Mike Houston wasn’t sure what day it was when he talked about East Carolina’s preseason football practice on Thursday. There is a quality of similarity to the morning sessions as the Pirates prepare for the 2021 season.
“Whatever day of practice,” Houston said. “Thursday? That is the deal with camp. You get in these things. It’s the same schedule no matter what day of the week it is. You really lose track of what day it is.
“The kids, they talk about it. They laugh about it. It has been very, very similar the last several days with the weather and all that stuff.”
ECU took a break from full gear for the most recent workout.
“Another solid day,” said the ECU coach. “Maybe not quite what I wanted … but I can’t say I didn’t expect it a little bit. We had a really, really physical practice (Wednesday).
“(Wednesday) was one of the better practices. if not the best practice, I’ve had since we’ve been here as far as the way they competed and executed. The physicality was very, very high.
“We did back off of them a little bit today, trying to get ready for Saturday (scrimmage). I told them, ‘What you showed (Wednesday) was we got a chance to be a really good football team. Now, it’s the stuff that we’ve got to control. It comes down to the execution. It comes down to the discipline, it comes down to not making those big mistakes — or the small mistakes. Those are the factors we’ve got to continue to iron out as we push towards the scrimmage Saturday or as we push toward our opener.”
The Pirates have their first game on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m. in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium against Appalachian State (ESPNU).
Maturity impacts practice
An older team might have had a more productive practice after the exceptional effort on Wednesday.
“If you have an old team, you don’t have to worry about it, because the old guys, they understand,” Houston said. “If you have a team that isn’t maybe quite as mature, those are the ones we’ve got to do a better job, the coaching staff, because we’ve got to help them through this. They’ve got to have some kind of ownership themselves. That’s what we talked about after practice. I could run them after practice. I could do that, but that kind of defeats the purpose of what I was trying to accomplish.
“So there’s got to be some ownership or we just can’t do this. We’ll just stay in pads the whole way through. It’s going to be one of the two. We’ve got to work together. They’ve got to respond. They’ve got to understand the expectations each day. We’ve got to do a good job of helping them with that.
Special force on special teams
Demetrius Mauney, who arrived in 2019 as a productive running back, is getting attention for his potential as a play-maker on special teams.
“To me, I hope he’s on all four (punt and kickoff coverage, punt and kickoff return),” Houston said. “He wants to be. What an incredible kid. Just a phenomenal human being. He’s worked so hard. He’s really worked to develop his body. He’s like a missile now. … We’re trying to find different roles for him. There’s a place for a guy who plays like him.”
Like so many youthful Pirates, sophomore outside linebacker Jeremy Lewis is trying to earn game reps.
“I think Saturday is an important day for him,” Houston said. “He’s done some good things. We’ve put so much more in package-wise than we did in the spring for a variety of reasons. We had the big halt during the spring. We had to pause for a couple of weeks and that threw everything off. It was his first time over there. Coach (Tim) Daoust (defensive ends coach), first time through the defense. We’ve already thrown more at him than he had in the spring. He’s picking it up.
“Certainly, he’s a good player. I want to see Saturday what kind of an impact he can be there.”
Waiting for back-up QB to emerge
Holton Ahlers is established as ECU’s No. 1 quarterback. The identity of his back-up has not been determined. Saturday’s scrimmage could help decide who will be Ahler’s understudy.
“It’s one of those things,” Houston said. “We know what Holton can do. He’s had a very good camp. He’s one that doesn’t disappoint. We’ve got to get him some work. We’ve got to get the rest of our top 15 offensive players some work with Holton because that timing aspect is so important. But we’ve got to figure out who No. 2 (back-up quarterback) is.
“I’d appreciate if those guys would help us out with that. We need some guys to step up and play well on Saturday to start giving us a clearer picture on who No. 2 is.”
The Pirates will begin making the transition from practice to game conditions on Saturday.
“It will be as much of a game situation as we can,” Houston said. “We have two of these. We want to get as much game-like experience from guys. So now, all of a sudden, Donnie (Kirkpatrick, offensive coordinator) is not standing down there behind the huddle, next to Holton. He’s up in the (press) box. He can’t talk to him. He has to talk to him between series.
“Same thing defensively. Some of the staff is up in the box. Some of them are on the field. You can’t coach your players after every play. They’ve got to go out there and play. It’s going to be a deal Saturday where we’ll try to emulate that game day as much as we can.
Up or down?
Kirkpatrick coached from the press box and from the sideline at different times last season.
“He’s more than likely going to be up,” Houston said. “There’s positives to both. I was the same as him. I always wanted to be on the field. To be honest, after I was put upstairs, you see everything. You watch so much film, it’s almost like you see it before it’s happening to a degree.
“Now, how quickly can you relay it back down. That’s the critical thing. Guys have to do a great job on the field. Most likely, he’ll be up.”
D’Angelo McKinnie and Elijah Morris appear to be leaders on the defensive line. There are still significant roles to be determined on the front.
“Consistency,” Houston said. “That’s probably the big thing. Whether it’s Xavier McIver, Suirad Ware, D’Anta Johnson, J’Vian McCray, who it is next really depends on who consistently, down in and down out, give you production.
“Production for those guys sometimes is occupying a gap and not getting knocked back. Sometimes it is beating a block and making a play in the backfield. That depends on what the other team is doing. Consistency is the big thing. Young kids really struggle with that. We went through a lot of that last year with them so they do have a lot of experience.”
Houston elaborated on Wednesday’s workout and how it gained his approval.
“The physicality up front in the box,” Houston said. “The best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I mean O-line, D-line, linebackers, backs. It was just really outstanding. You branch off of that — I just thought there was a really good energy during our competition segments. … You had some guys who stepped up and made some plays. C.J. (Johnson, wide receiver) had several big plays that I want to see him make consistently.
“I just thought up front the execution on both sides was really strong.”
The Pirates have yet to focus in preseason on preparing for the particulars the opening opponent will present.
“We spent a lot of time this summer preparing for them,” Houston said. “Certainly, there are some similarities between them and us, so you’re getting some of that out of this right now but really we’re just focusing on us right now.
“We’re trying to develop our guys, getting our playbook installed solidly, get everybody on the same page. That kind of stuff. About two weeks out, we’ll start really turning our attention solely toward App State.”