ECU football dodged the rough Eastern North Carolina weather the past couple of days to turn in a good week of practice. Wednesday’s padded practice was cut short due to lightning in the area, and the Pirates went with just helmets on Thursday in preparation for their second scrimmage of the preseason on Friday.
The Pirates’ first scrimmage consisted of 94 plays and a defensive outing that showed just how stout that unit could be when operating at full tilt. For Friday, head coach Mike Houston anticipates expanding the special teams component, while continuing to build off a long list of positives from last week.
“Today was a helmets practice, wanted to make sure we get a chance for our bodies to prepare for tomorrow,” Houston said on Thursday. “Do have officials coming tomorrow, and so planning on building on last week’s scrimmage. We will have all special teams participate in tomorrow’s scrimmage. Last week, we just had punt and punt return, field goal and field goal blocks. We’ll have kick-off and kick-off return tomorrow as a part of the scrimmage, also. Looking at about the same length. We are getting in better shape, but still, we’re not where we need to be to play a game just yet. We want to keep those snaps at a threshold where everybody is getting enough work, but we’re not putting people in a situation where they’re beyond what they’re capable of right now. Should be an exciting afternoon.”
ECU saw its defense force seven turnovers last Friday and sack the quarterback five times. On 94 plays, the offense managed just one touchdown and only four plays north of 20 yards. That performance did not sit well with the offensive players, and created a competitive week of practice between the two units.
Some good-natured trash-talking has risen up between players on the practice fields, with Friday providing them a golden opportunity to back those words up with actions.
“We got a bunch of guys on offense that have a lot of pride in the way they play, and you got a bunch on defense, all of a sudden, that are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and a tremendous amount of intensity,” Houston said. “There’s a lot of jawing back and forth in practice — it’s in good nature, it’s nothing that steps over the line. I would bet it’s going to be a pretty hot scrimmage tomorrow, probably going to go at each other pretty good. It’s probably going to be at a high level of intensity, which is good.”
With both of his units playing at such a high level right now, Houston said that will only benefit his young football team down the road. Improvements by some key contributors on the defensive side of the ball has made it harder for the offense to execute its game plan in practice, while some wrinkles and additions to the offense has only improved that group as well.
Those challenges in practice will only make playing in a tough league like the American Athletic Conference easier once the Pirates begin their 2020 slate.
“When you get two sides that are really competing at a high level against each other, and they can do so within that team setting, it helps you improve,” Houston said. “Now all of a sudden, the defense — you’re seeing all the challenges that you’re going to meet in the AAC. The offense — you’re seeing all the things that are going to test you in the AAC. I would expect it to be a highly competitive scrimmage tomorrow.”
The Pirates, who were one of the first teams to begin preseason camp at the end of July, will be the first FBS football team to conduct two scrimmages this summer. Marshall is not far behind in their practice schedule, but ECU seems to be pacing the country when it comes to the number of football practices carried out thus far.
Strict protocols and a buy-in from the players has helped ECU’s athletic department avoid major spread of the COVID-19 and, in turn, stay open. Only once in mid-July was the department forced to pause on-campus activities, but that only lasted a week before workouts resumed.
On Wednesday, the football team conducted another round of testing for its student-athletes, coaches and staff, and received very encouraging results back.
“We had another phenomenal week of testing, got our test results back today,” Houston said. “The kids are doing a really, really good job of controlling this within our locker room.”
Last week, a big worry centered around the return of the general student body to campus, thus popping the football team’s de facto bubble. Even with close to 30,000 students back on campus, however, today’s test results prove student-athletes can successfully interact with other students and not contract the virus.
“We just keep harping on just protecting each other, protecting ourselves, wearing a mask, social distancing, washing our hands, avoiding large groups,” Houston said. “It’s challenging — 18-22-year-old’s in a college town at a university where it has a very electric student body, a very social scene — but right now is not the time that they can participate in that. It’s one of those things where I think their actions are showing what they want to do.”
The Pirates want to play football.