East Carolina is in its second week of spring football practice, the weather is cooperating, and the Pirate coaching staff is gathering valuable information in preparing to deal with personnel voids and the challenges of the 2023 schedule.
Coach Mike Houston addressed media on Tuesday following a session at the practice facility.
“Beginning of week two, finally got some spring weather this afternoon,” Houston said. “I woke up this morning, it was 26. I was wondering what it was going to be like today, but it’s a nice day out there.”
The Pirates had some live contact on Saturday (March 18) and a scrimmage is scheduled this Saturday.
“I thought Saturday was really, really good after looking at the film,” Houston said. “I’ll tell you, when we put them in situations where it’s live, and there’s something on it, and they’re competing, we’re finding out so much about each other, because you can’t simulate that. And I think that’s a big thing for us right now, is getting as many reps as possible with both sides of the ball, so we can get everybody playing more comfortable together, figure out what pieces go where.”
Looking for consistency
The Pirates are looking to stack good practices in advance of the Purple-Gold game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, April 8, at 11 a.m. Houston is seeing good things and wants that to develop into a standard.
“So many positives, obviously tons of stuff to improve on, and the big thing we talked about this week is just being consistent,” Houston said. “Being consistent with our performance, having a great day, not just a great play. And so, I thought that we went out there and we did some good stuff. We finished the day with a live first-and-goal from the seven (yard line) drill for all three units.”
The goal-to-go situations were intense.
“You put it down that close to the goal line, the temperature gets pretty hot, and so it was highly competitive out there,” said Houston, who will be entering his fifth season at the Pirate helm. “So really good, look forward to being back out on the grass later on this week, and then really looking forward to Saturday with our first live scrimmage.”
Veterans show experience
As might be expected, the fewest errors are being made by those with the most experience.
“The most consistent guys obviously are the ones that have played,” Houston said. “I mean, we talked about it on Saturday; those defensive linemen have played a lot of snaps here. And so, they’re not making mental errors. They’re executing very well. They’re fundamentally sound. They play with a tremendous amount of intensity and edge.
“You look at a group like that, they’re being very, very consistent. I think Marlon Gunn (running back) has had a good start to the spring. Really pleased with him. Kerry King (receiver), I thought had a really good first week, and I challenged him today, ‘Don’t go out there and (mess up), because you had a good first week.’
“Defensively, I think Devon King (safety) had a really good first week. Shavon (Revel, corner) had a really good first week. Guys like Teagan (Wilk, safety) and Julius (Wood, safety), I mean you expect them to go out there and look like starters because they’ve started so many games for us. But really excited to see some of those younger guys looking more and more like guys that are ready to play.”
The time is now for transfers, who have been brought in to contribute immediately.
“Yeah, D. Nash (Dontavius Nash, defensive back from North Carolina), my question on him was, ‘Would he hit you?’ Houston said. “He showed us Saturday, he’ll hit you. So, because he’s a long, rangy, athletic guy, certainly he can cover a lot of ground back there. So, it was good to see. Now the challenge for him is just stacking days together, getting really sound with the scheme and assignment sound.
“I thought RaRa (Dillworth, linebacker, UNC) really came on late in the week last week. So, he and Kingston (McKinstry) are battling it out there at the sam position. I think you’ll see a couple of those linebackers continue to improve as they get a better feel for the scheme. … Because you’re getting a new scheme and it’s fast in there in the box.
“So I think those guys, I thought Gerald (Green, running back, Georgia Southern) was very solid Saturday. … He’s going to be a guy that’s going to be able to help us. So I think we’ve got several of the new guys that are contributing already.”
There is a teaching process with players new to the program in addition to evaluating their skills.
“The guys that have played a lot, I mean they’re handling it better than the ones that it’s new to them,” Houston said. “So, some of the guys that just got here, or some of the freshmen, they’re struggling because you put in a lot so fast in the spring. So by the end of the week, we’ll have most of our complete package on both sides of the ball in. So, I think it’s just what we talked about with consistency. The guys that have played are handling it better than the young ones.”
The players are receptive to the coaching and that makes for a good working situation for the ECU staff.
“We have high character young men in our program,’ Houston said. “I know that they’re very enjoyable to coach. I mean the position coaches talk about just how enjoyable this group has been so far this spring. So, I think it is. I think we have a strong bond in our locker room, and I think those kids, our leadership council is kind of small because it’s just kind of the guys that have returned from last year.
“But they’ve been very vocal about what they want in our locker room as far as leadership and as far as things they want, things they don’t want. And I think they’re talking a lot in there about protecting our culture.”
There is some change among those in team leadership roles.
“You had some guys that have been in the program. I mean they were in the program when I got here.” Houston said. “That class graduated and so now you have a little bit of the changing of the guard. I mean it’s no more reflective than the quarterback room.
“Holton Ahlers started every game but one during my first four years. And so now Holton’s preparing for his next steps in life and hopefully continues to still play football. And so now you have a new leader in that offensive huddle and Mason (Garcia) is a part of our leadership council and he’s really doing a good job. But it’s new. It’s different. It’s a new role for him.”
New players finding their places
Players new to the program are in the process of figuring out how they fit in.
“There’s a combination of embracing and also making them earn their way,” Houston said. “I think that’s important too. Everybody’s got a fair shot. Like I talked about last week, nobody can sit here and say that they’re not getting a chance.
“They embrace the new players in the program, the transfers. They welcome them into the room, they welcome them into the locker room. But at the same time now they do expect them to adjust to our standards for the way we work, the way we compete, the way we conduct ourselves. So, it’s not like they just get a free pass. They got to come in here and they have to assimilate to our culture.
“And I think that the kids are doing a good job with that. But I do think that the way our guys welcome them in does help them understand that we’re going to do things a certain way and it doesn’t really matter how you did it where you came from.”
Javoius Bond is a freshman running back, who is adjusting to the college game.
“He got rocked the last play of the competition out there,” Houston said. “I’ll tell you, he’s going to be a really good player for us. I mean there’s no doubt about it. He’s got the ‘it’ factor and he’s got some dog in him and he doesn’t back down from anything. But he learned a valuable lesson today (Tuesday).
“He tried to bounce a zone play on the goal line and got the snot knocked out of him. So, it’s some of the things that you can do in high school, you can’t do at this level.
“So, I think he is a guy that’s going to get better every time he goes out there. No different than Raheim Jeter (freshman quarterback). I thought Raheim looked much better today than he looked last week. Every day, he’s going to get more reps. He’s going to get more comfortable. Those two kids right there, they have a bright future here at East Carolina.”