Full pads were donned for the first time this summer when ECU’s football team took the field for preseason practice No. 5 on Tuesday. Just 24 hours ago, it was unclear if the Pirates were going to be able to practice for the fifth time in as many days as Tropical Storm Isaias inched closer to Greenville.

Due to the quick-moving nature of the storm and the area being largely spared from damage, the Pirates were able to continue working toward facing Marshall in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Aug. 29. Without being able to workout on campus during the quarantine associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, ECU’s players, much like everyone else in the country, are behind in the strength and conditioning department.

“We could not play a game today, we could not play four quarters,” head coach Mike Houston said on Monday. “We are developing depth knowing that we’re going to have to play a lot of guys early in the season. We’re working to play ourselves into shape. It was a pretty demanding practice today from a conditioning standpoint. I just talked to the guys about, got to keep pushing, got to keep playing yourself into shape, keep working in the weight room. We’re trying to make up for four months of training that is irreplaceable. It’s just going to be a one day at a time kind of thing.”

In order to work back into shape, the Pirates are lifting weights in small groups a couple of times per week, a process that takes numerous hours to circulate all the players through. Houston and his coaching staff are also scheduling a lot of cardiovascular workouts to help the players get their wind back.

The spread out nature of ECU’s practices are also helping from a conditioning standpoint as more players are getting more reps in a shorter amount of time.

For some young and inexperienced position rooms, those reps provide an invaluable opportunity for instruction from the coaching staff that figures to pay dividends down the road. Up front along the defensive line, getting more individual instruction and teaching was a big reason why the Pirates assigned two coaches to that position for the 2020 campaign. Byron Thweatt will coach the defensive ends, while Roy Tesh will coach the defensive tackles moving forward.

Finding replacements for all four of last year’s starters along that defensive line was always going to be a challenge for Thweatt and Tesh. Throw in a new defensive coordinator in Blake Harrell who is bringing in a multiple scheme, and coaching up that position group becomes a little harder.

“(Offensive line coach Steve) Shank(weiler) and I were talking at the end of the team period,” Houston said. “He said ‘I’ve never seen so much stuff in my entire life.’ Just with all the pressures and shifting in and out of the three-down to four-down and stuff like that. We do have a large package in. I don’t know how much of it we can run well right now. The older players are handling it pretty good, the young guys are struggling. You’ve got to be pretty simple with those young d-linemen, the older d-linemen handle it better. I’d say it’s good and bad. Some big plays out there when we do it well, and there’s some big busts out there when we don’t.”

Described by Houston as a “small army,” the Pirates have 18 defensive linemen according to their online roster. A number of those are new recruits to the program that far removed from playing high school football.

Nevertheless, there does exist a certain level of experience with some of the new faces to that position group. Henry Garrison is a JUCO transfer from New York, while the Pirates were able to land Appalachian State transfer Chris Willis during the off-season. 

Still, it is a room that lacks much Division I experience with Hozey Haji-Badri representing the lone senior of the group. With a new coordinator calling the plays and still more than 20 days before the Pirates are scheduled to face-off against Marshall, the sheer depth of the roster up front on the defensive side could provide a spark for a team that struggled to stop opposing offenses in 2019.

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