Mike Houston has had a variety of experiences in spring practice at East Carolina, ranging from a group that needed a talent upgrade and a culture change in 2019 to no spring ball at all in 2020 to last season’s offseason session of promise.
What Houston is seeing thus far this season is representative of ECU’s improvement to 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference during 2021.
“We’re four practices in,” said the ECU coach on Monday. “We had our first fully-padded practice on Saturday and did that in the stadium. And I think it’s been a good start to spring. We’ll know a lot more after this week because we’ll scrimmage again Saturday after another several days of practice. That will be practice eight. A lot of positives though so far, so I’m pleased.”
The Pirates worked in many areas this past Saturday.
“We had officials here, so we did some special teams work,” Houston said. “We had a live punt session. We had a live field goal, field goal block session during our two-minute simulation at the end of practice. … We had a live inside run drill. We had some one-on-one work with everybody. We had some pass skelly work and a good team period where we live spotted the ball.
“And so we just moved the ball up and down the field based on the previous play, which gave the kids their first kind of almost game-like action of the spring. We finished with a two-minute drill, which was live game rules. And had a session with our first and second units on each side of the ball there. So a lot of work for day four. And so we finished watching the film as a staff together this morning and evaluating everything.”
The Pirates have seven starters back on each side of the ball.
“There were some good and some things that need to be done better,” Houston said in regard to Saturday’s scrimmage. “The biggest positive is just you have so much experience back at so many positions that you look pretty sharp for day four of spring practice. I think our team runs better than we have in the past. We obviously have significant experience on the offensive and defensive lines. Our offensive line, I think it’s the best group we’ve had during my time here at East Carolina. And so you have a lot of guys that are known commodities and they look like it out there on the field.”
Spreading the reps at QB
The reps were spread around among the quarterbacks on Saturday.
“Holton (Ahlers, returning starter) got some work and he’s got to stay sharp, but Mason Garcia and Ryan Stubblefield have both had a very positive start to spring practice and so they both got a lot of reps on Saturday, which they’re going to continue to get that throughout the spring,” Houston said. “You know, all five got reps. Alex Flinn and Walter Simmons got some reps as well.”
Wide receiver room
ECU has some voids to fill at wide receiver
“We’re figuring out who’s going to be next,” Houston said. “You do have some guys that have played, and played a lot on special teams, have played some on offense, and so you have some guys that have been waiting on this opportunity. And so obviously, Jsi Hatfield has played a good bit and so he’s had a positive start to the spring. But a guy like Taji Hudson or a guy like Tyler Savage, guys that have been out there on the field, but maybe haven’t been the guy yet, they’re getting their opportunity this spring.
“You got a guy like Kerry King, who God knows we’re all pulling for him. Great kid and he’s worked very, very hard here. I’ve told him this is your time this spring to show that you can be a guy that can be counted on because he does have really, really good top end speed. So, you’re getting a chance to see all those guys play.”
C.J. Johnson’s status
C.J. Johnson was suspended indefinitely from the ECU program in early February. Johnson had 35 catches for 520 yards with one touchdown in 2021.
“He’s got some things he’s got to take care of outside of football and we’ll find out just how badly he wants to be here,” Houston said.
The ECU coach said that academics were not involved in Johnson’s suspension.
Practice focus this week
Houston talked about the focus this week in advance of Saturday’s scrimmage.
“We’re building towards that scrimmage on Saturday, so the focus is going to be continued development as far as install, all the things that go into a game day kind of deal,” Houston said. “We’ll be installing extensively our third down packages on offense and defense this week and we’ll be installing extensively our goal line, short yardage, red zone packages this week. You’re going to have all those things greased up for Saturday. We’ll continue to install our special teams this week so that we can go out there and scrimmage, but also scrimmage with every piece of the game from a special team standpoint in preparation.”
Not yet for Wolfpack
The Pirates open the 2022 season at home against N.C. State on Sept. 3. ECU won’t be preparing specifically for the Wolfpack during the spring.
“This spring is purely about us and then we’ll start preparations for N.C. State this summer,” Houston said.
Format for Saturday
The format for the upcoming scrimmage on Saturday, which will be closed to the public, will be similar to an actual game.
“It’s going to be game situation,” Houston said. “I mean, we’re going to put the ball in and go. The officials will control it. Punts will be live. In the kicking game, everything will be live except for the returner. We’ll tag off on the returners.”
The Purple and Gold game on April 9 will be an opportunity for Pirate Nation to get a sneak preview of the 2022 Pirates.
“As long as our numbers stay okay with health in all of our positions, we’ll split up into two teams and have a ball game,” Houston said.
There will be some stakes involved.
“We always have some kind of consolation deal and something we’re playing for,” Houston said.