Challenges face ECU football, and every team around the country, as the start date for the 2020 season draws closer. First through voluntary workouts and then progressing to mandatory ones, ECU faced the challenge of testing every returning student-athlete, coach and staff member and quarantining those that tested positive for COVID-19 or came into contact with someone that did.

Only once during the preseason has that challenge proved too great as the athletic department was forced to pause on-campus athletic activities for one week in mid-July over a small outbreak of the virus.

Now a week into preseason practice and the Pirates are set to face another challenge that stands between them and playing football this fall. That, of course, revolves around the reintroduction of the general student body to ECU’s campus, where the Pirates’ football and basketball programs have been isolated in a de facto bubble while participating in workouts.

With around 30,000 students from all over the country set to descend on Greenville, North Carolina beginning this weekend for the first day of classes on Monday, head football coach Mike Houston and his staff have been preaching smart decisions to their student-athletes.

“The big thing for me is just going to be stressing to the players, especially going into this weekend, and we talked about it today (Wednesday), that we’ve got to protect each other, we’ve got to protect our season,” Houston said. “That means there may be some things we can’t do that we normally would do. Whether it be going out to a party, going out downtown, but also being conscientious of distancing and wearing a mask when we go to class.

“A lot of our guys are going to have online classes, but there are some that will have classes in person. Anytime you have an in-person class, I think it’s important for us, even more so than anybody else because we have the season at stake, to wear a mask, keep our distance, be conscientious of any interactions we have with any other member of the student body.”

Houston said nothing will change protocol-wise once the academic year kicks back into action. The athletic department still plans to test student-athletes, coaches and staff every Thursday morning and will continue COVID-19 screenings before they can enter facilities and participate in practices or other activities.

Nevertheless, Houston recognizes the challenges his team faces once interactions between students become inevitable in the classroom, dining halls and dorms around campus. With those interactions, Houston is urging his team to follow proper COVID-19 protocols, and respect the uniqueness of the situation we all find ourselves in.

“That’s going to be very, very foreign,” Houston said. “It’s foreign to me when I go to the grocery store. It’s foreign to all of us when we’re out in public because we are a very social country, a very social race. It’s something that we’re going to have to do to protect each other. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a challenge. The dorms are going to be a challenge, classes are going to be a challenge, campus is going to be a challenge. Hopefully we can navigate that successfully and navigate it well.”

At last update, which was last Friday, the Pirates only had five active COVID cases within the athletic department and had conducted 641 total tests. Those numbers are according to ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert.

Even while the number of cases with the department has remained low, contact tracing efforts have taken their toll on the Pirates’ personnel this preseason. With various players out for portions of camp, and given the sheer nature of ECU’s spread out practices, the Pirates are making sure plenty of depth is stockpiled for the upcoming campaign.

“We’ve been through a lot of scenarios already with contact tracing and things where we’ve had a lot of lineups we’ve had to shuffle around,” Houston said. “On the offensive line, for the most part, everybody’s got to learn every position, because week in and week out you could have two or three guys out. Really it’s that way across the board — at receiver, in the secondary. We’re double-training a lot of guys, we’re trying to be at least three-deep with guys that know what they’re doing. You’re going to have to approach things like that if you have any hopes of playing. Otherwise you’re going to look up and see a ton of games canceled.”

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