College football is in an unprecedented phase of inactivity due to efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus. East Carolina coach Mike Houston and staff are doing their best to cope, continuing to recruit and develop players despite unanticipated limitations.
Houston conducted a teleconference on Tuesday.
“We hope we can get out on the road and go see the recruits,” Houston said. “I hope that we’re going to have the opportunity to do that stuff in June and July. Certainly, the NCAA would have to drastically change what’s allowable in the summer for us to get any of that in. So we’ll just see where that goes.”
Players are working out on their own with guidelines established by strength and conditioning coach John Williams.
‘Coach Williams has created a body weight workout, for those that don’t have access to the gym,” Houston said. “He is in constant contact with some players, he and his staff. They’re monitoring what the players are doing on a daily basis. He knows who has access and who does not have access, so they’ve really kind of tailored the workouts based on the situation that each player is in. We’ve kind of decided to let Coach Williams handle everything as it pertains to the training while we’re away so our coaches may ask them, ‘How did your workout go today?,’ but the coaches are not really involved in the training right now as the strength and conditioning staff is.
“Everybody is doing the best that they can based on the situation that they’re in.”
The Pirates have identified a number of potential players for the upcoming recruiting class.
“We have virtual staff meetings almost daily,” Houston said. “We had a big recruiting meeting (Tuesday), well over an hour. We have another one (Wednesday). We’re discussing the information between ourselves with these virtual meetings. As far as the recruits themselves, I’ve looked at probably 250 recruits in the past week or so, just evaluating their film. I’m evaluating the film, putting down my thoughts. I’m looking at what the other coaches — most of the time when it makes it to me — probably four coaches or so have already evaluated the kid so we have four or five evaluations on each individual recruit.
“We’re having a lot of dialogue right now with those recruits. I’ve talked to two this morning. There are certain rules regarding what we can and can’t do. We can’t call them right now, but they can call us. We can message them. They can message us back. We’re having constant conversations with the guys that are above the line on our recruiting board. We’ve got a plan from talking to each recruit each week. I’ve got a dozen guys that I’m specifically messaging with this week and then next week it will change out. There are some guys we’re keeping constant conversations with because they’re staying engaged.
“There’s just so much going on right now with recruiting because of technology that we are probably ahead of where we were a year ago with the 2021 class as far as the evaluation and communication.”
Impact of Marshall change
The season opener at home against Marshall had already been moved from Sept. 5 to August 29, giving the Pirates an extra week of preseason practice with the possibility that the NCAA will make additional adjustments to compensate for the cancellation of spring practice, which was supposed to have started on March 17 at ECU.
“It will allow us to come in a week earlier and then I’ll have to make some adjustments with our practice days later in the season to give those days back,” Houston said. “Basically, it will give both Marshall and us about a week’s head start on beginning preseason camp.”
The Pirates were in a good place when offseason workouts were halted earlier this month.
“I think anybody in the program would tell you that we were at the highest point since I got here, when we left for spring break,” Houston said. “The morale of the players, the work ethic of the players, the performance of the players were all at an absolute high. I think the conditioning level, our strength level was at a high. … Our numbers in the weight room this offseason were drastically stronger and probably a more athletic group than we were this time last year. That’s the thing that’s a little disappointing to me and I’m sure the bids, too, because they all felt it is that we are such a positive place with the program and now we’ve had to push the pause button with some stuff.
“When they come back, we’ll certainly still have that optimistic, excited attitude because they know what they invested back in January and February and the first part of March. But it’s something that we kind of got taken away from us a little bit.”
Since going 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in Houston’s first season at ECU, Houston has hired Blake Harrell as defensive coordinator, Steve Ellis as cornerbacks coach and Tripp Weaver to coach safeties.
“Those coaches are engaged on a daily basis with players at their position,” Houston said. “Coach Harrell is having multiple meetings a day, each day during the week with the coaching staff, virtually, so that he’s getting a graph of where everybody is. Everybody is just doing the best job that they can, given the resources that we have to put us in a position to where we can continue to develop these relationships, which we all know are so important when it comes to a sport.”
Message to Pirate Nation
The response to the ongoing pandemic has resulted in changes to lifestyles across the country.
“My biggest message to Pirate Nation is, ‘We’re all in this together,'” Houston said. “Certainly, I hope everyone is functioning in a positive manner right now. We’re excited about the football program. … I put out a thing this morning. It was a video that our marketing department put out yesterday with some shots from our first home game last year. I just can’t wait to get back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with out fans. I can’t wait to get out of this isolation so we can all spend our time together that we so look forward to each year as a group.”
Possible changes in regulations
Houston is hopeful that some changes will be made in NCAA regulations to compensate for current restrictions and has even made some suggestions.
“Certainly, there are a lot of discussions going on right now,” Houston said. “You can’t have any definitive answers because nobody knows exactly where the end date is for this isolation. We, as a football program, through compliance, have submitted some things for thought to the NCAA. There’s going to have to be some common sense, drastic adjustments made in terms of eligibility, initial eligibility for high school seniors coming out, preseason camp, summer workouts, recruiting contacts — I mean there is just so much that is going to have to be drastically adjusted when we do come out of this. It’s going to create kind of a new landscape for us.”
Time at home and red meat
The situation has allowed Houston to spend more time at home with his wife and two sons.
“I found out last night that I’m not very good at ‘Call of Duty’ (video game) vs. my 11-year-old,” Houston said. “We have gotten a little bit of time. Amanda and I were talking, just yesterday. This has forced us to slow down a little bit. I’ve slept a little later in the mornings. … I’m there for dinner each night. That’s not the norm. As a family, you have a lot more time together, which is probably a really positive thing. Certainly, for us, it has been and probably for everyone’s family.
“My wife, right now, she is doing her best elementary school teacher impersonation. She’s had to relearn a few things she had forgotten from 25 or 30 years ago. She’s the one who’s got the real task right now, keeping those two wrangled and getting anything done with school work.”
Houston was asked about his favorite food while he is sequestered.
“Red meat,” Houston said. “My wife would rather me eat chicken. She’s trying to keep me off an exclusive red meat diet.”
Pro days, which allow scouts to see draft candidates work out on campus, were a casualty of the cancellations.
“It’s extremely unfortunate,” Houston said. “Certainly, the pro days are very important to those former players that are involved in them. That got taken away from that group. I’ve been in contact with a couple of them. Fortunately, a couple of our guys did get private workouts here (for NFL teams) before everything got shut down.
“What we’re talking about right now, and I had a conversation yesterday, trying to put this stuff together is we’re going to get some film of basically guys doing the same drills they do on pro day and upload that film to the NFL. We have been in discussions with the NFL office regarding this and that’s what they’re requesting right now. ‘Is there any way we can get video of your players working out, working through a combine style workout and get that film uploaded to all the teams?’
“Tarron Williams, our director of player development, he is working right now to get that taken care of. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, we’ll have that done.”
Most players have gone home
Some players have remained in the Greenville area but most have gone home since classes went online at ECU and the campus was essentially closed.
“We probably have between 25 and 30 that are here in Greenville,” Houston said. “Obviously, some are from here. Those guys are close by. A lot of our guys are in apartments that they rent here and they have chosen to stay here versus going home. Luke Larsen, who is from Australia, he doesn’t have a choice and so he’s kind of forced to stay here. We have 25 to 30 that are here in town. Our support staff keeps in contact with the guys daily on their whereabouts so we know where they’re located. … The majority are at home.”
Potential graduate transfers
The Pirates are not through working on additions that could help the 2020 roster.
“We’re in contact right now daily with several (graduate transfers) and also with some junior college kids,” Houston said. “We do anticipate when we get through this — the thing that we’re being held up on is them not being able to come to visit us. As soon as we’re cleared, that will be what happens, but we’re having ongoing conversations right now with both groups.
“Obviously, there are some specific things that I’ve kind of outlined in the past that we’re looking for. It’s going to be primarily the fronts are the primary positions we’re trying to find an older player or two at, but we are talking multiple positions on both sides of the ball.”
ECU signed three quarterbacks in December. Their learning curve should intensify in the summer.
“You do wish that the quarterbacks had spring ball,” Houston said. “With Mason (Garcia) and our other guys, we will be able to get them in here some time this summer. Hopefully, with some adjusted rules with what we can do in the summer, Taji (Hudson), Ryan (Stubblefield) and Mason will be able to do more than what we would have been able to do in the past.”
Programs across the country are trying to figure how to best deal with the limitations.
“It’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to do some of the things we wanted to in the spring,” Houston said. “The reality is we’re all in the same boat, all across college football. We’re all dealing with the same basic issues.”