East Carolina has progressed to full equipment, a defining stage in preseason practice, and Pirates coach Mike Houston is seeing projected starting quarterback Mason Garcia step up.
Garcia is getting competition from Alex Flinn.
“We’ve got two good ones,” Houston said. “I think Mason, the last four days, has really elevated his play. I mean he’s playing with a ton of confidence. He had a great day (Thursday). Alex is doing good things also, but I think just Mason right now, the last several practices has really taken his performance exactly in the direction we hoped he would.”
This is a demanding time of year as players compete for positions. First-year players must learn systems.
“It’s testing them now because it’s shells Monday, back-to-back fully padded practices the last two days and then back out in shells today,” Houston said. “We’ve had some heat this week and pleased with, I’d say, 99 percent of the guys out there and how they responded today because everybody’s got bumps and bruises, nicks and pains right now.
“You’re reaching the point in fall camp where it’s kind of the dog days and you don’t know what day it is and everything’s running together. And so, it’s a challenge and you find out a lot about everybody just mentally with how they push through it and how they overcome it and how they perform.
“So, guys that go out after three really high intensity practices, guys that go out and continue to look good, perform, have that competitive fight, it shows you a lot about them. So, you’re figuring out who you can trust and you’re figuring out who is not ready. Everybody sitting in this air-conditioned room says that, ‘I can do this, I can do that.’
“But to go out there and do it day in, and day out, it’s a different deal. So solid practice, got a lot of really good special teams. Worked with our return units (Thursday). Had a real good PAT-field goal session to finish practice off. Had a backed-up punt, had that during our competition today, come off the one-yard line. So, we’ve got a lot of stuff accomplished today.
“So, we’ve got 48 hours or so just under to get ready for the scrimmage on Saturday. And so, we’ll have a lighter practice (Friday). And a big thing for them right now is just get their bodies, nutrition, hydration, recovery, and get ready for what I expect to be a highly competitive and very spirited scrimmage on Saturday.”
The playbook has been sufficiently covered to conduct a representative scrimmage.
“I don’t know if we have everything, but we’ve got I’d say 85, 90 percent of it,” Houston said. “We’ve got some of our late game stuff we’re going to work on (Friday), and then some of our special situations we’ll hit next week.
“But we have enough in to where Saturday we’re going to be able to just tee it up, kickoff, kickoff return, let the officials handle it and live spot everything and let everything play out. And so that’s what I want and that way we’re getting as close to game-like situations as we can get this Saturday and next Saturday.”
Houston was asked what he will be looking for in the transition to the pending scrimmage.
“What I want to see Saturday, when you go from the practice, now all of a sudden you go to a scrimmage situation,” he said. “So, the coaches aren’t around the huddle. … Everybody’s off the field and so you’re kind of out there by yourself as players. The same execution we’ve seen in practice all week. I’ve seen more and more guys just consistently day in and day out, stacking days, performing now, game situation and see you continue to do that. So that’s really the execution you’re looking for.”
There is a lot of competition to fill voids at cornerback.
“Shavon Revel has been very impressive so far in the preseason and that’s if you want one standout, that’s it,” Houston said. “I think you’ve got several other guys that have really had solid starts to the preseason. IBM (Isaiah Brown-Murray) has been very solid, pleased with how TyMir Brown is coming along. Jonathan Jones has shown, he’s an experienced guy. Antoine (Jackson) continues to show his ability. So, I think you got some guys really playing well. Saturday will be important for them.”
Jackson is 17 years old.
“He may be the youngest guy in the country,” Houston said. He impressed me today. Kamarro (Edmonds) bounces a zone play mid-zone to the outside and just ends up, he’s one-on-one with Antoine, and Antoine with a very, very physical thud tackle. That was kind of the question you wonder about, but he’s shown himself. He’s got some toughness to him.”
Houston said the Pirates have been investing time in the special team elements of kicking and punting.
“Highly competitive,” Houston said. “Got a lot of guys doing a really good job right now. Placekicking and punting. We have not kicked off as much, so Saturday will be important to see Lathe (Marjan) and (Andrew) Conrad competing right there. But very pleased. I think we’ve got multiple guys that are kicking the ball really well, and I’m really pleased with our punters right now too.”
Evaluations of the booters will be comprehensive, taking into account the scrimmage performances.
“You’re going to look at the full body of work,” Houston said. “But that’s going to be just like with the offense and defense, (scrimmages) are going to be a little bit more of a pressure situation. … You’re getting two or three kicks. You’re getting one kick. You either make it or you don’t. And that’s the way it is on game day. So, it’ll be good to see how we do in the stadium on Saturday.”
Sophomore defensive lineman J.D. Lampley has shed some weight.
“He is a little bit lighter,” Houston said. “I’d like to see him put just a touch back on, but he’s playing at a very high level. He is a very talented young player. He showed that last year. I think his athleticism has probably improved over a year ago. Still has very good strength, but that athleticism is going to allow us to play him at multiple spots across the front, which given our depth inside, I think is a really good thing.”
Running back Rahjai Harris missed the latter portion of the 2022 season for a knee injury that required surgery. Harris is showing leadership in his return.
“When you get something taken away from you, it probably gives you a lot more appreciation for it,” Houston said. “He’s been sitting there for eight months watching everybody else do stuff, watching us go out and win a bowl game last winter. He’s back out there full go now. (Tuesday) was an emotional day for him. He had a great day. I mean his intensity level throughout the day was fantastic, but certainly he is a leader on this team and in this program and what he says carries a lot of weight. That kind of leadership there early in practice kind of set the tone for everything.”