East Carolina is scheduled to start preseason camp at 9:40 this morning and conclude the initial workout at 11:50 a.m.
“I expect us to look like a really good football team day one,” said ECU coach Mike Houston last week. “There’s really no excuses not to. The guys that are going to be on the field in the two-deep are guys that have played a lot of ball. They’ve been in the system. They’ve been in our program. So, we expect to be playing at a pretty high level right out of the gate.”
The Pirates will go from 9:40 to 11:50 every morning but Sundays with a pair of scrimmages on Saturday, Aug. 13, and Saturday, Aug. 20, beginning at 9:40 a.m. The scrimmage on Aug. 20 is scheduled to end a little early for the Meet the Pirates promotion from 11:30 a.m. to noon.
There will be a day off on Monday, Aug. 22, for the first day of classes for the fall semester. That will mark the transition to afternoon practice, which will run from 4:05 to 6:05 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 23.
The season opener is at home on Saturday, Sept. 3, at noon against N.C. State. The Wolfpack, coming off a 9-3 season, was ranked No. 11 nationally in ratings of all 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams published on the CBS Sports website on Tuesday.
ECU was rated No. 73 after going 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference in 2021, its first winning season since 2014. The Pirates are currently 10-point underdogs in their first game.
Ahlers has new targets
ECU has added transfers Isaiah Winstead (Toledo), Jaylen Johnson (Georgia) and Jarrett Garner (Duke) to its receiving corps, giving veteran quarterback Holton Ahlers some new targets — who are actually advanced in terms of experience. Camp is an opportunity to refine the quarterback/receiver relationships. (View ECU’s 2022 incoming transfers and traditional recruits.)
“It’s always important to have chemistry with receivers,” said Ahlers on AAC media day Thursday. “Obviously, we’ve got some new guys coming in that are going to play big roles for us. That’s what the offseason is for though. They’ve played a lot of snaps in college football. Just because they haven’t (played) here, doesn’t mean they haven’t played a lot of snaps in general.
“So, they’re pretty experienced too. Just getting a feel for them, what they like, where they like the ball to be on certain routes, how they like to look. Just the little things, through the offense, through the routes, that we can connect on, just timing.”
Ones vs. Ones
Before Ahlers probes a Pack defense that returns 10 starters, he will face an improving ECU unit on a daily basis.
“We go for a straight month practicing pretty much every single day, against full competition with our defense, one versus one,” Ahlers said. “So a lot of that will come then. I mean, during the off season, you just try to work on timing, anticipation. Just try to, kind of like I said, just get a feel for where they like the ball. Do they like the ball on their back shoulder? Do they like to catch it on the run? And just little things like that.”
Best friend, running game
ECU averaged 162.6 yards rushing last season and 270.8 passing. Ahlers talked about how the ground game augments the air attack.
“It helps a ton,” Ahlers said. “I mean, we’re returning most of our guys too. … We’re returning two of the top running backs in our conference (Keaton Mitchell, Rahjai Harris), really in the country. I mean, I would take those guys over anyone. So, I mean, the running game is the quarterback’s best friend.
“It’ll just only help me out, and they help the offense out, and the team out. So, any time you can just hand the ball off and let those guys go to work, we’re going to. I mean, they’re the workhorses of our offense. So just excited to see those guys work and compete this year, and open things up for the passing game.”
‘Iron sharpening iron’
Senior Myles Berry talked about the challenges the ECU offense presents.
“It’s very tough going against Holton,” Berry said. “I’ve been going against Holton for years now. So sometimes we’re kind of cheating off each other, because he knows some of my tendencies and I know some of his.
“Same with Keaton and Rahjai. Keaton is a shiftier back. So, me as a linebacker, I have to be at a certain level of discipline. And I have to really focus on my technique when tackling him. Rahjai is a physical, shifty, downhill runner, also. So, I make sure I have to bring my stuff when I’m tackling him. But it’s iron sharpening iron. And with that, with that competition every day, that’s going to lead us into having a great season this year, because we have to work every day and we’re constantly making each other better.”
Tuning out the hype
The Pack-Pirates matchup was rated No. 7 among season openers in college football and will be shown on ESPN. ECU must keep elements like emotion and focus in proper perspective.
“We’re not really paying attention to the hype,” Berry said. “The hype, it can be negative if you’re paying attention to it too much. … Our primary focus is having a great camp. And then once we get through camp, then all our attention will be on N.C. State.”
With the experienced talent that is returning, the Pirate program appears poised to continue the success of 2021.
“Potential is nothing unless you turn it into production,” Ahlers said. “We have experience coming back to know that, to know how to get through a fall camp, how to get better, and get prepared for the season.
“And we’ve been in those close games, and games that we should’ve won, and some games that we have won. So just all that experience coming back definitely helps us in getting through camp and preparing ourselves for the first game and the games after that.”
ECU opponents scored 25.8 points per game last season, which ranked fourth in the 11-team AAC. Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell has seven starters back going into his third season with the Pirates.
“The guys on defense just have a certain level of confidence that we really never had before,” Berry said. “And now, it’s not just knowing your position, and knowing the roles and responsibilities of your position, but now we’re learning everybody’s position. So, we’re all working on the same platform.
“We’re all working like a fine-tuned machine. And I feel like that will definitely carry over into this season. You saw it the second half of last season, defense was rolling strong. And we’re going to carry that momentum into this year, to camp.”
The Pirates had four straight wins in 2021 before closing the year with a 35-13 loss at home to No. 4 Cincinnati.
Hometown boy matures
Ahlers knew the expectations would be high for him coming out of nearby D.H. Conley.
“I knew when I committed here, when I was 17 years old, that there was going to be a lot of pressure here, but I wanted it to be on me and no one else,” Ahlers said. “Coach Houston came in and has developed a great culture here, a great team culture, to really counter that.
“It’s been really good to be a part of it. And I think this year, I mean, he said it, too, and our players have, too. It’s the best team overall that we’ve had. We’ve been in the games. We’ve been close there. And I mean, I think that this year, we just go out there and play the way that we know we can play, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Final seasons at ECU
This will be the last time around as Pirate players for Ahlers and Berry.
“I am going to enjoy it as much as I can,” Ahlers said. “There’s going to be a lot of lasts for me this year, as for Myles, really. … Just taking it one game at a time, one practice at a time.
“It starts with camp and just getting the team as close as we can be to being ready for that first game, and then going out there and playing good the whole season.”