This has been a normal summer for East Carolina football, at least in comparison to the restrictions of 2020. Recruiting has been productive. Players have been getting bigger, stronger and faster. Pirates coach Mike Houston will soon begin formal preparations for the 2021 season opener in Charlotte against Appalachian State on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU).
“Busy,” Houston said Wednesday. “June was wide open. I think we probably had — I don’t know — well over 2,000 high school prospects on campus. We had a ton. It’s a busy summer.”
Offseason development has resumed. Players had to work out on their own last summer due to COVID protocols.
“They’ve been with our strength staff all summer,” Houston said. “During June, there were sessions watching film with the coaches, doing some football-related movements with the coaches, stuff like that.
“Then the players have been, for the month of June, they were doing two player-led practices a week. That’s without the coaches out there, our older players leading those.
“Then, in July, they were doing three a week. It’s primarily one-on-one, pass skelly and drill work. They’ve been busy. They finished up with their lifting and conditioning stuff on Monday, so they have the rest of this week off. They will report for fall camp on Tuesday. We report August 3 and the first practice is August 4.”
Name, Image, Likeness
New regulations permit athletes to make money on their name, image and likeness.
“A lot of our guys have some agreements with some places,” Houston said. “Most of it is like a discount or something like that. Holton (Ahlers. returning quarterback) has a couple of different deals. He had his own clothing, faith-based clothing brand.
“There’s nothing to the extent of what you saw with the quarterback at Alabama or anything like that. There’s some small things going on.”
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said last week that Bryce Young had received nearly $1 million in endorsement opportunities.
Another change in regulations allows athletes to play without having to sit out a year the first time they transfer. Houston was asked how that situation would impact his recruiting philosophy.
“I think everybody is going to adjust,” Houston said. “I think transfers are just going to become a more prominent part of the game. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way it’s going to work out.
“You’re probably not going to see us sign a class of 25 high school kids. You’re probably going to see us sign a combination class. I’ve heard some things that the football oversight committee, they’re looking at making a possible adjustment to the 25 hardcap. You might see some of the recruiting rules change in the next calendar year. … What they’re worried about is you’re going to look up and you’re not going to have as many spots available for high school kids. I just think you’re going to see some adjustment to give the programs more flexibility to bring in more new players each year.”
ECU basketball coach Joe Dooley noted last week that some programs plan to recruit exclusively from the transfer portal.
“I hope we don’t get to that point in football,” Houston said. “I think that would completely change the dynamic and the chemistry of what I think is right of the whole team concept.”
Texas and Oklahoma are poised to move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference. It remains to be seen how the resulting fallout will impact the American Athletic Conference and ECU.
“I don’t think anybody knows exactly what’s going to happen right now,” Houston said. “There will be some impact. It depends on what happens with the Big 12. They’re down to eight teams now. Do they go away? Do they try to expand? Do they try to merge with the Pac-12? What happens to them? Because what happens to them is going to dictate what happens to the rest of us. I do think that our conference is very stable right now and I do think that we are viewed as a pretty high caliber-of-play conference. I would hope that all of this would work out to benefit both the American and East Carolina.”
Strength and conditioning coach John Williams Jr., a graduate of Rose High School in Greenville, is vital in the physical development of the roster. He accompanied Houston from James Madison.
“He and I have connections all the way back to when he was at the University of North Carolina in the late ’90s,” Houston said. “We have a lot of people in common that he has worked for that are friends of mine also. So when I took the job at JMU and started looking to fill that position, in my opinion, that’s the first position that you have to fill. That person spends more time with the student-athletes, year-around than anybody else — he and his staff. It’s a critical hire for your program.
“I knew John a little bit. I knew of him and his reputation, but the more time I spent with him through the interview process, it was very obvious that he was the perfect fit for what I thought we needed. He has grown over the years. He and I are very close. We’re in lockstep philosophy-wise. I think he’s as good as anybody in the country. We’re very blessed to have him here leading our strength and conditioning staff.”
Run game, controlling the line of scrimmage
The Pirates appear to be in better position to run the football and control the line of scrimmage. Houston feels good about the potential in those key areas.
“Better than I have the previous two years,” Houston said. “I think we’re going to be significantly improved in all facets over last year. Particularly, I think we’re going to be improved on our fronts. You’re not going to be playing with freshmen on the D-line this year. You’re playing with second-year guys. You’re going to play with some legitimate depth. There’s more seasoned ability on the offensive line and I think we’ve got two pretty good running backs back there.
“I think this team is drastically different than what I took the field with in 2019 in my first year.”
Impact of transfers
The 2021 roster has some transfers who could have an immediate impact.
“You’re going to have some,”: Houston said. “Offensively, your most significant guys are probably going to be in the tight end room with Aaron Jarman (Temple) and Ryan Jones (Oklahoma). Ryan is still a little unproven because of his position change from what he played at Oklahoma (linebacker), but he has a lot of ability. Can he use that ability on the field? We’ll see how it translates. Really excited to have Aaron Jarman with us. I think he’s going to bring a lot to that room.
“What you see from some of the other guys on offense, I don’t know. The other guys, for the most part, joined us over the summer so until they’ve been through padded practices. I don’t want to put too much into them.
“Defensively, I think D.J. Ford (safety, North Carolina) is going to make a significant impact. He’s a seasoned veteran, a really, really high character young man and a good football player so I think he’s going to make an impact there. How much a couple of the other ones will make an impact, we’ll see. Again, the other ones for the most part, joined us after spring ball. Jacoby Simpson (inside linebacker, Cisco Community College) was with us during the spring, but he’s a really young guy so we’ll see how much he contributes this year.”
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium has a listed capacity of 50,000, but attendance was significantly limited last year. The Pirates are anticipating more of a home field advantage this season as fans return on a large scale.
“I would hope that we’ll have big crowds for every home game,” Houston said. “I would hope close to capacity crowds for some of them. Our fan base is one of the reasons I took this job. It’s a significant asset for us and so we’re excited to have them back here with us. It will be good to have fans back in the stands.
“Hopefully, everybody is ready to get back out and be at the games on Saturday. We’ve got a pretty challenging but exciting schedule so you’re going to see some quality opponents.”
Preseason practice emphasis
Developing physicality and keeping players healthy makes for a fine line in preseason practice. There are also rule changes for which to prepare.
“You have your traditional things,” Houston said, “You’ve got to get the team ready. It’s always a balance. You want a very physical, intense preseason camp. You also want them to be fresh and healthy before the opener. We spent part of June and the last part of July planning out preseason camp. My big thing is I want to be as fresh as we can be for the Appalachian State game. I want us to be as healthy as we can be for the Appalachian State game. Those are the things that you want to kind of keep in the forefront of your mind as you’re planning this stuff out.
“With some of the rule changes and things, you’re doing some things a little different this year during preseason camp. Some things may be a little more important. Obviously, there’s been some adjustments with how the structure of preseason camp goes this year. It’s going to be a little bit of a different year.
“To me the biggest rule change is the rule change in overtime. After the first overtime, in the second overtime, you have to go for two (points on the conversion). After that, it becomes basically a 2-point shootout. They’re trying to keep from having the games like LSU and Texas A&M had a few years ago, a 5-hour game that went seven overtimes. So you’re putting a huge emphasis on a 2-point play. You’re making it so if a game goes to overtime there’s a good chance it’s going to be decided by a 2-point play. Both offensively and defensively, we have to be more prepared and just have more of an arsenal of calls for those situations because it could come up a lot more.
“The other rule changes are with the structure of the preseason camp. They limit the number of days you can be in full pads. They limit the number of days you can be in shells. There’s more helmeted practices this year than ever before. You just have structures and things as far as getting your situations in just a little bit differently than you have in the past. There’s some drills that, to be honest, … some of the old school stuff that you’re just not going to see any more.”
Houston has been watching some of the Olympics from Tokyo.
“Yeah, a little bit, each night,” he said.
Can the ECU coach envision football as an Olympic sport?
“I don’t know that that would ever work,” Houston said. “The preparation for that would be pretty vast. Then the wear and tear in addition to playing an NFL schedule or a college football schedule, depending on who you pull your athletes from, I just don’t know how well it matches up with the Olympics.”
The USA definitely would have an advantage playing American football.
“I doubt if it would be competitive at the beginning,” Houston said. “But if it became a sport, just like the basketball, you’d see it even out a little bit.”
The Pirates will match improvement and experience from last season against a demanding schedule.
“We’re just excited,” Houston said. “I really like the roster. We have everybody back. Last year we trotted out there, the second youngest team in all the country. We kind of took our lumps with young guys last year. All of those guys are back and have some experience now and we really like them.
“I like our character. I like our ability. I like the improvement that the kids have made over the summer. I’m excited to get started with this fall season. I’m excited for the direction of the program.”
“We were sitting with the director of officials this morning and talking through things,” Houston said. “After we finished, my guys bring up the Tulsa game. You look at that and you look at the way we played Navy, the wins at the end of the year. You easily could be sitting here and have gone to a bowl game last year. The players know that and they know how much they’ve improved so I think there’s confidence.
“Now, our schedule’s tough. It’s the most challenging schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here. Appalachian State is picked to win the Sun Belt. They’ll probably be right around the Top 25 in the country. Marshall (Sept. 18) is picked to win Conference USA. South Carolina (Sept. 11) is an SEC East team.
“And then you have our conference, which is what it is. It’s one of the top conferences in the country. We have a very challenging schedule, but our kids, they’re going to be drastically improved. It should be an exciting fall.”
Appalachian will have Clemson/Duke transfer Chase Brice among its options at quarterback.
“He was there for spring practice,” Houston said. “I’d say he’ll be prepared and he’s a veteran guy. He’s an experienced guy, a starter from the ACC. They have a 1,200-yard tailback (Camerun Peoples) back. … That kid’s pretty good. … He has three senior receivers. The thing with that Appalachian State team, all of those seniors would have been gone but they all got the extra COVID year. You have a team that’s primarily seniors. So he (Brice) has a lot of ability around him. He may have a better supporting cast at Appalachian than he had at Duke.”
The Pirates have undergone an extensive makeover in the Houston era, which enters its third season.
“I like the kids we have in the program,” Houston said. “I’m excited to watch them play.”