The rescheduled start of spring football practice pointed out a long-standing need for the East Carolina program.
“Obviously, we got put behind a little bit by some of the weather we had in Eastern North Carolina last week,” Houston said. “Thankfully, it ended up not being quite as bad as some of the experts thought it was going to be.
“We were able to get started with practice on Friday. We had a really good helmeted practice on Friday and followed it back up on Saturday morning with a very energetic, enthusiastic, high energy practice. We had two really good helmeted practices to start the spring.
” … This is a big spring for us. It’s big for everybody. I think it’s just a huge spring for us just with the program and where it was when we got here and what we want it to be and I think this is a big spring for us.”
An indoor practice facility would help the Pirates stay on schedule despite inclement weather.
“I would say that it’s something that’s definitely needed,” Houston said. “It’s a priority for myself. I think it’s a priority for Jon Gilbert (athletic director) and I think he’s working with the school and the administration to at least come up with a plan. He and I, we’ve talked openly. This has been something that’s been a need here for a while. Until you’ve got a plan together, there’s going to be no movement.
“That’s where it sits right there, trying to put together a plan and trying to put together specs of what that would look like and try to get that done.”
Houston said most schools in the American Athletic Conference have indoor practice facilities.
“I know that us and UNC-Charlotte are the only two FBS programs in North Carolina that don’t have one,” Houston said.
Program overhaul since 2019
ECU did not have spring practice in 2020. The Pirates have undergone a significant overhaul since Houston’s initial offseason session at ECU in 2019, just after he was hired. .
“I think speed, depth, athletic ability, I think all those things are significantly upgraded from where they were when I took the job,” Houston said. “I think the culture is probably the biggest upgrade and the way the kids go about their business, whether it be on the football field, in training or in the dorm or around town. We’ve drastically upgraded the expectations for how we’re going to perform.
“Things are a lot different. That’s why I say this is such a big spring for us. This is a huge developmental part of the offseason that we did not get after my first year. It’s very, very important to be able to continue to bring the roster along to try to get to the place where we’re competing the way we want to compete.”
Safety Gerard Stringer had 63 tackles for ECU in 2019 but missed last season with a torn Achilles. Stringer is back but still to be determined is how many meaningful snaps he will get.
“That’s going to be depending upon him,” Houston said. “He’s definitely going to have to work and compete at a much higher level than he was in my first year here in order to get on the field. He knows that. I’ve been very honest with him about it and he can see it. My first year, so many of those positions, you had one player so guys played by default.
“Now you’ve got depth and competition to where it’s forcing guys to compete at a higher level, which is a good thing, because they’re playing better. If you don’t have any competition, you’re not going to reach your maximum potential. Now that there is competition in every room, the kids are pushing each other to be better, which is creating the overall performance of all of them to be elevated.”
Wide receiver Blake Proehl was a frequent target for the Pirates before opting for eligibility in the NFL draft after the 2020 season. Proehl had 47 catches for a team-high 577 yards last season.
Who is going to replace him in terms of targets?
“We’ve got some guys on the roster right now that I’m excited to see how they could fit in those shoes, see if they can prepare to be that guy,” Houston said. “That’s exciting for us to see this spring. There’s lots of guys with opportunities right there. That will be exciting to watch.
“We’ve got some pretty good players coming back. I obviously think pretty highly of Tyler Snead. C.J. (Johnson), this is a big offseason for him. It’s his first spring practice. We need to bring him along and get him playing at a higher level. A lot of those other young guys who have been in the background, they’re going to get their opportunity to see what they can do. I’m excited about that group.”
The 2020 season was a period of transition for the defense with a new coordinator, Blake Harrell, and a new system.
“We made significant improvement on the field last year under Blake and our defensive staff,” Houston said. “We were 10 points per game better in conference play and over 100 yards better in conference play. That’s a significant improvement over my first season and that was without an offseason. It’s good that the guys have the same coordinator for the second year. That’s something that’s been pretty unstable here at ECU. Most of the guys have the same position coach for two years in a row, which that is something that has not been very stable here, also.
“The players are just excited about the fact that they know the defense and know their position coach and all that stuff.”
Place kicker Jake Verity also opted for the NFL after becoming ECU’s career scoring leader last season.
“It’s going to be a pretty good competition there,” Houston said. “This spring, you have competition between Patrick Nations and Owen Daffer for the place kicking duties. Then, I’m bringing in a couple of pretty talented kids this summer.
“You’re going to have a lot of competition between now and our opener against App State to kind of see who our starting place kicker is going to be.”
Latrell Scott comes to ECU from the head coaching position at Norfolk State. He will serve as passing game coordinator as well as tight ends and inside receivers coach.
“Certainly excited to have a guy with his experience,” Houston said. “Latrell has been a position coach in the ACC and the SEC. He’s been a head football coach at multiple institutions. He has a tremendous reputation, a great recruiter. A very strong football mind and just a quality character human being. We’re really excited to have him and his family here with us. We think that they’re really going to bring a lot to our staff.”
The Pirates recently added Jake Kirkendall as director of football operations.
“Jake comes to us from Vanderbilt,” Houston said. “Before that, he was at Tennessee. He brings a lot of experience, a tremendous work ethic. He’s extremely detailed and organized. He will be a great asset to us as well.”
Spring game format
The Purple-Gold game is scheduled for April 17. Houston has not made a decision on the format.
“We really haven’t solidified that yet,” Houston said. “Traditionally, I’ve done offense vs. defense. We do probably have a little more depth right now than we do some years but we’ll just have to see as the spring goes on what’s best, but most likely it will be offense vs. defense.”
The Pirates generally are healthy but a few players are dealing with ailments.
“You have a few,” Houston said. “You have some long-term stuff. You have some day-to-day stuff. You’re still dealing with COVID. We don’t have everybody. We have some guys that will miss the spring. We have some guys that will be limited through the spring and we have some guys that will be back next week or back in a few weeks after that.
“It’s kind of a hodge-podge with some of that stuff.”
Returning quarterback Holton Ahlers has been through a physical transformation.
“He’s changed his body,” Houston said. “He’s worked really hard on his flexibility, explosion. He probably is down maybe 10 pounds. He’s really running well, moving well. He looks a lot more explosive and sudden. It’s something that we identified back in late November, early December — just these are things you need to work on. Coach (John) Williams (strength and conditioning) and his staff came up with a concrete plan and Holton committed to it.
“He did all the workouts everybody else did and then he’s training a second time one-on-one with one of the strength coaches, working on just the things he needed to improve on. It’s been obvious … that the work he put in, the work that the strength and conditioning staff put in, the impact that it’s made on him. … He just looks really sharp out there.”
Houston has spent some time with new ECU chancellor Philip Rogers.
“I met him, actually, earlier in the year on his first visit here when he was formally introduced,” Houston said. “He wanted to make it a priority to show his support of athletics. He and Jon Gilbert and I had a breakfast and shared some time together.
“I’m ecstatic to get some stability in that office. Certainly, I think we’re all very indebted to Ron Mitchelson for the incredible job he did and could not have been more supportive. He made it known from the get-go he did not want that job long term. Glad we have some stability there. Jon Gilbert and I are on our fourth chancellor in two years. We’re just excited for stability.
“I do think he’ll be very committed to athletics. Really, that’s all you ask for, somebody that cares.”
The NFL draft is coming up April 29 through May 1.
“We have our Pro Day coming up here (March 30),” Houston said. “Excited for Blake (Proehl) and Jake (Verity) and D’Ante (Smith), for those three guys to be able to participate in pro day here in front of about 25 NFL scouts. We’ll have a large group in attendance.
“All three of them have an agent and are training at whatever site their agent has arranged for them. They will come back into town a few days before Pro Day to spend some time here just so they’re ready for that workout.”
The Pirates will start the season in Charlotte against Appalachian State on Thursday, Sept. 2. ECU will take a 2-game winning streak from 2020 into that contest.
“Really excited about where we are,” Houston said. “It’s been a hard two years since I got here. We’ve been through a lot of change and a lot of transformation. That, along with the pandemic, was not easy but I’m just thankful to have the group that I have. I believe in this group of coaches. I believe in this group of players. We’re really excited about the potential that we have for the 2021 season. Everybody in Pirate Nation saw that potential the latter half of the season last year. I think everybody is excited for it.”
Tuesday was the first day in full pads since a 52-38 home win over Southern Methodist completed the 2020 season.
“Well, the first day in pads did not disappoint, I can say that,” Houston said Tuesday. “Little sloppy in the beginning, which is not unexpected. You put the pads on and you bring in intensity, contact and competition into the game, and it’s been a while since we’ve been in that setting.
“As practice went on, the guys settled in. The one thing I will say is the days of anything less than highly physical defense and a physical offense are over. That bunch, it’s to the point now where we have to keep it from going overboard. But they competed at a very high level. There was a ton of energy, a ton of intensity out there on the field.
“Lots of good, a million things to correct, but the one thing they responded to was we challenged them to show this was going to be a hard-nosed football team and I think there was a lot of intent in the way they practiced today and to show that in everything they did. It was really enjoyable to see. Now you can fix all the other stuff.”