East Carolina will have an opportunity to make a statement at the opening of the 2021 football season after closing 2020 with a pair of wins at Temple (28-3) and over Southern Methodist (52-38) that seemed to indicate the Pirates were turning a corner.
ECU plays Appalachian State in Charlotte on Thursday, Sept. 2, to start the season and will host South Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, Coach Mike Houston and staff will have developmental time with the program that was missing at the outset of the pandemic last year.
The Mountaineers are coming off a 9-3 season that included a 56-28 win over North Texas in the inaugural Myrtle Beach Bowl. The Gamecocks are, of course, members of the Southeastern Conference, which annually produces a handful of the best teams in the country. USC will open the Shane Beamer coaching era at home against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 4 before journeying to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“It’s obviously a challenging start, but certainly one that we’re excited about,” Houston said. “I would think that our fan base would be very excited about it as well. Having a chance to play Appalachian on a kind of a stage like that in Charlotte. It will be a Thursday night game so it will be most likely the first game of the college football season. It will probably be nationally televised. Pretty sure it’s going to be an ESPN game. It’s a great opportunity to start off with a game like that.
“To have your home opener be an SEC regional team, I don’t know if you could ask for a better home opener than that. I just hope that attendance won’t be restricted. I would love to have 50,000 people here when South Carolina shows up.”
Week three will send the Pirates to Marshall on Sept. 18 for a matchup that was on the schedule last season in Greenville before being canceled.
There have been some changes in the football offices at ECU.
“Tim Daoust joins us, coaching our rush outside linebackers and field ends and special teams coordinator,” Houston said. “I’ve known Tim for a little bit of time now. He has a tremendous reputation. He did a great job at Syracuse as special teams coordinator there. He coached the entire defensive front there. He’s been a defensive coordinator at a couple of different places at the FBS level. He brings a lot of experience, a very detail-oriented guy, really hard-nosed. He’s going to demand physicality and demand toughness from his players. He’s going to be very, very organized on special teams and very detailed with special teams.
“We’ve met a good bit the last couple of weeks, just looking at our schemes and stuff. My observations already with the staff is that he’s going to be an extremely organized teacher as well as a demanding coach. I think he’s just really going to be a great fit.
“Chris Foster joining us as running backs coach. I told Chris when De’Rail (Sims) was hired away to Louisville, I made a list. I showed him the list. I had 20-25 names on the list that I went through during the interview process, but the first name on the list was Chris Foster. I’ve known Chris for a long time. He’s got a tremendous reputation in recruiting in the southeast. He’s done a fantastic job at Appalachian State and at Georgia Southern. He’s going to bring a real hard edge to that running backs room, a high motor. He’s going to do a great job with our young, talented room.
“I think those two on-the-field additions really were home runs. Excited about them joining our staff.
“Our most recent addition is Derek Miller, who has just joined us as our director of player personnel and recruiting. Derek brings a tremendous amount of experience. Two stints at LSU in player personnel. One at Southern California and then, most recently, at Bowling Green. He’s a guy that’s going to bring a lot of creativity to our recruiting department, a lot of organization with our coaches and just has a really good eye for talent. Excited to have him on board.”
Dale Steele back
ECU director of football administration, Dale Steele, spent most of last season battling health issues. The former Campbell head coach is back on the job.
“He dealt with that all last year,” Houston said. “He was not with us most of the year but he’s back with us. We’re excited to have him back and he’s excited to be here.”
Pirate players are going through a physical transformation in offseason workouts.
“We’re right in the middle of it right now,” Houston said. “It’s all the time that we did not have last spring and summer. The guys are working very hard right now. We’re going five days a week. They’re lifting, running. We’ve started meeting a couple of times a week with staff with the kids. (This week) we’re allowed to start some walk-throughs. We’re going to start our mat drills … where the coaching staff is really involved with the players and they’re training with the strength and conditioning staff. It’s pretty intense. It gives some of our new staff members an opportunity to work with their positions. It’s our first opportunity as a coaching staff to work with the mid-year enrollees.
“We’re ready to hit things pretty full-stride right here heading into spring practice. The bodies are changing daily. The young kids … I think at the end of the year, we were either the youngest or the second youngest team in the country at the FBS level last year. All these young bodies having the opportunity to be with our strength and conditioning staff right now and our nutrition staff right now, obviously, their bodies are just growing daily. The bigger, faster, stronger goal for our roster you’re seeing change right now. We’re really excited about where we are, excited about going into spring practice. We start March 15th with spring practice. Just really having the time to work with these kids.
‘You’ve got a roster now that’s talented. It’s young. It’s exciting as a coach because you’ve got all the character stuff fixed. You’ve got the culture fixed. All those issues that we inherited two years ago have been eradicated and repaired. Now, you get to go coach. It’s exciting because you know every day we’re going to improve. Every day we’re going to get better because you’ve got these young guys. They’re like clay in a modeler’s hands. You’re able to mold them and develop them day in and day out.”
The Pirates are tested on a regular basis for the coronavirus.
“We test every week,” Houston said. “Everybody in the program, coaches and players, we test every week.”
Spring practice objectives
ECU looks to make the most of opportunities for improvement on the practice field beginning in mid-March.
“The big thing is development,” Houston said. “With the walk throughs that the NCAA is allowing us to do this spring, we’ll probably be more prepared going into the beginning of spring practice than we were my first year. The thing that you don’t realize is this is only the second time I’ve had a spring practice at East Carolina. I got here the first year, we had spring practice that first year and we didn’t have it last year.
“We’re going to be so much farther ahead going into our first year, obviously. We’ve met extensively throughout the winter. With the recruiting dead period, we had more time in the office. We went back. All three phases, offense, defense, special teams, they evaluated everything we did. Then I met with the staffs separately and watched every snap we took last year in all three phases together again. We’ve really been able to identify things we did well, areas that we need to improve on and some specific improvement areas for some specific players.
“I feel like we have a good idea of what we want to do this spring but the big thing is going to be just development and improvement in all three phases.”:
The spring game has been set for April 17 at 1 p.m.
“I don’t know what that’s going to look like from a fan standpoint,” Houston said. “That really is going to be dictated by the governor. Whatever they allow, obviously, we’ll allow that many fans to be in attendance, but I don’t know what it’s going to look like just yet.”
Governor Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that restrictions on attendance at outdoor events would be reduced.
The Pirates are taking some time in awarding their last four scholarships.
“We’re very deliberate with how we’re going to use those spots,” Houston said. “We’re looking for two experienced offensive linemen and I think it’s going to be summer before you see us take them. We’re looking for most likely an edge rusher defensively. And then, an offensive skill player (a receiver), which we feel like we’re pretty close right now to getting a commitment from a guy that we’ve targeted.”
Generally, there is a basis for optimism regarding ECU football.
“Excited where our program is compared to where it was when I got here,” Houston said. “I think we’re poised to take another positive step forward over the next year. We’re excited about the direction that everything is going in. That’s the biggest thing.”