It has been nearly two months since East Carolina University began phasing in voluntary workouts for its sports teams. Primarily men’s and women’s basketball and the football program, the Pirates have been building toward a fall sports schedule that still remains shrouded in mystery due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, ECU made it through voluntary, and then mandatory on-campus workouts with minimal disruptions, save for a week-long shutdown stemming from a small outbreak of COVID cases. As the Pirates took to the practice football fields adjacent to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this morning for their first full-speed practice of the summer, the athletic department only had five active COVID-19 cases. That number was small enough for Mike Houston’s program to get back on the field and begin knocking the rust off for the upcoming season.

“Practice one is in the books,” Houston said on a Zoom call with reporters. “It’s the first time we’ve been on the field together since last December in a football setting. It looked like it. It looked like we had been away from Big John (Williams Jr.) and our strength and conditioning staff for four months. I think that it probably gave all of our players and staff a greater appreciation for the tremendous job that our strength and conditioning group does throughout the year with our players. 

“I told the players, it’s not something we didn’t expect. I knew that we would not be in near the physical shape that we had been in preseasons in the past with our program. It is where we are, it’s our starting point.”

The practice lasted an hour and 25 minutes, with players participating in shorts and helmets. Much of the work was done in individual position groups, with a team-on-team period ending the morning practice.

Less than a month away from their regularly scheduled Aug. 29 match-up with Marshall, Houston and his staff are pushing the message of short-term focus to their student-athletes because of the uncertainty surrounding the college football season and scheduling. As things stand right now, both ECU and Marshall remain committed to playing at the end of the August, according to Pirates Athletic Director Jon Gilbert, but in the world of COVID-19, things seem to change in an instant.

Because of that, Houston is making sure his team is focusing on the one thing they can control, which is their preparedness for the season, both physically and schematically.

“What I talked to the players about after practice is, we can’t worry about anything past today and tomorrow,” Houston said. “We’ve got to have a very, very short focus. We’ve got to focus on this afternoon and getting ready for tomorrow morning’s practice and having a better practice than the one we had today. I think that’s where we got to be right now…I don’t care when we play, I don’t care where we play. We’ll be ready, but we can’t worry about that right now. More so than ever, we’ve got to really focus on us right now and our preparation.”

How the Pirates go about preparing for the season will look much different than in previous years. With over 100 members of the team participating in practice on Friday, three different fields were used in an effort to maintain as much social distancing as possible in accordance with policies and protocols already in place.

Houston said the spread-out nature of practice is allowing many different players to get a lot of reps, something he identified as a positive for a young football team like the Pirates. When student-athletes are not participating in drills and have their helmets off, they are required to have a mask on and must wash their hands after leaving the field.

Many of the players have been on campus working out since early June, and have a good understanding of what precautions they need to take to stay healthy, both on and off the field. Nevertheless, keeping track of the shifting nature of protocols and constantly having to follow a number of extra steps can weigh on the minds of athletes who are at the same time preparing to play a football game on Aug. 29.

“You spent half of your post-practice talk talking about making sure you wear your mask,” Houston said. “Make sure we social distance, we’re eating lunch, here’s how the training room is going to work with COVID policies. It’s just so much stuff that we’re having to do with that stuff — it’s going to be difficult to manage as far as keeping the players really dialed in, and also getting prepared to play a game in about a month.”

While it would be nearly impossible for college athletics to implement a bubble around sports teams like the NBA is doing, student-athletes have been operating in a de facto bubble on college campuses without the general student body present. In a matter of days now, that bubble will pop as schools like ECU welcome back thousands of students from all across the country.

For a coaching staff, making sure players limit their contact with potentially infected individuals will be one of the biggest challenges in attempting to pull-off the 2020 college football season.

Houston said he has been talking with his players about that for a while now, and wants them to understand what is at stake if they put themselves in a bad situation.

“It’s been a constant message,” Houston said. “We talked about it at length last night with the student body coming back in a matter of days. We talk about it a lot in the past for different reasons that we have more at risk and more to lose than the general student does. It’s even more so this year. We’ve got a decent control on the virus right now, if you can call it that. What I worry about is somebody exposing themselves to somebody that has a positive and bringing it back into our locker room. We talk about just, we’ve got to be diligent with our distancing and who we’re around.”

What shape the upcoming football season will take is still up in the air. Even so, the Pirates are all about focusing on their day-to-day actions and prepping for another year of ECU football, no matter what that will look like. With practice No. 1 complete, their attention turns to practice No. 2 on Saturday morning.

Shoulder pads will be allowed for the first time on Monday, with the Pirates progressing to full pads by the middle of next week.

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