback if something were to happen to Holton,” he said. “I’m nervous about that. I’m really nervous that something could happen to Holton and we would have to really, really limit what we could do.”
The transition has been jarring to Gagg and redshirt freshman Zach Gwynn, who moved up from the scout team to the third string, but they are both excited about the new opportunities they’ve been handed.
“They’re both great competitors, and they’re here for a reason,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s what it’s all about, next man up.”
Is ECU ready for a motivated Old Dominion team in its home stadium?
The Monarchs haven’t played in their brand-new stadium since August 31, and they are coming off a game at Virginia that ended in defeat but featured a 17-0 ODU lead into the second quarter.
On top of that, ODU is still smarting from last year’s narrow 37-35 defeat at the hands of the Pirates in Greenville.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for them,” Kirkpatrick said “They’re pretty talented at some positions. We talked to the Virginia coaches, and those guys said, ‘Man, I’ll tell you what. Our kids didn’t maybe respect them at the beginning, but they sure respected them at the end.”
The key on Saturday evening, head coach Mike Houston said, will be coming out with a mix of discipline and intensity from the beginning. The Monarchs have scored on their opening drive in their past three games, and Houston has been warning the Pirate players against letting sloppiness creep in.
“The first drive, everybody tries to start fast,” Houston said. “You’ve got to be able to match their intensity, you’ve got to have great eyes and great fundamentals on that first drive and just get settled in and ready to play your game play after play.”
In particular, the coaching staff has been focusing on reducing penalties through plenty of reps in settings as close to game day as possible.
“The big thing is the false starts, the pre-snap stuff,” Houston said. “A lot of that’s just concentration and really trying to put them in as many pressure situations as we can. Because the pressure is when you lost focus on the cadence, or do something with the formation and the alignment. We’ve done a little bit more good-on-good this week, so obviously the intensity’s ramped up, the speed’s ramped up.”
How is the top defensive goal coming along?
Houston and defensive coordinator Bob Trott have zeroed in on the Pirates’ tackling skills as their number-one priority, and Trott said he has seen progress in that area.
“We’re getting better at it,” he said. “It’s something you’ve got to work on every day. It’s one of the fundamentals of football. I remember when I was in the NFL, one of my fellow coaches said, ‘They already know how to tackle,’ and I said, ‘Maybe we ought to refresh ‘em a little bit.’ The normal process, when you’re learning how to tackle better, is you’re a little hesitant, but once they get past that, then you see a lot better tackling team.”