The potential for adversity abounds within the East Carolina football program but negative circumstances are not a focal point in spring practice.
Coach Mike Houston isn’t obsessing over the most demanding season opener in Pirate history at Michigan on Sept. 2.
Running back Rahjai Harris hasn’t held a personal pity party over the knee surgery he needed in 2022.
Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell accepts the necessity of a slow pace in schematic installation due to the incoming transfers that have to develop a grasp of his system, and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick sees the upside of his personnel despite significant departures at the skill positions and the arrival of a new offensive line coach.
All came to the podium at a news conference this week and put their emphasis on the positives.
Houston liked scrimmage
Video review provided confirmation for Houston from a scrimmage on Saturday.
“After we looked at the film, it was exactly what we thought coming off the field,” Houston said. “Just a very, very good day out there of competition. Followed it back up with a very good day of competition again (Tuesday). … Loved the way the kids competed, … just so many positives.
“We’re getting better every day and the kids are competing at a very, very high level, really challenging each other. So, that makes it fun to go out there. It’s enjoyable to be out there with this group.”
Film is a teaching tool and rising sophomore running back Marlon Gunn is an example.
“Marlon Gunn had a really good day on Saturday,” Houston said. “But still, he can look at the film and he can see where his cuts can be sharper. He can be tighter and put more stress on the defense, create potential for bigger plays. All of a sudden, it’s full speed and it’s live.
“Tackling. The only way you learn how to tackle is by tackling. But you know, you get out there and you get those backs going full speed, you get the receivers going full speed. You don’t take a good angle, you miss it.
“I told them, when we go out and we compete at a high level against each other, it creates opportunities for growth because you have to respond to the challenge. So, I thought Saturday was a great day for that growth and that was our big focus (Tuesday) is growing from the film that we saw the last couple of days. And I think we had a good practice (Tuesday). … We’ll go evaluate that. And I expect us to see some improvement from Saturday but also some more room for growth.
“We spent over an hour (Monday) in film, each position group. And again, (Tuesday), they spent time looking at that film and learning and improving. And then, you go out there and you have another highly competitive practice. And the kids have great attitudes. They’re all very motivated. And so, that’s when you’re going to see improvement.
“Just like we talked about in the fall, from week one to week two, seeing drastic improvement, I expect to see that from Saturday scrimmage to this Saturday scrimmage.”
Run game potential
Despite the loss of Keaton Mitchell, an All-American Athletic Conference running back, Houston is optimistic about the ground attack going forward.
“Our backs look really, really good,” Houston said. “I mean, I think we have a good group. I think the additions of Javoius (Bond) and Gerald (Green), the returners, I think that we have a very, very strong position room there. And get Rahjai healthy? I mean, that could be the strength of our offense. And I say that — it’s one scrimmage, but I’m just telling you they backed it up again (Tuesday).”
Defensive front among strengths
The promise of the running game doesn’t mean that the Pirates haven’t looked formidable on the other side of the ball.
“Our defensive front, I think, is going to continue to be something that’s a strength,” Houston said. “Those kids are … all experienced. They play with a great motor. The intensity they play with — I really, really am pleased with that. I think we’ve seen some receivers step up. Shane Calhoun (tight end) looked like what I think he can be last Saturday. He had a really, really good day. I just think there’s lots of positives coming out of that scrimmage.”
Harris, the AAC Rookie of the Year in 2020, has been a fixture at spring practice on the sideline, He is projected to return to active status in preseason camp.
“It’s good for him and good for the players,” said Houston of Harris’ presence. “He’s such a positive, contagious personality. And so, I think that anytime he’s out there it’s leadership motivation. … Our kids, they care about him. And so, they respond to him. And then, I think, for him, it’s extremely healthy mentally to be out there and be engaged because going through an ACL surgery and rehab is… That’s the toughest part.
The physical part, it’s tough but not near as tough as the mental part. And he’s had some episodes he’s had to fight through. I mean, that’s just natural. But I think the more he’s around his teammates and the more he’s engaged, the better it is for him.”
Flinn at QB
Alex Flinn has been looking strong at quarterback in a back-up role to Mason Garcia.
“Extremely pleased with Alex Flinn,” Houston said. “He’s having a great spring. … He’s been solid every day out. I thought he was very solid on Saturday. He has complete command of the offense. He’s trimmed down a little bit, so he is moving better. He’s throwing the ball with really good zip. And it’s just like the end of the team period (Tuesday). The defense zeroes out. And he checks to the hot route and completes the pass for a big play. And that’s not the easiest thing in the world to do.
“That’s something that takes an experienced guy to do it. So, I think, right now, you look and you feel very, very good about your top two quarterbacks. And Raheim (Jeter), again, he’s a high school senior. He is going to be a good player. We put him with the two offense today, so he had a little bit different personnel around him. And he did some really good things. So, I’m really pleased with that room right now.”
The Pirates had Pro Day on Tuesday with almost every NFL team on hand to scout.
“A lot different than the first spring I was here,” Houston said. “So, I think that you had 17 guys out there, 14 of them were with us this past season. And I thought they all looked good. You can tell that they’ve all been training and really worked hard to prepare. Excited with the turnout we had from the scouts. We had 31 of the 32 NFL teams here. Figure out where that one team was. … CFL had representatives here. XFL had representatives here. So, it was a great opportunity for our guys to have a lot of eyes on them and to showcase their abilities.
“Just excited about what they did out there. You watched the whole thing in general. I thought that everybody looked good. But then, you watch the throwing stuff at the end with Holton (Ahlers) and our skilled kids from last year and I thought it was very impressive. Kind of makes you a little sick to your stomach because they’re not here anymore. But that’s okay. It’s life. People graduate and move on and all that. But just excited for those guys. They’re going to get opportunities. And I just can’t wait to see what’s next for them.
“They’ve all worked very, very hard for this opportunity. And that’s what I told them before we started this morning. I’m just really excited for them and proud of them. And we’ve talked about it a good bit. They were a big part of turning the program around. And now, they have the opportunity to go chase their dreams. So, it’s a great… just a great thing to watch.
“We had seven or eight scouts here that first spring and not a very impressive workout. And so, just there to now, it shows a lot about the program. And you look at that group exiting, and then you’re as excited about what you have in the program right now, I think that says a lot.”
Harris making most of rehab
Since a midseason injury and surgery in 2022, Harris has been in rehab.
“Everything’s been positive,” Harris said. “I’ve been trying to stay in the right mind, right mindset with everything — school, football, brotherhood, the locker room. So, everything’s been a blessing. I’m just enjoying the process.”
Harris appreciates the respect of his teammates.
“It means everything because they look at me as a leader, even though I’m not even out there,” Harris said. “So, me going to practice, it was kind of hard at first because I had taken a week or two off during the season when I first got injured. But just being out there with my brothers, I just let go of everything. I don’t even think about anything outside the field. It’s a great feeling.”
Harris is regaining his physical abilities.
“I’ve been sprinting for about two weeks now, so I’m building,’ he said. “That’s making me happy just to think about. But I’m out there running, sprinting and just thinking about getting back, man, the next couple months. Man, I’m getting there.”
Harris said he is doing the right things from a dietary standpoint.
“I don’t even touch the McDonald’s,” he said. “I don’t even look at it no more when I drive by, man, because I be having my temptations. I swear. But it is what it is. I eat that broccoli.”
Protecting the culture
Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell talked about what program culture means on his side of the ball.
“Defensively, it’s ‘Play fast, make sure we’re running to the ball, playing with high effort.’ Effort-based defense is playing physical, making sure we’re knocking guys back up front, making sure we’re knocking ball carriers back, making sure we’re topping off on ball carriers and knocking those guys around and creating turnovers.
“That’s the things that we’re focused on right now, whether it’s a new guy, old guy, whatever it may be. And we’re going to have some new faces. I mean, I think, right now, you’d have five new starters on defense at least to replace. We got some guys out there for the first time or first meaningful reps with the ones that are having to take their game to the next level.
And then, you’ve got some guys that have been twos that have been around for a few years, they’re finally getting their shot and they’re taking advantage of it. So, it’s kind of all coming together. I think it’s practice eight today. And we’ve come a long ways since day one but we’ve still got a long ways to go, especially before September. And the good thing is we had guys out there pushing and competing every day and it’s a fun bunch to be around. And I think their ceiling is so high that you’re going to see these guys get better and better and better every day. And that’s fun to be around and fun to watch. And they’re hungry to do that. And they care about how good can we be pushing to the next level.”
Value of competition
Harrell talked about the elements for improvement that competition provides.
“In all our professions, competition makes us better,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re a banker. My mom ran a gas station for a long time. And when she was competing against the gas station up the road, it made her make sure that her gas station was buttoned up and tight, and had better sales, and cleaner and better bathrooms, and better gas prices than the gas station up the road, because she wanted to make sure she competed every day and made more money. Well, it’s no different than our players.”
Kirkpatrick has witnessed improvement within his unit.
“I’ve seen great attitude,” said the offensive coordinator. “It’s a fun group right now. Minus the first day because first day’s always good. It’s hard to have a bad first day. It’s about six rough days in there. now, I thought what in the world are we doing here? A lot of new faces, a lot of lost production there, obviously. So, those are the obvious things. And then, finally, I thought last weekend we kind of got it turned around a little bit. And then, (Tuesday, we kind of continued that a little bit.
But the whole time, even as miserable as the results were out there for about six practices, it was a lot of fun because we had a lot of kids that are just really into it. And spring ball usually dies a little bit. As a player, I don’t remember that my favorite part of playing college football was spring practice. You don’t play until September. And it’s either really cold or it’s really hot, and it’s been windy the whole time so it’s a little irritating for all that. But that’s probably the number one thing I’ve seen is we’ve got some guys that really like to play. They like being out there. So, it’s a fun group to coach right now.”
The QB room
Kirkpatrick is also the position coach for the quarterbacks.
“There are only three right now, so we’ll add to that, obviously, in the fall,” Kirkpatrick said. “Mason has taken the most reps with the first group. And what we’ve seen is, what we thought he was — great ability, big, can run, throws a really, really good ball. And he’s really, I think, stepped it up. Holton was a great role model. We’ve talked about that a lot. And he’s really committed himself a lot more now to getting over here, and watching tape, and trying to be a leader, and doing all those type things.
“Alex Flinn’s having a great spring practice. Alex had really improved last year. The spring before last fall, we had had a really heart-to-heart talk about ‘We’re going to have to make a decision here. Which way you going to go with this?’ And he came back a lot more, I thought, ready to play last year. Still didn’t get to play very much, but he was really ready. And now, this spring, he’s been really good. He’s been really good. He understands everything we’re doing and is throwing the ball much better. He’s trimmed down. He’s moving around a little bit better. So, I just see a really, really capable guy right there, right now.
Raheim’s gotten here. And it’s like drinking water through a fire hose right now. It’s just coming at you and you’re just trying to hold on. And every day, we’re just trying to get him some reps in there. He’s had to primarily go with the third O line, which. … Alabama ain’t got a third O line ready to play in spring practice. They’re new guys. Some of these guys, like him, they should be in high school right now. Really, they still really are in high school. So, he’s had to fight through that a little bit. And he hadn’t gotten a chance to do much. So (Tuesday), I got him some work with the twos. And he really showed that he’s got some ability. He’s very, very smart. He’s very committed to the thing. Big, can run. He’s got a pretty good ball. So, it’s just a process now of him coming on and learning the system a little bit better.”
Spring practice wraps up with the Purple-Gold game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, April 8, at 11 a.m.