As students returned to campus this weekend, the scenery was much the same for those in the East Carolina football program — ample time on the fields at the Cliff Moore Practice Facility, position meetings in the Ward Sports Medicine Building, some lifting in the Murphy Center and a short trip to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday for the second and final scrimmage before lining up against Appalachian State in Charlotte on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU).
“Preseason camp is officially done, which you know, the kids are excited about that,” said coach Mike Houston at Media Day following the scrimmage. “It’s an exciting time of year to start preseason camp, but after three weeks, they’re tired of each other as far as that being who they face, and they’re ready to face another opponent. So I think it’s a successful camp from the standpoint of I think we know what we have, who we are. I think we’ve seen places that are our strengths and I think everybody’s excited about moving onto our other new opponents.”
Teagan Wilks had a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown. Many of the younger players got reps as the coaching staff makes evaluations impacting the depth chart.
“Good day today,” Houston said. “No serious injuries or anything like that, so should be going into Appalachian State prep with a full roster. … That was my biggest concern we needed today, was to make sure you came out healthy 12 days out from game day.”
Kickers, back-up QBs
Houston was asked about the kicking game and the competition to back up Holton Ahlers at quarterback.
“I’ve been pleased with our specialists overall, throughout the pre-season camp,” said the ECU coach. “I think you saw today, you saw some really good stuff from those guys.
“The backup quarterback, we’ve got to figure out who it is, you know. Right now we’re waiting on somebody to really take firm control. I think Mason (Garcia) has done some really good things, some of the other guys have done some really good things. But I think that you saw today, we have a really good starter, and we really need to bring whoever two is, along.”
Kicking off and place kicking might be done by different guys. Owen Daffer booted a 33-yard field goal Saturday. Laith Marjan looked effective on kickoffs.
“We’re going to travel at least two kickers, so ideally, you want to maybe share duties,” Houston said. “There’s a lot that goes into that kickoff specialist, more than people think. I mean it’s placement of the ball, it’s hang time, it’s being able to kick the ball accurately with whatever the call is from the kickoff team. But I think that Laith certainly has demonstrated at camp he’s got a very strong leg and a lot of potential. But I think Owen has just been as … has been very, very steady.
“So we’ll see how it plays out. We want to kind of finish looking at the tape … I’m only just a third of the way through it right now … and just really sit down and discuss with our staff; we’ll make the final decisions.”
Thoughts on O-line
The offensive line will be a mixture of new faces and veterans, but the group looks promising in terms of depth and talent.
“Our first group, I think is very solid and I think we have a couple of guys that are in that second group that obviously are going to be starters, also,” Houston said. “So I think compared to where we have been the last couple of seasons at this point, I think we’re in a much better place depth-wide, and we’re in a much better place overall, talent-wise.
“They face a lot against our defense, because our defense is so multiple. And so I think that’s a good thing as far as the preparation, because … blocking, it’s a lot of different looks.”
Houston likes what he’s seeing in terms of team chemistry.
“I think that’s something that’s certainly a strength,” said the ECU coach. “The guys have a very positive culture in the locker room. If anybody’s been around one of our team meetings before I come in there, it’s a real positive vibe from everything. It’s a group that they take pride in the way they play on the field, they take pride in the way they carry themselves around campus.
“We have new players come in … Robin Van der Laan (offensive lineman who transferred from Oregon State)) came in this summer, and he just commented to the coaches just how welcoming our locker room is, just how everybody tried to work to make him feel like he was a part of them almost immediately. And so I think that really speaks to just kind of the culture and character of that roster. So I do think that’s a strength of the program.”
Maceo Donald, a walk-on running back from East Carteret, was placed on scholarship at the end of the scrimmage on Saturday.
“He was here when I got here and he works so hard and he wears so many different hats for us,” Houston said. “He’s going to be on the four special teams, he has taken a lot of snaps at tailback this fall with (Tyler) Snead and Jsi (Hatfield) sidelined today. He took a lot of snaps from the slot, so he’s a very versatile guy. And he’s a loyal, core guy too; strong character, already has his undergraduate degree, very popular in the locker room.
“And so you could practically have made the decision that he’d earned that. And so I wanted to do it in a way that was special for him, and so we did it at the end of the scrimmage where all his teammates were around there with him. And all it took was the mention of that and you saw the reaction. You guys in the stadium saw the reaction of his teammates. I think it says a lot about him and how everybody feels about him. I think it also says a lot about just that group right there, how much they care about each other.
“So, really proud of him, he’s an outstanding young man, great representative of our university.”
The Pirates have a notable history with walk-ons, including Justin Hardy, from West Craven, who set an NCAA receiving record before playing for Atlanta in the NFL.
“This is the biggest roster we’ve carried into the season,” Houston said. “There’s lots of issues that go along with that that nobody else has to deal with other than Jon Gilbert (athletic director) and the administration and myself, you know. It’s a tight line within the athletic department, really limits some things. So I think that’s the frustrating thing about the NCAA, just kind of throwing that blanket waiver out there and now the institutions are left to work through how to make it work.
“But within our programs, wherever I’ve been, it has always been an opportunity where you earn what you get. So you come through as a walk-on … Elijah Morris, Tyler Snead, now Maceo Donald … you come here as a walk-on and you go out there and you perform on the field, you’ll be rewarded. And I told the kids, I could care less. I don’t care what your name is, I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care where you’re from, if I don’t care if you’re scholarship, walk-on; I don’t care. The best players are going to play and the best players will separate themselves by the way they perform on the practice field.
“This is a place where you can come here and get a chance and I think that you have numerous examples of that on our roster.”
Houston enters his third season as coach of the Pirates. The program has become more stable in terms of personnel, systems and coaches.
“Well, I think that you look overall where we are today, compared to where we stood at this point in 2019, and we have a very stable program,” Houston said. “We have a stable roster that’s healthy.
“What I mean by that is you have depth at every position across the board, you have young talent at every position across the board. You’re at your numbers scholarship-wise, you’re at your numbers roster-wise. You have a positive culture in the locker room. You have a stable staff, both on the field coaching staff and support staff. And you have talent on the field.
“There were so many holes and gaps and lapses and things like that when we got here. It’s been very, very hard to fix, and it’s been painful going through that.
“But you sit here today and you have a healthy young roster that is only going to improve every single day they’re here as a result of getting bigger, faster, stronger and more experienced. So that’s why I say repeatedly I really like this bunch. We’re very close and I believe in them and I can’t wait to watch them compete this fall.”
Harrell back with defense
The defense has the same coordinator, Blake Harrell, for the first time in consecutive seasons in a significant span.
“I think anybody that watched the scrimmage today can see it, I mean it’s night and day,” Houston said. “One, we run very well, but two, all those guys on the field have experience and they have experience in the schemes being run, with the coaches that are calling the plays. You have continuity on the coaching staff. All of us have worked together for a while. Tim (Daoust, defensive ends, outside linebackers) and Steve (Ellis, cornerbacks) haven’t been with us everywhere we’ve been, but they’ve adapted very well to our whole group in there.
“There’s no hesitation in the way they play. They play fast; I mean you look at the way those linebackers trigger, and you look at the way there’s no hesitation when it comes to contact. You look at the way the safeties tackle, the way the corners cover. It’s just they have confidence in themselves, they have confidence in the scheme, they have confidence in the mentality and it’s consistent. It’s consistency with everything across the board on that side of the ball, and that’s why I’m really excited to see them play. I mean I think that you can see a much improved group.”