The East Carolina football team is trying to stay in the moment as the Coronavirus and potentially stormy weather make the future uncertain. But two days into practice for the 2020 season, Pirates coach Mike Houston has seen improvement.
“It was a typical eastern North Carolina August morning this morning so that was good,” Houston said Saturday. “We need the heat. … The kids watched the film yesterday afternoon. We’ve got a group of returners.They have a lot of pride in themselves and they’re hungry to get this thing going.
“They weren’t pleased with our practice yesterday, not that anybody wanted to go out there and not practice sharp but the film was what the film was and they took it very, very well. I thought we had a great start to practice, a ton of energy. Just so many huge improvements from yesterday from a lot of aspects.
“They really pushed themselves to practice at a much higher level, much better pursuit, much better pushing through, playing fast and that heat now beating down on them, which you can all understand that. There was a point in practice where they really had to make some decisions. I was really pleased with the bulk of the roster, just how they pushed through.
“I think day two was a positive improvement from day one. I told them, no doubt we got better today. It’s certainly going to continue to be a challenge as you’re basically having to play yourself into shape. Most preseasons, you report in shape.
“It was a solid step. Two practices in a row. It’s two more than we’ve had at any point this year so — good day to be a Pirate.”
Number of games impacts bowl hopes
ECU has lost games at South Carolina (Sept. 12) and home against Norfolk State (Sept. 19) from the schedule due to the pandemic. Athletic director Jon Gilbert is looking at scheduling options.
Obviously, more games mean more chances to gain bowl eligibility.
“I have no clue on what bowl eligible means this year,” Houston said. ” … We just want to play — 10, 11, nine (games). We just want to play. Jon is very good at his job. I believe in him and trust him completely. He’ll put together the best schedule that he can for East Carolina University and we’re going to play it.”
James Madison is rebuilding its schedule. The Dukes would be an intriguing replacement. It’s where Houston and much of his staff coached before coming to Greenville.
“It would have some intrigue,” Houston said. “A bunch of players I recruited. I know them well. Good football team, real good football team.”
Areas for improvement
Houston guided the Pirates to a 4-8 record in 2019. Quarterback Holton Ahlers is one of eight returning starters on an offense coordinated by Donnie Kirkpatrick.
“I think the things to improve on, if you’re talking offensively, it took us about half the year to get going last year,” Houston said. “The reasons for that, there’s a lot of them. Holton’s first full year as a starter, new offensive coordinator, learning our personnel, us learning them, them learning us. Donnie and Holton kind of getting on the same page. Us making some adjustments about midseason to be able to help him a little bit more.
“The second half of the season, he played at an extremely high level. Certainly, we want to build on that. We all know that we’ve got to be more efficient and more effective running the football. I’d like to keep the production in the passing game that we had the second half of the season and be able to add in that dimension of being able to run the football effectively. Those two pieces right there.
“Our receiving room, we don’t have huge numbers but the ones we have are pretty solid players and they all have experience so real pleased with that as far as having something to build on from a leadership standpoint with our personnel.”
The ECU coach was asked about quarterbacks after practice on Saturday.
:”There’s a bunch of them,” Houston said. “That’s one thing. How to get reps has been one deal. Of course, there’s good and bad to practicing the way we’re practicing right now. One of the really good things is, running multiple practices at the same time, you’re getting a lot of reps. Now, the negative is Donnie is not with all of them so he’s having to coach a lot of stuff off film.
“But the things I’ve seen, I think Holton has looked like Holton of last year. He has complete control of the offense. He has complete control of the huddle. He understands the offense and he looks like what you would expect.
“The young ones, they’re all over the place. You have (Bryan) Gagg and (Alex) Flinn. They have a little bit of their feet on the ground. They are at least able to operate the offense at a little bit of a higher manner. Then you have the three freshmen (Mason Garcis, Taji Hudson and Ryan Stubblefield). You’ve seen some pretty impressive things talent-wise from those three, but there’s a lot of difference standing there throwing skelly (skeleton drills) and being able to run an offense and lead a group of five offensive linemen that are all older than you and standing in front of them and seeing the bullets start flying as the defense starts coming at you.
“Every snap, I told one of them today. He had an up and down day today. He made some throws and you’re like, ‘Wow, that is pretty impressive right there.’ And then he had some moments where he just crumbled. Every snap they get, they will improve. Every snap they experience. We’re throwing more at them than they ever had in high school. To sum it up, it’s a room that has a lot of talent. It’s a room that’s going to be highly competitive and it’s a room that has the depth that this program needs, not just this year but for the foreseeable future.”
An offseason effort has been made to bolster the defensive line.
“We’ve got numbers,” Houston said. “They’re a small army over there. Last year we had very low numbers, but we’ve got an army of them over there and they look like defensive linemen. They’re big kids. They’ve got good size. We’ve kind of split it up this year because of that with Byron Thweatt and Roy Tesh both coaching the defensive line together. So they get a lot of individual instruction, a lot of fundamental teaching, much like those quarterbacks.
“They’re going to do some things where you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty impressive.’ And they’re going to do some things where you’re like, ‘He’s got to learn. He’s inexperienced. He’s got to mature.’ I’m pleased. I like the room, We’ve just got to grow them up. Just got to build them and grow them up.”
Houston was asked about developing depth.
“That’s what we’re doing right now with the practices on multiple fields,” Houston said. “You have the incoming freshmen that are getting just as many reps as your returning starters. Right now we have them split up where the ones, and we don’t call them ones and threes, but in essence the ones and threes are on one field. The twos and fours are on another field. We just call them group A and group B. We shuffle them around a lot. Guys go back and forth between fields, day to day.
“But in essence you are building your depth the way we’re practicing right now. It may kill all of us. It’s certainly aging the coaches but I do think it’s what we have to do this year. Every one of those quarterbacks are getting reps. Every one of those D-linemen are getting reps. Every one of those running backs are getting reps. Those reps are what’s going to prepare them for games.”
The Pirates are working on conditioning in the process of practicing.
“Our practices are focused on trying to practice faster and trying to get as many reps as we can and really try to play ourselves into shape,” Houston said. “We’re taking small breaks at certain times during practice but we’re really pushing the kids hard during the time between the breaks. That’s where we’re getting a lot of our cardiovascular.
“We are lifting every other day. They have a lift this (Saturday) afternoon starting at 2:30. Now with the restrictions still from the state of North Carolina, our lifting is not quite as easy as it used to be. Our lifting is in small groups from 2:30 all the way to dinner. A lot of coordination and organization has to go in there to get that to run smoothly.
“But we are lifting and running both in preseason camp.”
The eligibility of freshman quarterback Mason Garcia for 2020 has not been determined.
“Compliance is working with the NCAA,” Houston said. “We’re hopeful. It’s a deal where I think it would help him if he were able to travel, if he were able to play a little bit this year. It’s not the worst thing in the world if that doesn’t happen, but our administration is working on that right now.”
ECU has brought in a number of transfers.
“A lot of them have already made some positive impacts,” Houston said. “When you look at Avery Jones (UNC) and Justin Chase (N.C. State), both of those guys are working with the first and second offensive line. They’re pushing for starting positions. You look at Chris Willis (Appalachian State), an experienced guy on that defensive line. His maturity has been the thing that has been the most impressive so far. He’s actually played and played significant snaps. He’s been really good to see there.
“Some of the guys in the secondary, whether it’s Robert Kennedy (Lackawanna) or Shawn Dorseau (Riverside) or Nigel Knott, (Alabama), they’ve made us more athletic. They’ve made us faster. They’ve given us depth. …
“It’s a deal where you’re adding in those sprinkles of older players into an extremely young football team. That’s only going to help with growth of those young players and it’s going to help at some places you might not have to play a freshman this year, where if you would have, it could have been some rough days.”
The Pirates will be tracking the potentially severe weather that was headed to Florida on Saturday.
“We’ve talked about the preseason, trying to push them hard while we’re out there but taking it slow with some stuff just to not bring them along too fast,” Hoiuston said. “We originally planned on taking tomorrow (Sunday) as an off day from practice — still train, a lot of film, stuff like that. We have changed that. We are going to practice tomorrow. We’re going to monitor the weather as to whether or not we practice on Monday or Tuesday. I do want to get us an off day here pretty early in camp.”