Spring workouts were going just about as well as possible for the East Carolina University football team when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of football activities and the entire spring sports schedule.

“When we left back in March, we were in as good of physical shape conditioning-wise, biggest, fastest, strongest, that we’ve been since I got here,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Monday.

A young team with plenty of holes to fill, both offensively and defensively, Houston had finally begun building good habits in the weight room and on the practice field with his Pirates. If they were allowed to continue spring drills and hold their annual Spring Game, who knows where this team would be developmentally at this point, 47 days ahead of the 2020 season.

Nevertheless, every college football team across the country was forced to send its players home with nothing more than something resembling a workout and the hope that student-athletes would keep themselves in shape without the watchful eye of a coaching staff.

For ECU, the results of that downtime, which has approached three months, have been varied as some players have noticeably returned in better shape than others.

“You could tell they’d been off for three months…So we’re not there, we’re trying to get back,” Houston said. “About one-third of them came back looking really good, one-third of them were just kind of OK, one-third of them, mostly young guys, were not in very good shape. (Director of Strength and Conditioning) John Williams is, I think, good as anybody there is at doing what he does. He and his crew are working diligently to get our players prepared for a fall camp that’s going to be here in two and a half weeks.”

Right now is the beginning of the second week of the first summer access period for programs that are scheduled to play Week 0 games. Players can be required to participate in up to eight hours of countable athletically related activities under the NCAA’s revised preseason model. That means a lot of weight training, running and conditioning is taking place in and around the practice fields on ECU’s campus.

“They’re (the players) working with the coaches a couple times a week, a lot of that is film,” Houston said. “We are around for some drill stuff and then the players are having their player-led practices just like they have in the past summers. They’re doing those multiple times a week. It’s a little more normal than what it was a few weeks back.”

In the coming days, the amount of required activities will increase as the season creeps closer. On Friday, the CARA hours tick up to 20 and programs like ECU will be allowed to begin walk-throughs with a football.

“We do start our next phase of summer access this Friday where we will have up to an hour walk-through a day in addition to up to an hour meeting a day,” Houston said. “So it’s a lot more access than we’ve had in the past. We’ll be able to use a football, you’ll be able to just have a lot more time with the players. Learning how to use that access, and at the same time stay within our safety protocols, that’s going to be the real stresser.”

Student-athletes are being tested regularly by the medical staff at ECU to ensure the virus is not spreading at a pace that would endanger the lives of players, coaches and staff. Masks are required in most cases and players have been educated upon their return to campus about proper procedures to follow in facilities and on the practice fields.

In as safe a manner as possible, Houston and his staff will attempt to recapture that level of conditioning once displayed by the Pirates pre-COVID-19. Perhaps more importantly, getting players back in the right mindset with the correct attitude will also play a large role in the team’s preparation for the upcoming season.

“We’re getting back to it,” Houston said. “The tough thing, and anybody can understand this, when you’re having your team meeting in a 50,000 seat stadium so that everybody can spread out and everybody’s got a mask on. Learning how to operate in this new normal has probably taken a little bit of our enthusiasm, it’s taken a little bit longer to come back around. I think everybody’s still trying to learn how to operate.

“Each day has gotten better. I thought that our workouts on Thursday were much better than Tuesday, I expect them to be a lot better today and tomorrow. As we go through this thing, I think everybody’s got to get used to what this year is going to look like.”

Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Mike Houston that first aired on 94.3 The Game on Monday below:

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