Mike Houston made his remarks at the media kickoff for American Athletic Conference football as one of the league’s longest-tenured coaches.
Even as his rebuilding efforts continue from three straight 3-9 seasons prior to his arrival, Houston is an AAC veteran as he enters his fifth season at East Carolina.
With the abrupt dismissal of Ken Niumatalolo after 15 seasons at Navy, the standard for coaching experience in the AAC shifted downward. The title of league dean belongs to Willie Fritz of Tulane, who won the league crown and the Cotton Bowl in his sixth season with the Green Wave in 2022.
Mike Bloomgren has put in five seasons at Rice. Like Houston, Ryan Silverfield has four years at his present program, Memphis.
In contrast, there are seven first-year coaches in the league, which goes forward with six new teams.
Tanned and smiling on Tuesday, Houston qualified for a veteran’s perspective as he addressed attending media and an audience on ESPN+.
The AAC hadn’t had an in-person media day since the league office relocated in the Dallas area from Providence in 2020. COVID had put the news conferences with coaches and players online.
“Media day is in person again, so this time of the year everybody’s ramping up and getting excited,” said Houston in his opening statement. “Summer workouts are done and everybody’s ready for preseason camp. Everybody’s writing their stories and making their projections and predictions and talking about the opener.”
ECU opens the 2023 season at Michigan on Sept. 2 at noon. Shortly after Houston spoke on Tuesday, an alert stated that Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh may be subjected to a 4-game suspension for recruiting violations.
“It’s just an exciting time of the year,” Houston said. “So, it’s great to be back together and representing East Carolina University.
“It’s an exciting time for the American Conference with our six new members coming in. It’s going to create some new matchups, some new rivalries, and I know all the coaches in the league are excited about that.
Turning the page
The offseason has gone well going into the challenges of 2023.
“But here as we start, for me and our staff, year five at East Carolina, just really pleased with where the program is right now. Excited about this group this fall. Excited about the dedication and commitment that they’ve shown during the offseason. I know there’s a lot of documentation about who is in the NFL and who we lost last year. I’ve heard a lot of that this summer, but I’m really excited about who we have returning.
“A lot of players have been waiting their time. A lot of players have been doing it out there, and now they’re thrust into a bigger role. But as we stand here today, I’m as excited about the program and this season as I ever have been any. So, ready to get started.
“We open up with a report date next Tuesday. First practice will be next Wednesday, and then obviously have a pretty challenging opener September 2nd up in Ann Arbor against what is going to be one of the top one or two teams in the country this year preseason wise.
“A big matchup to start us off with, come back home with a challenging home opener against a very good Marshall Thundering Herd team coming off a nine-win season, and then a trip up to Boone to play in-state rival Appalachian State.
“A pretty challenging start to the season, but also very excited about that because we’re going to find out a lot about ourselves. And that’s what I’ve been talking to players about. Just find out really who we are early in the season. So, just can’t wait to get started.”
Despite returning just three starters on offense, Houston was asked what was going right.
“The thing that’s going right is those two young men that you guys have a chance to talk to in the other room, (tight end) Shane Calhoun and (defensive end) Jeremy Lewis. They’ve been in our program for three and four years, respectively. They’ve grown tremendously, just proud of the young men that they are.
“The greatest thing about college football to me is the development of the young men in our program and just really pleased with not only those two, but all the guys back in Greenville. It’s the reason I love my job and it’s why I don’t consider it a job. I get a chance every day to go spend my day with them. I’m better for it and hopefully we’re making their lives better for it. So that’s probably to me still the biggest positive of college football.”
Houston has gotten a lot of offseason questions about the absence of quarterback Holton Ahlers and running back Keaton Mitchell as well as receivers C.J. Johnson and Isaiah Winstead from an 8-5 team that won the Birmingham Bowl.
“You’ve got to start with our running back room,” Houston said. “Rahjai Harris was first team All-Conference in 2020. He did have a pretty tough injury last year, but he’s fully recovered. Had a great offseason. He and Marlon Gunn are two very experienced backs returning. Marlon played a lot for us last year after Rahjai went down. So those two guys are pretty proven commodities in this league. I expect those two to have very solid years for us.
“Jaylen Johnson had a solid year for us last year in spite of missing some time. He did battle some injuries around midseason and still put up really solid numbers. He’s healthy and has worked very hard all season, so expect him to have a very productive year this year. Same thing for Jsi Hatfield, who has had some of the biggest moments in Pirate history.
“He had the touchdown against South Carolina in ’21 to start the game. He’s had so many plays like that. Had a huge game down at SMU in ’19. So, a very experienced, explosive guy right there.”
The Pirates have more experience and depth on defense.
“On the defensive side of the ball, Julius Wood. I don’t know how he didn’t make all-conference last year. I think he’s one of the best safeties in the league. He’s had a great offseason. Just really excited about he and Teagan (Wilk) returning there at the safety position.
And then our defensive front, we return virtually everybody up front and it’s a solid bunch. They’ve all been playing for three years. I talk about them as a group because that’s kind of how we view them and they’re all just solid core players. I’m excited about a lot more than just those guys, but those are a few that have already proven themselves in this league.”
Mason Garcia and Alex Flinn will contend for playing time at quarterback.
“The positive thing is Mason and Alex have both been there in the same room with Holton their entire time,” Houston said. “Mason did start a game in 2020 when Holton was out with COVID. So those guys have been there, been at practice, been getting the reps, been getting the same looks and things like that.
“The thing you can’t replace is the game experience. Obviously, both those guys are inexperienced when it comes to college snaps, but they have worked very hard this offseason to prepare. They’re both playing as well as they ever have.”
Garcia has been hailed as the heir apparent to Ahlers since he arrived at ECU.
“I’ve talked a lot about Mason,” Houston said. “Mason’s ability and the ceiling for him is pretty high. We’re all excited to see him this year and see what he does with that. We’re excited about the pieces around him. I think that’s a big factor for him, is just the comfort with the players around him.
“It’s going to take those same things that Holton went through my first couple of years. Mason’s got to go through those things from the decision-making process. Now he’s probably more prepared for the beginning than Holton was in that he has been there with Holton through his last three years. But still, there’s no replacing experience.”