East Carolina held its second scrimmage of the preseason on Friday after an announcement that the Pirates would open their 2020 schedule at home against Marshall on Sept. 12.
Pirates coach Mike Houston lauded the weather and the effort.
“The weather continues to keep us confused,” Houston said. “We thought we were going to have a hard time getting this one in and it’s probably the best weather day we’ve had in a week and a half.
“What a great day, great day for football. The kids did not disappoint with their energy and intensity today. Both sides came out with a real high level of intensity, but what a difference a week makes.
“The offense today gave up one sack. It was in the second half of the scrimmage. We had one turnover and multiple explosive plays. Executed on a very high level, very good on third down today.
“Defensively, played very hard. A lot of intensity. Very physical. Made some mistakes in critical moments that allowed the offense to have some explosive plays, but a highly-competitive scrimmage.
“Similar snap count. The first group, they got north of 40 plays each. The second group, about the same and our other kids probably got 25-30 plays . We incorporated in kickoff and kickoff return, which is good to see that.
“A lot more work with the punt unit and the punt return unit, so just a really solid day. It’s going to be a great film to watch because of the high level of intensity and competitive nature of the scrimmage so it’s going to be a great teaching film and learning film for everybody.”
Impact of definite date
ECU’s season-opening date was changed for the third time. But knowing when the first contest will be allows for more certainty in preparation.
“We’re where we are, practice-wise,” Houston said. “We’ve got to be smart from here on out. We’ve got to allow ourselves time to get ready. At the same time, we’ve also got to be smart with the players. We’re so young. We need the work, but we also have to be fresh going into that game. The good thing is we’re on a schedule now. We’re taking multiple days off a week. The practices this week were very short. It’s not a typical preseason training camp where you’re doing the 24 periods, six days a week all day long. It is a much more relaxed schedule. It will be a little bit more of the same, being smart with when to give the kids rest, especially you take a day like today when they can go out and compete at that level then you feel good about, ‘Hey, let’s just work on conditioning.’
“All we’re going to do tomorrow (Saturday) is we’re going to do some body weight evaluation. Doing a bod pod with everybody and then getting some conditioning in. No football tomorrow other than that so it will be a short amount of time over here. (We’ll) give them a lot of time to rest up. Sunday will be a very light workout, watch the film. Monday’s a day off. You feel like you can do that when they push themselves the way they have the last couple of days.”
Seven turnovers marred the first scrimmage for the offense. Holton Ahlers completed 16 passes in a row in the second scrimmage and was 17 for 20 for the day. He threw two touchdown passes to C.J. Johnson and one to Tyler Snead.
“It was improved,” Houston said. “Holton was very, very good. … I thought he did a good job under pressure because it’s not that the defense didn’t get pressure, Holton just did a really good job of getting rid of the ball on time. He made very good decisions with the ball. He threw one interception late but he knew it as soon as he let it out of his hand.
“The first probably five or six possessions, he was on it. … He was a drastic improvement. I thought Mason (Garcia) showed improvement. He got a lot more work today. (Ryan) Stubblefield got a good bit of work today. The one kid that we haven’t talked about a ton, Taji Hudson, he’s very, very raw, but a couple of times under pressure he pulls the ball down and takes off. He is a dynamic athlete. I’m really excited he’s part of our program.”
Houston noted that the offense took advantage of some mistakes by the defense.
“I think they competed at a high level,” Houston said of the defensive unit. “Played with great intensity. Played very physical. The thing that disappoints me is we did have some breakdowns. A lot of it is discipline. We had some penalties. Again, discipline. We gave up a couple of big plays because of discipline. I think that’s the big negative from today. It’s not that they weren’t giving great effort, The effort was very, very good. When you look at just where we were a year and a half ago, a year ago, 10 months ago, there is drastic improvement. There is no doubt, but we’ve got to correct those things. You’ve got a lot of young kids. Every snap they get is going to be great experience and so all the things I mentioned are correctable. So this tape’s going to be important for the defensive side of the ball.”
The ECU coach said play in the secondary has not been consistent.
“It depends on what day it is,” Houston said. “Today (Friday), good and bad. A couple of the big plays today were on busted coverages. Obviously, you can’t have that. You’ve got to protect against the deep ball. Now, part of that is Holton, C.J. had a huge play, a scramble drill kind of deal, which is something we work offensively. We’re pretty good at it, but it’s a great teaching clip for those defensive kids on how to play the quarterback when he gets out of the pocket. Some good, some bad today.”
The Pirates have avoided injuries for the most part while taking pandemic-related tests and precautions.
“Pretty healthy right now,” Houston said. “Minimal. Anything we have are bumps and bruises. No injuries today so I’m happy. The defensive kids are doing up-downs in the end zone right now and they’re all (upset). Coach (Blake) Harrell (defensive coordinator) is mad at them. They’re mad at Coach Harrell right now. They’re all (upset). The offense, they’re throwing a big party.
“I told the defensive kids, ‘Now, after all the crap you talked, you’re going to have to listen to it for the next week. Just go ahead and eat crow.’ I’m happy. Nobody got hurt. It was great competition. The offensive skill kids played the way I expected them to play today. That was the thing I was most pleased with, just seeing us execute. A lot of that has to do with the offensive line, protecting the quarterback. Had some explosive runs today. Keaton Mitchell had a huge day. The one thing he showed today was exactly what we knew coming in — if he gets to the second level, they’re going to have a hard time catching him.”
There’s a lot of history between ECU and Marshall. A plane crash on the return trip to West Virginia following a 17-14 loss in Greenville in 1970 killed 75 people, including 37 Thundering Herd football players.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of excitement around that game, just because of the history and the 50-year anniversary of the tragic plane crash,” Houston said. “Remembering those that lost their lives that day. On the other side of it, I think we’re just excited to have the possibility of football this fall. That was the last thing we talked about out there on the field. September 12th, we have a date. The kids, again, you look at the job they’re doing with protecting themselves during this pandemic.
“If you had told me a month ago that we would be where we are with the testing, I don’t know that I would have believed you. But that’s a credit to them. That’s what I told them, ‘It’s a credit to you and your desire to make this thing go of how you’re protecting yourselves, protecting each other. I just think September 12th is excitement because of the possibility of us being able to play.”
Getting more production from the ground game has been a point of emphasis.
“I thought we made great strides today,” Houston said. “Much more productive today than last week. Chase Hayden, he was disappointed with his performance last week. I was a little disappointed with his performance last week. Today (Friday), I thought he did a really good job several times. Several times he made yardage out of something that wasn’t there. That’s the true sign of a great back. Anybody can take the yardage that’s there. But when there’s three yards that’s there on the play and you get seven or eight, or 15, that’s the sign of a productive running back. So I thought Chase had a solid day. I already mentioned Keaton had a huge day. Want to look at the film a little more. I thought we had a solid day today but I think drastic improvement in the run game from last week.”
Scrimmages provide a means for getting a boatload of young ECU players needed experience.
“We’re controlling the reps and we’re not doing much during the week,” Houston said. “We’ll probably (scrimmage every week) for awhile. I don’t want to do too much and so I’ve got to be careful with that. The thing I like about it is we’re able to get game experience for all of these first-year players. Sixty new players on our roster right now. You can not substitute experience. So I think we’re going to do a good bit of it. Is it going to be every week? I don’t know about that. Two weeks out, we’ll stop all the stuff like that and really prepare for Marshall. So for right now, it’s something we feel good about doing.”