The importance of this spring practice at East Carolina cannot be underestimated.
The Pirates are roughly 11 weeks beyond their first bowl win since 2013 and will face what rates as the most demanding challenge in program history with the 2023 season opener at Michigan on Sept. 2. The Wolverines are defending Big Ten champions who earned a College Football Playoff berth last year.
What happens between a 53-29 Birmingham Bowl conquest and the pending trip to the Big(gest) House will be huge.
For the first time since before Mike Houston arrived as coach following the dismal conclusion of the 2018 season, Holton Ahlers will not be pulling the trigger for the ECU offense. There are voids to be filled on the offensive front that will protect Ahlers’ heir apparent, Mason Garcia, and a new offensive line coach, Allen Mogridge, to direct the development of the blocking corps.
Breakaway running threat Keaton Mitchell is going to give the NFL his best shot and a pair of 1,000-yard plus receivers, Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson, have exhausted their eligibility.
Ability may be there. That remains to be seen, but there are disparities to overcome in terms of experience across the board.
Ahlers threw 469 passes last season. Garcia tossed 12.
Houston and Pirate Nation have known the days of an Ahlers-less attack were coming. Garcia has been groomed. His time is now.
Houston plans to be patient. It’s not like he’s waiting for Superman and a host of superheroes to emerge from the locker room.
“Offensively, those guys in that first huddle, even though they’ve not really been in the first huddle a whole lot, they’ve all been in the program,” said the ECU coach after the first day of spring practice on Tuesday. “And so, it’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing and not like they can’t go out there and do it. They’ve been preparing for this.
“I think there’s a lot of teaching going on with some of our younger players, and that was the big focus. Today was just coaching them really hard, kids being coachable. And I told the kids, I said, ‘Listen, if you screw up, you screw up. Nobody’s going to yell at you for screwing up.’ Just great effort and great energy.’ That was our big focus for the day, and I thought we had that.”
Full pads Saturday
The Pirates will progress this week to putting on full pads and hitting on Saturday.
“It’s some of that stuff that’s not really real football yet, but it’s good to be back out there and I thought the kids had a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm.” Houston said. “Obviously a lot of new faces in the lineup, especially offensively. A lot of those guys have been waiting their turn and been working really hard to be ready when that time comes.
“And I thought that all that creates a lot of positive energy out there. So good solid day one. And I told them the goal is to sharpen things up and look a little bit better on Thursday and focus on getting better every day. So, we’ll be in helmets on Thursday, we’ll be in shells Friday afternoon, a little bit shorter Friday afternoon because we’ll turn right around and go. Saturday morning. We’ll be full pads Saturday morning, our first live contact of the spring. So, it should be an exciting week.”
Culture in place
Houston has overseen a culture revision that encompasses the program. His tenure at ECU has coincided with the onset of Name, Image, Likeness and a freely flowing transfer portal.
There are transfers to bring up to speed before the Purple-Gold clash on April 8.
“You look at the roster top to bottom. I think you know you have a very solid roster, and you have a lot of guys that have been in the program for multiple years,” Houston said. “It’s not like you’re out there coaching effort and attitude. It’s not like you’re out there coaching all the little stuff that you had to coach early on.
“That stuff is ingrained in all those kids and the new faces, basically what you tell them is if you don’t know what to do, just watch the guys in the first group because they’re going to do things right most of the time.
“That’s the advantage of being here multiple years. Now you go through this when you had a couple of guys declare early. You had a couple of seniors that have been here for a while and when those guys graduate — and you see this in programs across the country — you’ve got to have the next guy ready to step up.”
Some freshmen enrolled
Some of ECU’s December high school signees are getting an indoctrination.
“There’s only a handful of freshmen,” Houston said. “You have Javious Bond, the running back, you have Kam Duran, the offensive lineman, you have Raheim Jeter, freshman quarterback, and you have Brock Winstead, freshman long snapper. That may be it for freshmen, unless I’m forgetting somebody. I don’t think I am. The rest of the new faces are transfers. We have some new walk-ons.”
Early look at QB
Garcia looked at home as spring practice 2023 got underway.
“I thought he was good,” Houston said Tuesday. “Very comfortable. The good thing is that wind out there, he’s got the velocity on his throws to where he was able to throw through the wind. I thought he had good command of the offense.”
The Pirates have been in the weight room during the winter with strength and conditioning director John Williams, known around the program as “Big John.”
Some have taken their bodies to another level.
“Marlon Gunn (running back) looked like a guy on a mission during winter workouts because he is,” Houston said. “He knows he’s competing for a significant role this year and he’s working hard to prepare for that. Kerry King (receiver), that’s another guy that’s really had a good winter. I thought he was very consistent today and really doing things right, very decisive in his movements and just looked very comfortable out there. You’ve got a lot of guys that have worked very hard for this time.”
Houston was asked about sophomore outside linebacker Samuel Dankah, who is 6 feet, 5 inches and 213 pounds, and he commented about the position in general.
“Geez, he is long,” Houston said. ” … The good thing about him now, he goes hard. He goes hard. He is a long, athletic kid and certainly you’re going to be able to do some different things with him both defensively and on special teams. And I hate that Jeremy (Lewis) is out this spring.
“The good thing is we’ll get Jeremy healthy and he’ll be back, and Jeremy’s an experienced player, but it does give opportunity for guys like Jack (Powers). Jack has got a chance to really solidify himself as a cornerstone guy defensively this spring. And then a guy like Sam is going to get a lot of reps, a lot of coaching, a lot of work. And so you should see him develop really, really solidly throughout the spring.”
Shank a fixture
Steve Shanweiler, who was in his fourth stint on the ECU staff as offensive line coach last year, is changing roles in the program. His time with the Pirates goes back to the 11-1 season in 1991.
“He’s not going to be too far away,” Houston said. “With Jules (Montinar, cornerbacks) and Allen (Mogridge, offensive line), both have shown themselves to be really good hires. I’m very pleased. They’re both just solid character people and very knowledgeable. They have really connected with the players very well so far. Allen has got a lot of enthusiasm with those offensive linemen. So it’s going to be a lot of energy out there.
“I told the linemen that when we get the D-line together and you got Coach (Roy)Tesh and Allen out there in the middle of it, they may end up going one-on-one or something like that. But I think those two guys are great additions to our staff.”
Mogridge will be doing some crucial evaluation during spring ball.
“You’ve got a couple of them that are watching right now,” Houston said. “If everybody’s healthy, you have a very solid five. You’ve got to just figure out who goes where, kind of deal. And with a couple of guys out, you have some other guys getting opportunities to show that they belong this spring.
“There’s some known commodities. There’s also some guys that — like we talked about with some other positions — that have been kind of waiting their turn. And so with linemen, really with the roster in general, until we get to Saturday, you can’t put a whole lot of stock into a helmet practice. There’s lots of guys that look good out there in helmets.”