East Carolina coach Mike Houston was pleased after the first practice of preseason football camp on Tuesday morning as the Pirates got a break with lower than normal temperatures.
“Couldn’t ask for better weather,” Houston said. “I told some of the new guys, I said, ‘This is mid-October weather right here.’ I mean, this is certainly not typical Eastern North Carolina beginning of preseason camp weather. So they got lucky with that.”
It was a cool way to start a new season.
“Exciting day,’ said Houston, who enters his fifth season at the helm of the Pirate ship. “Every year’s a new year. Every team’s a new team. That certainly applies to this group. Had some guys that you hope are going to look a certain way and guys that have been here and you hope they’re going to step up. And we saw some guys do that today. Saw some new guys. They got to learn how we practice and kind of how we work, and that’s okay. That’s what you expect. Every place in the country doesn’t do things the same way.”
The Pirates have added a significant number of invited walk-ons to the program.
“Had a lot of enthusiasm,” Houston said. “Of course with the new rule that they passed last week, you had more guys out there today than you’ve ever had before with 120 instead of the typical 110. So some guys, they’ll get their first reps tomorrow, some of the freshmen. They’re just kind of figuring out how we’re functioning today. But overall very positive first day. We are in helmets, so we all know that’s not really real, but very positive first day and be good to get our work done this afternoon and get ready for tomorrow.”
Playing time to be determined
How playing time will be distributed will be determined in preseason camp.
“There’s going to be a lot of competition,” Houston said. “That’s the one thing you see is, it’s not like there’s three receivers and then a huge drop off. You got to figure out who the guy-guys are, but you got a lot of guys, and you got a lot of guys that can play. Same thing in the secondary. You’re going to have a tremendous amount of competition at all four secondary spots and a tremendous amount of competition on offense at wide out. It’ll help us. It’ll make us better.”
Incoming talent on defense
There are almost 40 scholarship players joining the program and Houston appreciates the talent level of the newcomers, many of whom arrived with proven experience via the transfer portal.
“In the secondary and at the second level linebacker, outside linebacker position, we’re longer, we’re faster,” Houston said. “We’re very athletic. Now we got to learn how to play together. Got to get everybody on the same page, get everybody jelling, playing as one unit. We certainly have added some new dimensions on that side.”
Star power moved on
Offensively, catalysts such as quarterback Holton Ahlers and running back Keaton Mitchell as well as receivers C. J. Johnson and Isaiah Winstead played their last games at ECU as the Pirates beat Coastal Carolina, 53-29, in the Birmingham Bowl to complete an 8-5 season in 2022.
Houston has sufficient confidence in the development of depth and talent at ECU to feel that the Pirates can adjust successfully to the personnel voids.
“As you look at the roster as a whole, the depth is very solid,” Houston said. “The roster is very solid. You don’t have the one or two marquee guys that have had huge seasons the year before coming back. Those guys, they’re playing professionally right now, and that’s it. So that’s what we want for our guys.
“As a whole, the roster is very healthy. You have a lot of guys that are competing for playing time. We’re big. We’re strong. We’re athletic. Now, we’ve got to figure out who’s who and put those pieces in the right spots. But we’re very pleased with where the roster is.”
Not only do the Pirates lose a nucleus of productive players, some returning team leaders will be expanding their roles.
“We had some leaders that left but you also have a lot of leaders returning,” Houston said. “I mean that D-line group has been starting for three years. They’ve played a lot of snaps. You got a tight end (Shane Calhoun) that’s started for three years, and he’s played a lot of snaps. You got a running back that was as good as there was in this conference his freshman year (Rahjai Harris). So you’ve got a lot of leaders returning too. So I think that it’s just different guys stepping into different roles.”
Seeing big picture
Coaching evaluations will determine who emerges from preseason competition for playing time.
“With the competition we have across the board at every position, the evaluation is every day,” Houston said. “And you don’t throw anybody out because they didn’t have a great day and you don’t crown somebody just because they had a great day. The evaluation’s going to be the full body of work for preseason camp.”
Mason Garcia, Alex Flinn and Raheim Jeter will be getting the bulk of snaps at quarterback with Garcia projected as the starter.
“We had had three quarterbacks that functioned at a very high level today,” Houston said. “It was good to see Raheem. I told him after the first drive of team, I said, ‘Well that certainly didn’t look like the spring.’ Now part of it was he had snaps that actually hit him in the hand every snap, so that helps him. But I thought he looked very composed, and so now you feel like you can function with your third quarterback. Alex and Mason looked like experienced guys today. Both of them had a solid day.”
The Pirates hit the transfer portal for several offensive linemen, and Allen Mogridge is the new position coach.
“New coach, and a lot of new combinations,” Houston said. “The first group today was a lot of guys that had been in the program. And then you got some guys in that second group that are new to the program. You’re going to see a lot of shuffling in that group.
“I think that we do have the ability this year where we don’t have to sit here and just play five. I think we’re going to be able to play eight, nine guys up front on offense and so it’s just figuring out who goes where, and getting those guys reps because you’re going to have guys that are going to play a couple of different positions. You’ve just got to get those guys reps together.”
ECU has some program veterans on the offensive friont.
“Parker Moore and Hampton Ergle, two guys that have been in the program and have played a lot of ball —those two guys are the two that kind of jump to mind immediately when you talk about leaders in that room,” Houston said. “But you have some veteran guys that I think will emerge in time that are new to our program that have played a lot of ball, too, that I think will have some leadership abilities.”
Harris comes back
Rahjai Harris went out for a knee injury in the middle stages of the 2022 season. He was first team All-AAC his true freshman season in 2020.
“He’s fully cleared,” Houston said. “He has no restrictions. The athletic training staff, they’ll work with him to see if there’s ever a day where we need to take a little bit off him or whatever. But I told him that I’m not going to be hesitant with him during preseason camp. He is an experienced back. By the time we make that trip September 2nd (to Michigan), I want him fully confident and fully ready to go so that he can be Rahjai Harris.”
Houston addressed the mental aspects of Harris’s return.
“That’s what he and I have talked about,” Houston said. “We’ve talked probably more about that. I mean I think from the neck down, he’s full go. I think it’s just, … it’s been eight months, and the first day of contact, I told him, I said, ‘You’re going to need to run somebody over, and pop up, and you’re going to need to juke somebody, and you’re going to get tackled, and then pop up and go play the next play.’
“Anybody that’s had that injury, they’ve got to go through that. But he will. He’ll handle it just fine. He looked very, very good today.”
An eye-catching performance in the Purple-Gold game in the spring was evidence of Alex Flinn’s effort to make himself a relevant presence in the quarterback room.
“His commitment is the biggest change, and not that he was never an underachieving effort guy, but his commitment changed last year,” Houston said. “His commitment in the weight room, his commitment to taking care of his body. I think he’s become a lot more confident, a lot more assertive.
“He has really improved dramatically, probably from last spring, spring a year ago, to right now. And that’s the reason he’s made himself a guy that’s in the competition. I said that back in the spring. Mason looked as good today as he’s looked since he’s been here. He looked like a veteran guy that’s ready to play. It’s just Alex has improved also.”
The Pirates have a significant number of candidates for positions across the board.
“The days of us having to play four guys on the D-line are over,” Houston said. “I think we’re going to play multiple guys in the secondary, multiple guys at linebacker. We’re going to play multiple running backs. The receiver core, like I said, I may not know who the guy-guy is yet, but I know we’ve got several guys, and I thought we had several of those guys stand out today. So I think we’ve got a lot of competition, and we’re going to be able to play a lot of guys. I think that’s good for everybody.”
The Pirates have been picked sixth among 14 teams in the American Athletic Conference. Houston was asked about the level of expectations.
“I think it just gives you a little bit of a chip on the shoulder deal,” he said. “So, I told the team (Tuesday) night, I said, ‘We got a bunch of dudes in this room, just the people outside of this building don’t know they’re dudes yet. It’s our job to make sure that they come through.'”
Schedule for week
Preseason practice is intense from a time and attention standpoint.
The Pirates beat the heat in the morning but there was more to the day.
“We go eat lunch and they get a little bit of time this afternoon and we come back in this afternoon for meetings and then dinner,” Houston said. “We’ll walk through tonight. I know it’s not really hot, but we try to do our walk-throughs at night to stay out of the heat.
“We’re in helmets today and tomorrow. We’ll be in shells Friday and Saturday, and then shells on Monday and then we’ll be full pads early, middle of next week. It’ll start getting a little more competitive Friday when you put shoulder pads on.
“This bunch, sometimes there ain’t a whole lot of difference. They ain’t going to tackle each other but they’re going to hit each other. And the more you get towards that full-padded practice, and the more competitive situations you put them in, the more it ramps up. And that’s the one thing I don’t worry about this group is, they’re going to compete, and they’re going to push each other, and that’s a good thing. That’ll help us.”