The East Carolina football team resumed practice Tuesday after classes started Monday and now the focus is on the season opener against No. 13 N.C. State on Saturday, Sept. 3, at noon (ESPN) at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Pirate players spoke at media day Saturday about the season ahead and the leadoff challenge from the Wolfpack.
Linebacker Myles Berry, quarterback Holton Ahlers and punter Luke Larsen are projected to play prominent roles for their respective units this season.
‘Best camp ever’
Berry, a senior, has been through his share of preseason camps. A Saturday morning scrimmage preceded two days away from practice for the players.
“It’s just the best camp that I’ve ever been a part of, honestly,” Berry said from the club level of TowneBank Tower on Saturday afternoon. “I’m just so excited about the upcoming season, and just really proud of the way the team is bonding on and off the field.
“I love the senior leadership on the team. It’s a player-led team right now, and I just can’t wait to play N.C. State.”
Berry’s dad, Harold, passed away the Wednesday before ECU rallied for a 42-38 win at Marshall in the third game of the 2021 season.
“Definitely it was a rough one,” Berry said. “I will say football and my brothers in the locker room definitely helped me like nothing else. And just being able to remember him, and remember the different things that he taught me, and he’s still with me.
“So, many times I feel his presence, and it’s rough. I still have some bad days sometimes. But just keeping him, and remembering him, and keeping him in my heart, but also looking towards the future and knowing that he prepared me to live life, and that’s just what I’m trying to do now.”
State is a 10-point favorite in Greenville.
“We love being the underdogs,” Berry said. “We have nothing to lose. They have everything to lose coming in here, being ranked and everything. We’re just going to play freely. We’re going to play our football. We’re going to play aggressively.
“If they talk, and are jawing and all of that, that’s the game of football. But we’re going to play the game how we play it. We’re going to play together. We’re going to play for each other and for the fans in the Boneyard and in Dowdy-Ficklen, and whatever happens, happens.”
A sellout is expected. A vocal Pirate Nation can be a huge factor.
“The fans definitely play a huge role in how we play, and third down, fourth down, we need them to get as pumped up as ever,” Berry said. “But I really just can’t wait to see Dowdy-Ficklen field with 50-plus thousand fans. And we’re just ready to play our brand of football, like I said, and play for Pirate Nation and get that win.”
N.C. State has 10 starters back on defense from a 9-3 team. Ahlers and the ECU offense have been sparring with a depth-laden Pirate defense.
“They’re talented,” Ahlers said of the ECU defense. “I mean, they got a lot of experience coming back and it’s been great to go against them. It’s a little annoying just because they are so experienced. We’ve been going against each other for four or five years. They kind of know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do. But it’s been fun. They’re super talented, excited to go see them work this season.
NCSU whipped the Pirates, 34-6, in Raleigh the last time the teams played. It was Mike Houston’s first game as ECU coach.
“It definitely wasn’t a fun day,” Ahlers said. “We remember that. There’s a lot of guys on this team that were playing then, so we were young then. We’re all older now and have kind of learned how to win. So excited to go up against them and kind of their same guys too. So, it’ll be a fun first game.”
Growth of program
Ahlers has been a vital part of the program’s progress since Houston took over. ECU went 7-5 last season for its first winning record since 2014.
“The locker room is just so much different now, and so much of a family atmosphere,” Ahlers said. “I think the biggest thing is just having faith and hope, belief that we’re actually going to win games now.
“We know how to win. We’ve been in those situations. We know we can get through the tough times. So, we’re really excited about it. We got a really good team returning and it should be fun.
State has a 17-13 lead in the series but is 1-3 in games played in Greenville. As a youth growing up in the area, what does Ahlers recall about those matchups in Dowdy-Ficklen?
“Just packed out,” he said “I mean, anytime there’s an in-state rival coming, Dowdy-Ficklen’s packed out, and really the fans don’t realize how much of an impact that they have. But I mean, they’re huge. I mean we need them to be as loud as they’ve ever been, September 3rd.”
Transfers Isaiah Winstead from Toledo and Jaylen Johnson from Georgia give Ahlers some new targets.
“Those guys are super hard workers,” Ahlers said. “So, this summer we really got after it, working on timing and stuff. … Once we got going, I mean, they’re as talented as anyone I’ve had here. So, I’m really excited about that.”
Regardless of the outcome on Sept. 3, the Pirates host Old Dominion the following week. ECU will either be intent on avoiding a letdown or dealing with disappointment.
“We’re so focused on the next game, and right now, the next game’s N.C. State, but we definitely have a tremendous amount of respect for ODU.” Ahlers said. “I mean I’ve played them twice. They’ve both been close games.
“This program is so much built on focusing on what’s in front of you. When ODU is in front of us, we’ll be dead focused on them and nothing else. So, it’s going to be fun. I mean, this season’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a long season. We’ve got to stay healthy, but we’re super talented, got a lot of experience coming back and just excited to see the guys go to work.”
The offensive front
Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler has depth and experience on paper.
“They had a really good camp,” Ahlers said of the front. “You never really know about some things, … until really that first game, just because there’s so many factors that go into it.
“The quarterbacks aren’t really live until the … first game, so I believe in them a tremendous amount. I know we’re super talented. They’ve got a lot of experience coming back. So, I’m pumped about it. I mean I’m excited to see them. I definitely appreciate them, and they’ve done a really good job. So, I’m excited about it.”
Pulling for the D
Ahlers and the offense compete with the defense in practice, but they become support groups for each other within the team context in games.
“We both feed off of each other,” Ahlers said. “I mean, that’s what a team does, is when you’re out there pulling for each other, if someone does something good, you cheer for them and when they’re in kind of a little bit of a rut, you still pull for them, and try to get them out of it.
“I’m just excited, like I said, to see the guys work. I mean the defense is super talented too, so we got a lot of experience, and it should be fun to watch this year.”
Ahlers has some faith-based enterprises within the scope of NIL (name, image, likeness).
“Just stuff to help out the linemen, get them fed and stuff,” Ahlers said. “Anything I can do to help out other people. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Luke Larsen punted five times for an average of 41.6 yards in ECU’s 35-13 loss to No. 4 Cincinnati that concluded the 2021 season.
The 30-year-old Australian has a unique perspective about the magnitude of the State game.
“Any game that I put myself into, I feel is a huge game,” Larsen said. “It’s a game I want to win. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a game of pool against a new freshman. If I’m in it, I want to win it.”
Larsen can hold for placekicker Owen Daffer. The booting units include a pair of transfer snappers, Alex Harper from N.C. Central and Colby Garfield from Charlotte.
“Both of the guys that are here can perform in both long snapping, short snapping,” Larsen said. “It’s going to be good to see them develop and see who comes out on top. Or if they split roles.
“They’ve both had game experience, starting experience. So, they’re both guys that come in knowing the job that they have to perform. And it’s good.”
Larsen isn’t just about replacing punter Jonn Young.
“It’s not even just stepping in and filling a role, it’s improving standards and helping take this program forward.” Larsen said.
Ideally, Daffer would do all the kicking — conversions after touchdowns. The offense would never stall, rendering Larsen inactive.
“I might try out a new position then,” Larsen said.
Larsen hasn’t been around for a State-ECU game but he’s getting an idea about the intensity involved.
“(Friday), Coach Houston showed us a video from 2016. It was just the crowd singing one of Bon Jovi’s songs, ‘Living on a Prayer.’ And I actually did get emotional in that moment. No one else knows that, but just to see that and to know that I’m going to be a part of something like that for this place, it means more than just this place. It means my family, everything they have sacrificed to get me here. It’s worthwhile.”
Coming up from Down Under
Larsen had not punted an American football until July of 2018.
“Dad was a truck driver,” Larsen said. “We bought trucks and trailers and did interstate transport. So, we did that, and I also managed transport for a couple of different manufacturing companies. And basically, I got to a point where that wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought it was going to be.
“Dad was in a good spot. Dad was doing well. So, I wanted to go back to school, and I found out there was an avenue to get a scholarship and come over here and go to school.
“I started kicking with Prokick Australia. So, they’re a company, two guys, one guy is good with the academic side, the NCAA side of things. And another guy who played for the Green Bay Packers, Nathan Chapman, is his name. And they spend about a year with you, teach you how to punt, and coaches from over here call them and say, ‘Hey, we’re at this level, we’re in this conference. We need this type of punter.’ And then through that, they’re shown which guys can do that. Then it’s from the school perspective who they want to recruit, if they want to go down that avenue.”
Mike Houston was looking for a punter before his first season at ECU.
“Coach Houston called me, it was around January 23, 2019, and he said that he wanted to have me here. He’d seen my film and that’s all I really needed to hear. I was happy to come.”