Like many things during the 2020 college football season, Senior Day will be different as East Carolina hosts Southern Methodist on Saturday at noon.
For one thing, seniors can return for another season, according to NCAA stipulations regarding COVID-19.
Pirate seniors who bow out of their college careers on Saturday will not be accompanied by their parents in compliance with current protocols. The fans at Dowdy-Ficklen certainly won’t be as loud in expressing their appreciation as attendance will be limited once again to 3,500.
“I think back to my last game as a college player, being able to walk out with my parents and have a photo with them on either side of me,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “Being recognized in a full home stadium. That is not our reality this year. I really feel for those student-athletes participating in our Senior Day this week from the standpoint of not having their parents down there with them. They’re not going to have the opportunity to be recognized in front of a packed Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“It is going to be significantly impacted. We have a small group we’ll be recognizing Saturday. It’s a group that has contributed greatly to our program during their time here and will leave as graduates of East Carolina University. They are prepared to make a positive impact on our society. I look forward to honoring them, but I feel for them in that it won’t be the traditional Senior Day recognition.”
Smith to Senior Bowl
D’Ante Smith started 26 consecutive games on the offensive front for the Pirates but an injury in the season opener against Central Florida caused him to miss the remainder of the year. He declared for the NFL draft earlier this month.
Smith is rated the No. 9 offensive tackle by Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN among those in the upcoming draft.
Although he won’t play, Smith will be among six ECU players recognized on Senior Day. He will have a game remaining on the college level, the Senior Bowl in Mobile on Jan. 30.
Smith said he has gotten bigger than his Pirate roster weight of 274 pounds.
“I’m progressing physically,” Smith said this week. “I’m going to be way bigger than I’ve been the last couple years here at East Carolina. I’ll be ready to show my best.”
Smith’s absence was noticeable at times this season, particularly when quarterback Holton Ahlers had to scramble under defensive pressure.
“It certainly hurt us not having a player of his ability on the field every week,” Houston said. “He’s made the decision to move on to what’s next in his career. Accepting an invitation to the Senior Bowl will give him a great opportunity to be able to perform one last time for the pro scouts ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft.”
Avoiding 2019 pitfall
Tulsa pinned a 49-24 loss on ECU in Greenville to conclude the 2019 season for the Pirates at 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference.
Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick talked about the parallels to this season’s finale. In 2019, ECU was coming off a 31-24 win at Connecticut the previous week.
This year, the Pirates are looking to follow up on a 28-3 win at Temple.
“As a coach, sometimes you have these feelings and you’re right,” Kirkpatrick said. “Sometimes you have the feelings and you’re wrong. … It’s hard to read last year’s team in the first year especially.”
Kirkpatrick returned to ECU following the 2018 season after three years at James Madison. The Pirates had gone 3-9 for three straight seasons when Kirkpatrick came back.
“After we beat UConn up there, it was almost like everybody kind of thought, ‘OK, the season’s over,'” Kirkpatrick said. “We got off that 3-win and got to that fourth win, that conference win that everybody was afraid we might not get.”
ECU was 1-7 in the AAC in 2019.
“We won that game and we came in and we had really bad practices all week,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was Thanksgiving. There were a lot of distractions. It seemed like the older kids were ready to go. The younger kids seemed like they were ready to get to next season. Going into the game, the coaching staff did not have a great feeling like we were going to play our best and we didn’t mentally. We were so out of the game mentally. …
“There’s been a lot of talk about, ‘Hey, this week we’ve got a game to go. This is important. It’s a home game. It’s a conference game. The season is not over.'”
The Pirates practiced Thursday morning and then had a Thanksgiving meal with protocols.
“It’s the way we have had to eat the last couple of months with spacing and masks,” Houston said Tuesday. “We are going to give them a to-go dinner to take with them. What I’ve asked of them is to protect each other for one more week and staying conscientious of keeping within our bubble. If they do anything with a family in the local area, they need to be conscious of protecting themselves and their teammates.
“We will have testing next week to make sure we come out of the weekend clean before releasing the student-athletes to go home back to their homes for Christmas break. We still have to finish strong with everything on and off the field.”
Harrell staying up top
Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell worked the Temple game from a press box location at Lincoln Financial Field. He plans to be up top at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday.
“Sometimes, getting up there you can see a little bit better,” Harrell said. “You can lay everything out on the table. You can go back and forth to your call sheet and check things out. It’s a little easier to write things. At the same time, down on the field, you can get the call in maybe just a tad quicker. You can see the guys in the eyes and make some adjustments down there.
“We’ve got some great coaches on our defensive staff and they do a great job whether they’re up top or on the field of seeing things and making adjustments, so I have 100 percent faith in those guys.”
SMU started the season 5-0 and was ranked No. 16 before losing, 42-13, at Cincinnati on Oct. 24. The Mustangs (7-2, 4-2 AAC) are third in the league in scoring offense (38.7) and fourth in scoring defense (28.6). The Pirates (2-6, 2-5) are eighth in the AAC in both categories.
“We have our hands full,” Houston said. “You have one of the top rushers in the conference in the tailback (Ulysses Bentley IV). (Shane) Buechele (quarterback) has had a great career at SMU. I don’t know if he will be back next year, but he will probably turn pro. He’s obviously one of the top quarterbacks in our league and has had an outstanding year. Coach (Sonny) Dykes and his staff do a great job offensively. They do a lot of things similar scheme-wise to last year, but they’ve also evolved.”
SMU won last year’s meeting in Dallas, 59-51.
‘He bet on himself’
Houston announced after the Temple game that freshman walk-on defensive lineman Elijah Morris from Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville was going on full scholarship.
The ECU coach had been waiting for the right moment.
“I spoke to his father a month ago because he has earned the right to be on scholarship at East Carolina,” Houston said. “He bet on himself. He had multiple scholarship opportunities at lower divisions. He came to our camp twice before coming here and walking on. He was given nothing and earned everything. He had the turnover early in the ball game at Temple, another example of him being in the right place at the right time. He had a very solid performance on Saturday.
“It turned out exactly how I wanted because he has the traits and the things about him as a person that you enjoy coaching. He is going to maximize his God-given ability. He’s going to be a great teammate and leader. He’s got that toughness and plays hard. All those traits on which you are building a program. To be able to celebrate that after a win with his teammates was special because they watch him every day. They see what he puts into his preparation each day. They see that he’s earned it.
“To have them be able to celebrate there with him Saturday, it’s a special moment that he’ll never forget. It’s a special moment I’ll never forget and I’m sure his family will never forget.”
Morris has had a take-away in both of ECU’s wins, fumble recoveries at South Florida and Temple. He has played in all eight games with 11 solo tackles and five assists.