In the midst of preparing to play Coastal Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Tuesday, East Carolina announced a signing class on Wednesday.
“Somebody said, ‘It’s Christmas,'” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Donnie Kirkpatrick. “Is that right?”
Kirkpatrick was kidding, but the ECU staff has been multi-tasking to a degree that Santa will have to consult a bowl itinerary to find the Pirates on Christmas Eve.
Coach Mike Houston said he was looking forward to breathing out.
“It’s been a crazy month,” Houston said. “Anytime we’re not practicing, we’re on the road somewhere recruiting and doing home visits, and trying to see all of our committed kids before signing day. Last year it worked out to where signing day was a week earlier, and the coaching staff got a little bit of a break when we sent the kids home.
“Just the way the schedule worked out this year, we really haven’t had a break this entire time. I enjoy being out there on the practice field with the kids, and they’ve been energetic. They were really energetic today. I enjoy all that, but I am ready to breathe out a little bit.”
Back-to back bowl bids
The Pirates have received bowl berths in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2013 and 2014. Last year, ECU traveled to Annapolis for the Military Bowl before Boston College bowed out due to COVID issues.
Recruiting and preparing for a 9-3 team has been demanding.
“It’s just put a little bit of a time stress on all of us,” Houston said. “That’s the only thing. I think that when we’ve been here in the building, it’s been really good. Coaches worked hard. I mean they feel good about our game plan. The players have really practiced well. I think really our time here in Greenville this year is probably, I feel like we’ve prepared better than we did last year. Last year I thought when we got to the bowl site we were very sharp. I’m hoping to have a repeat of that this year.”
Extra practices before a bowl have significant value in terms of developing players. It’s almost equivalent to an additional spring practice.
“It’s tremendous,” Houston said. “We’ve talked all week just about certain kids that maybe were backups throughout the year or they’re young that have just made leaps and bounds during the bowl prep. That first week and a half or so, we focused a lot on those young kids.
“It’s just been really enjoyable because you’ve gotten kind of a preview of what you’re going to have in the spring before you get to the spring. If you do this continually year in and year out, obviously you’re adding 14, 15 practices a year to the development of your program.”
The departure of Jamey Chadwell from Coastal to coach at Liberty has been an adjustment for ECU’s bowl foe.
“Yes, the head coach has changed there but the coaching staff that coached them throughout the year is the coaching staff that’s coaching the bowl game,” Houston said. “We have a pretty good grasp on who we’re playing against and what we’re going to be seeing schematically. I have a lot of respect for their coaching staff. I’ve known that bunch for a long time and they do a great job. I really expect to see the 9-win Coastal team that has been there all year. That’s the one I expect to see next week.”
Houston said the Chanticleers have undergone some offensive revisions.
“I do think they’ve evolved a lot since I saw this staff last and I think they have incorporated in more of the zone run game,” said the fourth-year Pirates coach. “They still have a lot of the option stuff off of it, but certainly I think they have a lot more playmakers than maybe they have had in the past.
“Defensively, they look like a Chad Staggs (interim coach, defensive coordinator) defensive unit. They’re very sound, very aggressive. They’re going to be really aggressive against the run. They’re good tacklers. They play with a lot of energy. I think they’re what I expect from this coaching staff.”
The first signing period has moved from February to December. The transfer portal began to populate earlier this month and the Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) aspect has done its part in changing the recruiting landscape.
“There have been rule changes the last two years by the NCAA that have had maybe unintended consequences,” Houston said. “It has created what we’re dealing with right now, which is vastly different than what college football was five years ago. Recruiting is vastly different than what it was five years ago. I don’t think, there are probably not many people that like the way the current state of college football is with that stuff.
“I do think there needs to be … a step back and ‘Hey, what is best for the student athletes? What is best for the sport? Let’s move that way instead of how can I keep from getting sued? How can I avoid a lawsuit? I think anytime you’re making rule changes because you’re scared, I don’t think that’s worked out very good.
“There probably needs to be some kind of governance, somebody that is, I don’t know, over FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), because FBS football is just so much different than any other division. I just think there needs to be some consistency. There needs to be rules. I think that right now, I feel like there’s not many rules and I just think there really needs to be some thought put into this.
“It’s not just me speaking out. You see Mack Brown (UNC coach) this week who I respect greatly. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi up at Pittsburgh, Coach (Dave) Doeren at N.C. State, counterparts that are all throughout the eastern seaboard have been very vocal this week about just things that they don’t like about the direction that things are going.”
Eye on the portal
The transfer portal has become a huge source for recruiting.
“We monitor it every day,” Houston said. “I mean there are obviously guys going in every day and so we’re monitoring it constantly. And the way we view it is we signed a large number of high school kids today. I still believe in that and I hope high school coaches hear me. We still believe in recruiting high schools and so that is going to be the foundation of our program.
“I do think that the transfer portal has added a different bucket. You have high school players, you have junior college players. Well it’s just a different bucket that we can draw from to fill out our roster.
As we’ve talked about this a good bit, we do try to be very cautious because we want to protect the culture of our locker room and I want to make sure we’re bringing in the right kinds of young men that will be enjoyable for us to coach. They’ll be enjoyable for our players to be teammates with, and they’ll represent East Carolina University in the first-class manner that we expect. And so, we are very cautious with who we bring in. But it is another bucket to fill out your roster with.”
The signees announced Wednesday represent extensive evaluation and recruiting effort.
“I’m very pleased with the class we signed,” Houston said. “We’ve been working on this class obviously for over a year now and we’ve said, ‘Okay, here’s the line,’ and if they’re above the line then we recruited them heavily and offered. We had a lot of guys on campus throughout the last winter, last spring, over the summer, all fall and felt really good about our class of committed players.
“I really like the group that signed with us. We’re not quite finished yet. Expect a couple of more today. We’ll also either later today or tomorrow, announce a small group of transfers that have already signed their paperwork with us as well. And that’ll continue. So I told the players in here earlier today that we’ve signed 14 guys that will be added to our roster. I expect that to be a little bit higher by the end of the day and some of those guys will be here in January.
“And so, yes, we’re finishing up the 2022 season but we’re also well into building the roster for 2023.”
Houston talked about the personnel that will join the program, starting with receivers.
“Malik (Leverett, wide receiver), just a dynamic player,” Houston said. “He’s a kid that has a ton of ability. Just really a good kid. Just really have enjoyed getting to know him and his grandparents and they’ve been here for multiple games. I went down and saw them maybe a week and a half ago at their home (Evans, GA). Grandma cooked me a fantastic meal, had some good pecan pie along with that, but I think he’s got a very bright future. I think anybody that watches his film you know can see he’s got a chance to be a special player in this league.
“When you look at Zion (Agnew, WR) and Nate (Branch, WR), a little bit more slot-receiver type bodies, a little bit different. Nate has electric speed, a big-play guy who will be an impact in the return game as well. Excited about him.
“Zion, I love that kid. I’m just telling you. When he came last summer to camp and he had tweaked his hamstring at another camp a few days earlier and out there on that field and we had a large group of kids there that day — they had to make him get out. He would take every rep he could get on offense. Then he’d flip over and he played corner on defense. And to be honest, he dominated that camp that day and that was the day, I said that kid’s got that dog in him and he may not be the biggest guy in the world.
“He’s got great hands. He has very good speed and he has that mentality to compete and play. And I do think he has a chance because of his mentality to possibly play early.”
Houston turned his attention to the incoming defensive ends, Demoris Jenkins and Kieran Davis.
“Jenkins, love his length, love his athleticism,” Houston said. “I’m going to make it to a basketball game eventually. I used my one visit before signing day to go see him and his mom. So now that we’re beyond signing, I want to go see him play basketball. He claims he’s a really good basketball player. I think he is. He’s just a really special athlete with great length. I think he’s going to be able to do a lot of things. It’s going to be interesting to see how much he grows and fills out as to whether he’s going to be playing the field end or the rush. I think Kieran is a little bit different body type. He has a tremendous motor. He’s extremely physical, a tough guy. He’s going to be one of those Chad Stevens-type guys that just is a relentless competitor. Very pleased with those two guys.”
The Pirates may hit the transfer portal to bolster the blocking corps.
“We need to finish up the offensive line,” Houston said. “Probably be looking for a couple of guys there. You may see us take one or two skilled players on offense still.
“Defensively, I feel like possibly by the end of the week we may be about set there. I really like the core of guys and I think we have a good mix of young and old. I really like the young linebackers we signed today. Julian (Davis) and D.J. (Dwight Johnson Jr.), I think they have a chance to be really good players in this league. But it’s going to be a few years probably before they’re ready to be that guy. I don’t know. Same thing I tell all freshmen, ‘Listen, hey, you’ll play when you’re ready. If you come in and you’re the best player out of the gate year one, then have at it.’ The best players will play. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on a young player and play them before they’re ready.”
The Pirates added a high school senior quarterback to the class, Raheim Jeter.
“We’ve debated on bringing another quarterback in for the spring, but really the more I looked at it and I didn’t really see the right guy for that room,” Houston said. “Obviously we feel very good about Mason Garcia and he’s the next quarterback here at East Carolina University. And so I want to make sure that we do a great job continuing to develop him. He has been awesome during these bowl preps with his performance and just everything. And Raheim, I’ve recruited him to tell him you’re the next one up. And so the advantage of only having three there in the room with Alex (Flinn) added in is that Raheim is going to get coached and developed this spring. And I think that’s the plus of staying three. I do think we need four going into the season so we’ll be on the lookout for another guy to add to that room in time.”
Offensive lineman Bryce Weaver joins the Pirates from nearby D.H. Conley.
“I love that kid,” Houston said. “That’s the first thing I’ll tell you. There’s something about him, another one that claims he’s a really good basketball player. He may have been more my kind of basketball player. I think I fouled out more games than I did anything else. … I remember when I first met him, probably his sophomore year. He came to our line camp and just meeting him out there on the field and I wondered that day because Nate (Conner) over at Conley had told me he’s going to be a really good lineman in time and he just wondered how is he going to develop physically.
But just seeing how his body has changed, especially in the last year. I think even since he committed to us, he’s continued to grow. He has good height. He is very athletic. He is a big kid. He’s a 300-pounder right now and he’s still a senior in high school. I think that he’s going to be a guy that’ll probably be a multiple year starter for us and I think he’s got a very high ceiling. So as excited as I am about him physically though just his character and his family. I’ve enjoyed getting to know them and I think he’s an awesome deal having him sign here.”
New players add another dimension in the competition for playing time.
“Playing time is always a thing you have to manage,” Houston said. “Everybody wants to play. There’s 120 guys in this locker room and there’s only 11 that are on the field at a time and it is what it is. And it’s a thing where we try to run it the way I think it should be run.
“You earn your playing time on that field. And I think that that has treated us well over the years. Every day you’re out there competing, I tell the players, they decide who starts. They decide who plays by their performance on the practice field and then once they get their opportunities in the game, their performance in the game. But certainly anytime you bring in a group of new players, obviously they’re all competing for the same spots. And so I do think that competitive edge is something that is good for our program.
“That’s the big thing I want in our quarterback room is we’ve got to make sure that we have guys in there to push Mason because he’s got to continue to develop. And that’s the great thing with Raheim coming in, he’s going to have Alex and Mason in there to push him because I do think Raheim’s got a great upside. We talked a while ago about the way things change in our sport. There are certain things that we’re going to do things that way and we’re going to try to be very clear and honest with our players at all times and we’re going to try to do things right, try to make sure that they have the things here to support them and help them develop and grow. And we all have the same goals. I want to see them develop into the very best player on the field that they can possibly be based on that God-given talent.
“I want to see them graduate from East Carolina University with a degree. I don’t care what it’s in. And I told one other day, I said, ‘Nobody’s asked me my GPA since I graduated college. So just make sure you get the degree.’. … Get the degree and then I want to see them develop into the best young man that they can be and be a productive citizen.
“We’re going to stay true to the values and core things that we believe in no matter what.”
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