East Carolina offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick is just over three weeks away from matching wits with an N.C. State defense that returns 10 starters from a 9-3 team. His focus for the present is preparing his platoon in preseason camp.
ECU will scrimmage Saturday morning, a break from the specific structure of the sessions thus far.
“Preseason camp is a grind as we all know, but it’s a necessary grind in that you’ve got to prepare for the entire season, and you’ve got to get them ready,” Kirkpatrick said Thursday. “There’s a lot of different phases to it, so a lot of install, and just a lot of hard work, a lot of meetings, just a lot of prep time.
“Right now, it’s been a good camp. I guess we’ve had eight practices. I think we’ve been in here 10 days in what we call camp. Reporting day is a day of meetings and getting everything taken care of. Then we did have one day off in there. We had a little bit of a stomach virus issue with the team. We did miss one day of practice, but we made that up, and we have some days built in down the road. We’ll be able to get another extra practice in, but it’s been a good, hard camp.”
Before taking on the Wolfpack, the Pirate offense will face the ECU defense — day after day.
“Offense and defense really getting after each other, challenging each other,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a highly competitive atmosphere here. Both sides of the ball think they’re pretty good. Both sides of the ball want to be really, really good. And Coach (Mike) Houston pushes both sides very, very hard to get out there and compete, but our kids like to do that.
It’s been a very physical camp. We got a lot of guys that like to hit each other and, yeah, will get tired of hitting each other I think here pretty soon. Yeah, they’ll want to go play a game, and play somebody else, and hit somebody else, but right now, they’re kind of enjoying that part of it, I think.”
Kirkpatrick has a lot of returning personnel with his unit.
“Offensively, we have some returning guys,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s kind of nice, like with Holton Ahlers, the quarterback. It’s nice to have him back. It’s nice to have your backup back, in Mason Garcia, who is improving leaps and bounds. I feel really good that we got two good guys there. So that’s good. And I think we’re working toward a third with Ryan Stubblefield having a pretty good camp.
“Alex Flinn’s coming back, I think, this fall a little more committed, a little more relaxed. He’s a veteran, and he knows what to do, so I think he’s playing a lot better, performing a lot better. We got some guys back up front that know what’s going on. We got those two running backs (Keaton Mitchell, Rahjai Harris), and that’s a real comforting feeling to know that you’ve got two really good backs.
“What we don’t have though is a lot of experience at receiver, but we got a lot of talent. It is just that we’ve got guys like Isaiah Winstead and Jaylen Johnson, and they weren’t here for spring ball. They were able to get here in summer and get caught up a little bit, but they’re kind of going through their spring practice. We’re having to get some chemistry, and they’re having to learn what to do. It’s not just the base stuff, but it’s the adjustments off of that.
“And then C.J. Johnson missed spring ball as well. Every year, you change a little bit, and you install things through the spring. So, he’s a little behind as well. Now, all three of them are doing a great job. It’s just we’re having to work very hard to get them to know what to do, and all the adjustments, and do things like that. So that’s kind of where we’re at right now.”.
Duke transfer Jarrett Garner has been curtailed by injury.
“We have Jarett here,” Kirkpatrick said. “He has been hurt almost the whole camp. It’s one of those things. We haven’t gotten a great evaluation of him. He’s a big, strong receiver though that I think could help us. He’s got to learn what to do. He would be really part of that too, I guess, of a guy that wasn’t here in the spring, was able to get here in the summer.
“You just can’t do so much with them in the summer. We’re restricted how much we can work with them, so it’s not like being there for spring practice, but he’s had a little bit of a hamstring issue. And so, he’s just a little bit behind right now.”
The Pirates were supposed to don full equipment Wednesday.
“It was actually today,” Kirkpatrick said. “Because of the stomach virus, we kind of got off schedule a little bit. And so instead of coming back and going full pads yesterday. … We just felt like after them having a day off. … And we had about 30 guys that had been sick. Even though they were back, when you first come back from being sick, you’re probably not at your best. So, we held the full-padded practice because you only get so many for today.”
But the Pirates were getting physical before Thursday.
“We go with what we call shells, which is helmets, and shoulder pads, and thigh boards,” Kirkpatrick said. “They don’t have their game pants or practice pants on. They’re in shorts, so they don’t have knee pads in, but there’s no difference for us. Every day with us is probably a brawl. It’s a full-speed, get-after type deal. So, I don’t really know that it made much difference that we were in full pads.
“They actually tackled to the ground today for the first time. I think defensively, it’s probably a bigger deal for them because they had to thud up top up until then. Offensively, it doesn’t make much of a change. I guess the backs can lower their pads a little bit, try to run them over since they were trying to tackle them. That’d probably be the only change.”
The offensive front
The Pirates have gotten bigger, deeper and more talented on the offensive front.
“That’s been the big thing we’re most excited about probably,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t want to put too much on them. I think they’re starting to get some guys patting them on the back a little bit. I don’t know if they like that. They probably like it. It’s probably not good for them, but I do feel like finally, we’ve got some talent there, and we got it in numbers a little bit so that if one injury happens, we don’t have to move three or four guys.
“First year, we just didn’t have anybody. Everybody was hurt, and kind of the same thing maybe the second year, then same. But then it was like if one guy got hurt, you just had to move so many people to try to get the best five out there. Now, I think Shank (offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler) has got them two deep, working on three deep to where if one guy’s out, you just have a guy go in and take his place. You don’t have to mess with the other four guys. That’ll make us better.
“They’re big enough. They’re quick enough, fast enough, and they’re playing very physical right now. A big, big emphasis has been to get better pass protection. I think we’ve blocked pretty well in the run here maybe the last year or two. Our pass protection has not been where we wanted it, and so we put a lot of emphasis on that, and I think we’re vastly improved there.”
Running back room
ECU has a bundle of potential in the running back room.
As hard as it is to want to take both of those guys out (Mitchell and Harris), … because we kind of rotate them,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re primarily a one-back offense — H back, tight end. So, we don’t play a lot of two-back sets. We’re able to rotate them, so that it makes it hard to get to another one, but we know we need them. We know we need them. We know you’re always one hit away from being down.”
“Marlon Gunn, the freshman, had an outstanding day this morning in the full pads. He showed that he could be ready to play as a true freshman. We were in some really tough competitive drills, an inside drill where they know it’s run. There’s no threat of pass. Safeties are down. They’re all blitzing, the whole bit. He ran some guys over and impressed us today.
“Now, Pop McKay has kind of had the first shot at it. He’s been a little up and down, but I thought he had a little better day today as well. Kamarro Edmonds, who is a transfer (UNC), was coming on, and we’re still excited about him. He’ll just be a freshman, be a red-shirt freshman.
“He was one of the young men that got sick really bad with this virus that went around, so he’s been out for the last couple of days. We’re hoping he’ll be back Saturday. Saturday is a scrimmage, so it’ll be all game-like type situations and live situations. So, if we get him back and he’s strong enough and capable to do it, we’ll get a chance to get him evaluated, but he’s done some good things.”
“The running back room is, I think, a lot deeper than it has been. I think we’ve got two superstars. It’s hard to measure up to that right now for some of the younger guys, but I do think we got some guys that are capable of playing if it has to go that way.
Kirkpatrick doesn’t have to travel far to get to his recruiting area.
“My recruiting area is I guess what you’d call southeast North Carolina, which is the local area here,” Kirkpatrick said. “Pitt County, Lenoir County, Greene County. I go all the way down to Carteret and go all the way down the coast to Brunswick County, I guess, and then out as wide as Columbus County. Then I obviously recruit all the quarterbacks.
Approach has evolved
The offensive philosophy has changed as ECU has improved. The Pirates were 7-5 last season for their first winning record since 2014.
“I think when we got here, the big thing was we were just trying to find a way to get competitive and be in some games,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t know. We want to run the ball. Obviously, I think everybody really wants to be able to run the ball. Everybody defensively wants to stop the run. That’s the most consistent and safest way to be good and then build your passing game off of your run game. I don’t know that we were able to do that when we first got here. We probably didn’t have the backs. We didn’t have just the ability to do that because of a lot of different positions.
“We did have a couple of wideouts. … Obviously C.J. (Johnson) had a huge freshman year. (Tyler) Snead started to really emerge, Blake Proehl, and I think Holton was ready to play and to do some things. We were able to throw it around a little bit in, I think, the first two years.
“Now, I just think we’re very balanced. I think we want to have the ability… When I say balanced, it doesn’t mean you’re going to throw it 50, run it 50. It just means you’re going to have the ability to do both of them equally well, and I think we can do that.
“I think as we have gotten better on defense… The first year, we weren’t very good on defense. That’s not me being critical. That’s just saying we didn’t stop people very well. We’re a team deal. We’re not just … two separate sides of the ball. We try to play how we can best win this game. So, I think now though we’re pretty good on defense. Now, I think we can probably open things up, do whatever we want to do, whatever we need to do.
“I thought last year there, for the most part, we played pretty well. We underachieved in the scoring. We should have scored more. Our yardage was way higher than what the points turned out to be. We were moving the ball. Our yardage is good. We’re up there in the league (American Athletic Conference). We’re up in the top 25 and all those different categories as far as moving the ball, but we didn’t score enough points. So, we’ve got to get more big plays. We got to go for it a little bit more. So that’s got to be a little better in the red zone and probably on the goal line.
“The governors are off now. I think Coach is like, ‘Just do what you got to do on offense. Play as fast as you want to play. Try to get the ball down the field. Let’s try to go. Literally, the first year, you wanted to score, but you really wanted to score and eat the clock-up a little bit, you know what I’m saying, to kind of protect the team a little bit. We don’t have any of those restrictions anymore.”
ECU’s first game in the Houston era was a 34-6 loss at N.C. State. The Pirates drove on their first possession but lost a fumble near the goal line.
“We drove the ball way down the field about 70-something yards and were clicking pretty well,” Kirkpatrick said. “Then going in … which we should have been really close to scoring there. Would have scored. Holton got hit and fumbled the ball. Then they took it, and went 97 yards, and scored.
“We were playing with a very, very fractured team, I think, at that time. I think we had gotten them ready to play, and I think everybody was jacked up. We were having a little bit of success, and they were feeling it. Then it was like, ‘Oh, something bad always happens,’ and we still hadn’t got that culture change. We still hadn’t gotten that confidence built in the guys.
“I think that North Carolina State was a better team than we were at that time. … They were just a better team than we were, but we surely hope that we’ve gained some ground since 2019. Now, they’re really good. They’ve just kept getting better and better, too, but right now, I don’t think we’re as fragile a team like we were then. Hopefully, if we were to get behind or we were to have some mistakes, and we’d drive it, and turn it over, and then let them go 97, and score, I don’t think that would mean we’d cash it in.
“At that time, we were over psychologically trying to keep them in the game, like, ‘Okay. It’s not always going to go bad. It’s going to start going good,’ and I don’t know if they believed us. Now, I think I saw signs of it last year. We scored 17 in the fourth quarter against Marshall when we were down 17, and we were 0-2. We had lost the first two games, but our kids still believed. They knew we were good enough to start winning. I think we have that confidence more now. Now, you will have to go produce, or eventually, you’ll lose that too, but I don’t think we’ll lose it over one drive, like we did then.”
Davis winning at juco
Kirkpatrick’s son, Davis, is pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for Brunswick Community College in baseball. Davis Kirkpatrick pitched for ECU from 2014 to 2018 after a stellar multi-sport career at D.H Conley.
The Dolphins had a 22-game winning streak during the 2022 season,
“It’s a great community college, and he’s been very fortunate to get an opportunity to work there under a really, really good guy, Robbie Allen, who’s also the athletic director. He works obviously as the pitching coach and a little bit of the hitting coach and infield coach. He’s got a lot of different experiences there and then works very closely with Robbie as the assistant to the athletic director too.
“He’s lining the field off, and then coaching the pitchers the next hour, but it’s been a great opportunity, and it’s a great place to live. We’re very blessed. Eastern North Carolina has some great places to go visit or live. So, he lives in Wilmington, which is about as good as it can get, and works for a great guy at a really good junior college.
“They get good players, and good players are fun to coach. He’s got a good little run going there. Because it’s a junior college, I think every sophomore pitcher he’s had has gotten a scholarship and went on to play at a four-year school.”
Looking for a solid Saturday
The elder Kirkpatrick was asked what he wanted to see at the scrimmage on Saturday.
“We just want to see that we’re ready to play or a little more ready to play because you practice, you practice and practice in segments,” Kirkpatrick said. “You may have an inside drill. You may have a team-run drill, a play-action pass. So, things are kind of broken down or we’ll have a red zone segment.
“Saturday, we’ll go, and it’ll be a little more game-like though. We’ll be picking out all the different situations. So, I’d like to see us have less mistakes than we’ve had here in practice.
” … I’d like to see us play a game that’s pretty clean with not very many mistakes, protect the ball, but go out and make some big plays, after hitting for the first time in full pads on Thursday.”