The sights and sounds of a game day in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium came back, at least in part, on Saturday when ECU’s football team took the field for its first scrimmage of the preseason. Under normal circumstances, the Pirates would already have a multitude of spring practices and their annual spring game under their belt, but the COVID-19 pandemic rendered all that impossible.

Instead, ECU took to the field with just seven preseason practices in its back pocket with the hopes of approaching 100 snaps of live game action.

“It gives you chills, just being back in the stadium hearing the kids, feeling their energy,” head coach Mike Houston said in a Zoom meeting with reporters on Saturday. “That’s when it’s like, this is what it’s supposed to be like. It was great to get back out there, we had great weather. I think the officials have to work on that electronic whistle thing a little bit, they’re going to have to pump that thing into the speaker system or something if they want anybody to hear it. We all have stuff we’ve got to work on, some good and some bad.

“Just like with every scrimmage, I always say the head coach is usually the only one that’s happy with everything because one side of the ball has had a good day and the other side of the ball has had a bad day, usually. That’s kind of just the way those things go. Early on in preseason, typically, you’ll see the defense is a little bit ahead of the offense, and I think that’s what we saw today. I thought we had tremendous energy on the defensive sideline.”

In the off-season, upgrading a defense that lost multiple starters was one of the biggest priorities for Houston and his staff on the recruiting trail. With the personnel they brought in, both from the high school ranks and via the transfer portal, ECU’s defense got younger and better at the same time.

As Houston alluded to above, the defense seemed to be steps ahead of the offense on Saturday. According to a release sent out by the athletic department following the scrimmage, ECU’s defense forced seven turnovers, including five interceptions, while logging five sacks and two fumble recoveries on 94 offensive snaps.

“Multiple turnovers today for us, both interceptions and forced fumbles,” Houston said. “That happens when you get — it’s your first scrimmage and all of a sudden you get a defense that’s very aggressive, very in your face and you hadn’t done it in about a year. I think some forced errors there, I think you’ll see those, probably, get ironed out this week…Next time we go out there and do that (scrimmage), I would expect it to be pretty heated.”

Robert Kennedy, a JUCO transfer defensive back out of Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, picked off two passes during the scrimmage and helped ECU’s quarterbacks complete just 19 of 48 attempted passes.

“They were flying around like they were supposed to,” Houston said. “I think the changes that we have made and the adjustments we have made in the off-season and the hard work and dedication that coach Harrell and the staff have put into changing our scheme, and the job they’ve done with those kids was very, very evident today. Really pleased just with the way they competed.”

All six scholarship quarterbacks found their way onto the field for the Pirates on Saturday, but only one of them was able to hook-up a touchdown through the air. True freshman Ryan Stubblefield found junior wide receiver Cam Burnette for a 23-yard touchdown pass, while kicker Jake Verity converted on field goals from 31, 22, 44 and 38 yards.

Stubblefield’s touchdown represented only one of four offensive plays that went for over 20 yards for the Pirates on Saturday.

With their first scrimmage in the books, the Pirates will turn back into practice mode on Sunday ahead of classes starting up on Monday morning. When ECU does scrimmage again, however, Houston said he expects the tone to change slightly as players inch closer to in-season form.

“I would expect our next scrimmage to have maybe a little more edge to it,” Houston said. “That’s good to see, because that’s the way our teams have always played, with a lot of edge and a chip on their shoulder. We came out with no injuries. We went just a couple snaps under one hundred total, so it was a very solid first scrimmage. Gives us an evaluation of where we are right now with some stuff. With a lot of it, it’s the first time we’ve done that in almost a year. We’ve got some rust that we’ve got to work through, but it was just really good to be back out there.”

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