East Carolina football coach Mike Houston has a passion for defense. He also has confidence in new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell. The duo worked together and won four conference championships at Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel.
The Pirates allowed 33.7 points per game in going 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in 2019 in Houston’s first season at ECU.
Harrell comes to the Pirates from Kennesaw State, where he was also defensive coordinator.
“Really excited to welcome Blake and Jessie and their three daughters to Greenville,” Houston said. “Blake was extremely impressive throughout the interview process. Of, course, I have significant history with him. From a personal standpoint, I knew a lot coming into the interview but as I did my research at the places he had been and with people that had gotten to know him over the past five years since we were together, I was just really impressed with how he had evolved.
“He has taken the things that we were doing when we were together and he has evolved and really grown. I’m just very, very pleased on a daily basis as we work towards putting together what we’re going to do here at East Carolina right now.”
Schematic changes are in store.
“Significant,” Houston said. “I think we’re going to be very diverse, which was one of the goals when I went into this process. I just think a year in the AAC, and seeing everything that we have to defend in this league up close and in person. There were certain things I wanted to grow our package with and change. I think Blake has really done a great job thus far embracing those things.”
New safeties coach Tripp Weaver is back on the Pirate ship after being promoted to defensive coordinator at Western Carolina. He worked on staffs at The Citadel and James Madison under Houston. He is an ECU alumnus who helped on the staffs of former ECU coaches Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill.
Weaver is from Asheville and Houstin hails from nearby Franklin.
“I’ve known Tripp the vast majority of his life,” Houston said. “He got his start with me as a full-time coach. He, of course, went to school here at East Carolina. He was a graduate assistant under Coach (Skip) Holtz and Coach (Ruffin) McNeill. He was coaching a position his last year here. I helped him kind of get on the staff here when he came to East Carolina out of high school. I’ve been close with him for a long time. I’ve always been impressed by him.
“He’s really a great fit for our players in the secondary. I think they will benefit tremendously from the relationship with him. He is a smart, young, energetic coach. I think you’ll see a significant change in the energy level and excitement on the field on a daily basis.”
December signees on campus
A significant number of the December signing class are already in the program.
“We’ve got 10 of them,” Houston said. “We’re wide open right now, working five days a week — in the weight room, running, we’re having some player meetings with the coaching staff. There are some player-led workouts going on in the afternoons on the field. We’re full throttle right now on offseason workouts.
“We’ll start with mat drills next week — the early morning, couple of days a week of really high intensity, a lot of mental toughness, a lot of challenge them in competition, that kind of stuff. That’s kind of the next phase. The mid-year enrollees are kind of split up right now. The junior college guys are working out with the returning players.
“The incoming guys from high school, they’re freshmen. … They have been training separate for the most part under the direction of Coach (John) Williamson and his strength staff, just establishing a base, really teaching as much as developing. Just making sure that they are instructed properly on the front end with everything so that they can benefit the most, moving forward. We will transition them next week a little more heavily with the returning players as we push toward getting ready for spring practice.”
Isaiah Kemp, from Duke
Cornerback Isaiah Kemp has transferred to ECU frrom Duke. He played in the 2019 season opener against Alabama for the Blue Devils but did not see subsequent action. He was a standout at Wilmington Hoggard on the high school level.
“Very talented young man,” Houston said. “I know the Duke staff pretty well. The defensive coordinator (Matt Guerrieri) was my graduate assistant at Lenoir-Rhyne. That relationship helped us with the transition right there. Isaiah is a guy who is getting a little bit of a second chance here. There were no off-field issues or anything like that. He needs to be serious about the opportunity. We’re hopeful to get him to transition positively.
“Certainly, he is talented enough to be a top tier player in this league.”
The Pirates added versatile defensive back Robert Kennedy from Lackawanna (PA) College on the February signing date.
“Robert is a young man, strong character,” Houston said. “Good leader, a football guy, loves the game. Those are all traits that we can’t have enough players that have those traits right there. He does have a lot of versatility, good speed. He’s a good tackler. Has experience so he’s a guy I could see playing multiple positions in the secondary.
“I think that’s the thing that we probably liked the most about him is that as we go through spring practice we can decide where he fits the best. I do see him probably being a starter or a significant contributor next fall.”
ECU is scheduled to open the 2020 season against Marshall.on Sept. 5.
“The only one that matters right now,” Houston said. “Excited about the matchup. … They will be a very talented team, a perennial bowl team. Year-in, year-out winning tradition. It will be a tremendous challenge, game one. I’m glad we got it at home. It should be a great matchup for our fan base, some tradition and history there. I would hope we have a packed house. It should be an exciting game.”
The Pirates start spring practice on March 17.
“Right now, offensively the staff is in the middle of a complete overview, internal review and analysis of everything we did last year,” Houston said. “I talked with Coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick (offensive coordinator) and we have some specific things as far as objectives we want to get accomplished during spring practice to build on what we did last year.
“Defensively, it’s the implementation of this new scheme. It’s one that I’ll be excited to have for multiple years in the future. I really want to get a firm base installed this spring to really take advantage of the personnel that we have right now.
“And special teams-wise, I want to continue to build on everything we did last year as I thought we had a positive first year with this staff.”
ECU starts baseball season at home against William & Mary today at 4 p.m. There are also games with the Tribe on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. The Pirates host Cincinnati in basketball on Sunday at noon.
“I’m going to be at home with my family for the first time in quite a while this weekend,” Houston said. “I do anticipate us either making it to baseball or basketball this weekend.
“I’m excited about the start of baseball. Also excited about what (Coach) Joe Dooley is doing on the basketball court. We’ve been enjoying supporting multiple teams on our campus.”