Mike Houston was enthusiastic about what he saw at East Carolina’s first practice in preparation for the Birmingham Bowl on Monday. The Pirates (7-5) face Coastal Carolina (9-3) on Dec. 27, at 6:45 p.m. (ESPN).
Houston gave the team last week off after ending the regular season with a 49-46 win at Temple on Nov. 26.
“Great to get back out on the field,” said the ECU coach. “Kids are really, really positive and energetic and recharged and the fresh legs were obvious today. It is good to be able to recharge, refocus last week and kind of get our legs back up underneath us.
“Excited about bowl season. Excited to be back. Bowl eligible second year in a row and excited about the Birmingham Bowl facing a very challenging opponent. Able to take a good look at beginning to see who Coastal is today. A 9-win team. And really, I’m sure that they’re sitting there thinking if they’re healthy there, it is probably even a better season than that.
“They’re going to have … time to heal up and recharge. So, we expect to see a very, very challenging opponent in the Birmingham Bowl. Just excited to get down there and compete. The players showed that excitement today with their attitudes and efforts. Just a good positive start to postseason practice.”
Reps for younger players
Houston and staff will be able to use the extra practices before the bowl to give younger players additional reps.
“Just the beginning of the week especially, we’re just focusing a lot on us,” Houston said. “We’re doing some stuff with them, but a lot of the younger guys are getting coached. We spent a lot of practice today with just individual fundamental periods.
“And then during the skelly and team and one-on-ones and O-line versus D-line, everybody got reps and so that was good. It’s always good to work with those guys because some of those linemen haven’t been getting a whole lot of fundamental time throughout the year. So, it’s really good to get that today. And we’re going to do that throughout the beginning and bulk of the week, so it’s good opportunity to evaluate where guys are going into the spring.”
In addition to getting ready for the bowl game, the early signing period is coming up Dec. 21.
“I’ll see no sleep,” Houston said. “Probably not going to see my family very much. Spent a lot of time in a lot of different ways with recruiting because signing day being the 21st this year, you have a lot longer with the recruiting stuff.
“It’s balance. And so, any day that we’re not practicing, the coaches, we’re not sitting around. We’ll be out recruiting, seeing our committed kids, following up on anybody else that we’re trying to close out the deal with here before signing day. But it’s good. It’s a good time of the year because your players, and you’re only as good as your players, and so it’s the recruiting piece. It’s the most vital piece.”
Practice schedule, early Christmas
ECU players will have an early Christmas.
“We’ll practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday this week and then come back and go Sunday, Monday, Wednesday morning next week,” Houston said. “Then we’re going to give the players some time to go home, see their families because with Christmas and the bowl game falling where it does, we want to give the players a chance to go home, see their families, celebrate Christmas together as a family and then they’ll come back. We’ll practice I think three or four days here and then fly to Birmingham and finish bowl prep down there.”
Even though ECU’s matchup with Boston College in the Military Bowl last year was called off due to COVID issues with BC, it was a learning experience for the Pirates.
“I thought we were really ready to play and felt really good about just our crispness and freshness going into that bowl game last year,” Houston said. “And so, I think there’s a lot of positive things we can take from the second half of the bowl schedule. We gave them a little bit more time last week than what we gave them last year. And I think just based on today, that’s a positive because I thought they looked really, really fresh today.
“We didn’t go real long today just because I don’t want to jump full throttle back into it. So, we’ll kind of ease into this week and that’s maybe a little bit better approach this year than what it was last year. And the big focus is just by the time we get ready to load the plane for Birmingham that we’re ready to go, ready to play.”
Avery Jones played 852 snaps at center for ECU this season before entering the transfer portal.
“Fortunately, we have really good depth on the front and so we’ve got a couple of quality guys that did a phenomenal job today and so that’s going to be the focus is just the guys that are excited to be competing in the bowl game. They’ll be ready to go.”
Monitoring the portal
The transfer portal officially opened Monday.
“Number one, our focus is on our players here and just doing a great job with them on a daily basis,” Houston said. “And then recruiting, I mean recruiting is year round. The coaches aren’t the ones that created this, so it’s just something you got to deal with.”
Coaching change at Coastal
Jamey Chadwell has left Coastal to become coach at Liberty. Defensive coordinator Chad Staggs will be the interim coach. N.C. State offensive coordinator Tim Beck reportedly has been hired to replace Chadwell.
Houston sees minimal implications from the coaching transition.
I don’t think it’ll impact it greatly,” said the Pirates coach. “We know that staff very well. I know Coach Staggs very well. He’ll do a great job as the interim. I would expect that the play callers that called everything all throughout the season will be the play callers in the bowl game. It’s a veteran team and so they’ve been there together, so we expect to see the Coastal that everybody’s seen all season.”
ECU has earned bowl berths in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2014.
“Nine years since ECU won a bowl game,” Houston said. “Before that I think it was ’07 was the last bowl win before 2013.
“So, in the last 15 years, there’s been two bowl wins. There’s a lot of motivation. We’re playing the first bowl game since ’14. There’s a lot of motivation to go down there and get the win.”
ECU lost the 2014 Birmingham Bowl, 28-20, to Florida at Legion Field.
Protective Stadium is the new home of the Birmingham Bowl.
“We’ve got several people on staff that were there (in 2014), but it is not the same arena,” Houston said. “We’re playing in a brand new stadium. A lot has changed since East Carolina was in Birmingham.
“A lot’s changed downtown, so it’s a different trip than what East Carolina went on eight years ago. I’ve spent a good bit of time in Birmingham since then. It’s just a lot different this time around.”
Senior linebacker Xavier Smith has opted out of ECU’s bowl game. He had 245 career tackles, including 47 this season.
“Xavier had a great career here,” Houston said. “Wish him the very best. I hate that he’s not with us, but again, I just want to keep our focus on the guys that are going down to Birmingham playing the bowl game.”