Spread out practices will likely become commonplace in college football this summer and fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For ECU’s football team, who became one of the first programs in the country to begin preseason practice on Friday, having more room to operate comes with its advantages.

“Of course there’s good and bad to the way we’re practicing right now,” head coach Mike Houston said on Saturday. “One of the really good things is, running multiple practices at the same time, you’re getting a lot of reps.”

In their first two practices, the Pirates have been using three different practice fields and are splitting up position groups accordingly.

“Right now we have it split up where the one’s — and we don’t call them one’s and three’s — but in essence, the one’s and three’s are on one field, the two’s and four’s are on another field,” Houston said. “We just call them group A and group B and we shuffle them around a lot and guys go back and forth between fields day-to-day.”

Finding ways to get reps was always going to be one of the pivotal aspects in a season that will be hampered by COVID-19. With regular testing planned in-season, teams must come up with contingency plans if a starter, or multiple starters test positive for the virus before a game. In that regard, possessing depth and keeping many different players ready for game action will be one of the biggest challenges for coaching staffs across the country.

“In essence, you are building your depth the way we’re practicing right now,” Houston said. “I do think it’s what we have to do this year.”

Compared to last year, ECU seems to be much better in the depth department after bringing in a slew of defensive linemen to replace all four starters from last year’s squad that were lost. According to ECU’s online roster, the Pirates currently have 18 defensive linemen, a huge upgrade to the depth after the main combination of Kendall Futrell, Alex Turner, Jalen Price and Chance Purvis played nearly every snap in 2019.

“We’ve got numbers, they’re a small army over there,” Houston said. “Last year we had very low numbers. We’ve got an army of them over there, and they look like defensive linemen. They’re big kids, we’ve got good size. They’re very, very green.”

To accommodate the influx at that position and place more focus on it, the Pirates made the move to assign two coaches to the defensive line. Byron Thweatt will coach the defensive ends this year and Roy Tesh will guide the defensive tackles. That move has allowed for more one-on-one instruction for the younger members of the group, something that is needed in such an inexperienced position room.

“They’re getting a lot of individual instruction, a lot of fundamental teaching,” Houston said. “They’re going to do some things where you’re like ‘wow that’s pretty impressive’ and they’re going to do some things where you’re like ‘he’s got to learn, he’s got to get some experience, he’s got to mature.’ I like the room, we’ve just got to grow them up.”

Across the board, guys further down in the depth chart are seeing reps in practice they otherwise wouldn’t have if they were not so spread out. Aside from the defensive line, ECU possesses great depth at the quarterback position behind Holton Ahlers and is deeper than ever at running back after bringing in Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden earlier this off-season.

While the throws from the quarterbacks, cuts from the running backs or pass rushes from the defensive linemen may not all be sharp at the start of camp, this practice and on-field experience will only pay dividends down the road.

“Every one of those quarterbacks are getting reps, everyone of those d-linemen are getting reps, every one of those running backs are getting reps,” Houston said. “Those reps are what’s going to prepare them for the games.”

As a team, the Pirates are trying to get back in a rhythm after so much time away from campus and the facilities. In their second practice in as many days, Houston said his team made marketable improvements from day one, and took some the sloppiness from Friday and turned it into a crisper effort all around despite a hot morning in Greenville, North Carolina.

“I thought we had a great start to practice, a ton of energy,” Houston said. “Just so many huge improvements from yesterday from a lot of aspects. They really pushed themselves to practice at a much higher level, much better pursuit, much better just pushing through, playing fast. That heat beat down on them. There was a point in practice where they really had to make some decisions and I was really pleased with the bulk of the roster just with how they pushed through.”

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