Friday represented the first time ECU’s entire football team had been on the field together since December of last year. In the nearly eight months since then, the Pirates’ roster has undergone something of a makeover on the defensive side of the football.
All four of last year’s starters along the defensive line are gone, as are Daniel Charles and Colby Gore in the secondary. Gerard Stringer will also likely miss the entirety of the 2020 season after suffering an ankle injury in the off-season.
Nevertheless what the Pirates are missing from 2019, ECU is turning over a new defensive leaf after bringing in new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell earlier this year. Harrell comes from the FCS level and will be tasked with installing a new scheme with the Pirates, something that has progressed well in walk-throughs over the last couple weeks.
“You can’t do anything about what was taken away,” head coach Mike Houston said in a Zoom call with reporters. “It’s not fair to coach Harrell, it’s not fair to the players, but nobody cares. The walk-throughs have been good because they’ve allowed us to install the defense, but walk-throughs and live, moving bullets are two totally different things. You add in the heat and the conditioning element and your brain kind of goes away sometimes as a player. We had a lot of busts, but we also did some good things. I think the players overall are very, very excited about the defense. They’re excited about the diversity of it, they’re excited about the aggressiveness of it. They’re excited about the energy of the defensive staff.”
During Harrell’s introductory press conference in January, Houston praised the former Kennesaw State coach for the energy level he brings to a football team and those around him.
While Harrell will be leading ECU’s efforts on the defensive side, the Pirates also hired Steve Ellis to coach the cornerbacks and Tripp Weaver to oversee the safeties. Those new faces, along with some older ones that are in new roles, hope to keep opponents guessing with a multiple defense that is not scared to bring pressure often.
With less than a month before ECU is set to play Marshall, Harrell and his staff are making sure the new scheme soaks in and players are doing all the right things that will make them successful on game days.
“It’s square one, it’s where we are, tomorrow is square two,” Houston said. “Blake is an experienced coach, he’s been through this a lot of times so he’ll move with the proper pace to ensure that our guys are not only getting the install in, but also doing it right. Focusing on the little things, focusing on the fundamentals, focusing on the things that win football games.”
Offensively, the Pirates are in a much more solidified position after returning over 90% of their total yardage from last year. Quarterback Holton Ahlers and a trio of the Pirates’ top receivers are all back. Add in transfers like running back Chase Hayden and offensive linemen Avery Jones and Justin Chase, and ECU’s offense is coming together with a combination of young talent and experienced leadership.
Even so there is a decent amount of rust to knock off as the Pirates begin practicing in full-speed position group workouts.
“Today, I think we had some flashes,” Houston said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go with the conditioning and getting back in sync and on the same page with each other. We have our starting quarterback back, we have multiple skill players back, we’ve had some additions there. Our offensive line, we’ve had some additions there. I think we have potential. Potential is not what we’re after, we’re after performance. Performance is the key thing. We’ve got to focus on taking that potential and turning it into making plays on the field.”