There are just 25 days between now and when ECU welcomes Marshall into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the Pirates’ season-opener. By virtue of starting preseason camp in late-July, the Pirates are already more than two weeks into practice, with two intrasquad scrimmages already under their belt.

“Got some great weather today, not too humid,” head coach Mike Houston said after Tuesday’s practice. “No rain, just a perfect day to practice. Very solid Tuesday, just really liked the way the kids came out and worked today. Thought they competed really well all throughout practice.”

Still more than two weeks out from game day, ECU is continuing work on playing into shape after players were not allowed on campus during the summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Houston said his team has progressed well with its strength and conditioning, but it is nearly impossible to replace the four-plus months the student-athletes missed out on during quarantine.

Those that have had to isolate themselves during preseason camp over COVID-19 concerns are even further behind in conditioning as the Pirates’ first game creeps ever closer. Nevertheless, Houston said his program has talked a lot about establishing a process of stringing solid days together in an effort to get better on the field.

“You hear all these people talk about the process,” Houston said. “You hear (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban talk about it a lot, I’ve talked about it. What’s the process? The process is going out each day and giving incredible effort, pushing yourself to be the best, focused, working to compete, doing that every single day. Then doing the things you got to do nutritionally, taking care of your body, getting a good night’s sleep. Then come back the next day and do it again, and do it again, and do it again.

“The guys that can stack positive days on top of positive days and really focus on taking care of their body and developing themselves, those are the guys that you see developing throughout the process. I thought today was a great example. Now we got to come back tomorrow and stack another positive day on top of it. Were there mistakes? Absolutely, there’s tons of mistakes each and every day. But effort, attitude was very solid. If you get that everyday, you’re going to improve.”

Thus far, through both scrimmages and the majority of practices, Houston has been happy with the effort displayed by all three units. Defensively, new coordinator Blake Harrell has brought a different energy level to the job, and elevated the players on that side of the football to play better.

While the performance has not always been there, that is easier to overlook if players are giving their absolute maximum effort every time they touch the field. A big piece of getting players to give that effort every single day, even when they may not want to, is making sure they are having fun playing the game of football.

Since the Pirates’ first scrimmage, the offense and defense have been engaged in plenty of good-natured jawing, both on and off the field. After scrimmage No. 1, it was the defense that did all the smack-talking, while ECU’s offense reigned supreme in the latest round on Friday. That back and forth has created something of a rivalry in the football offices and on the field, one that Houston is happy to allow.

“It’s a pretty good little rivalry going on between (Offensive Coordinator) Donnie (Kirkpatrick) and Blake (Harrell) around the office,” Houston said. “They’re having fun with it. The kids are — I’ve kind of let it go a little bit more than usual this year as far as letting them kind of go at each other, jawing, creating that rivalry. I think you got to have that right now with where we are with everything going on. You got to have that to keep the energy up in practice. That’s what I want to see, I want to see both sides play at a high level this week.”

With the matchup against Marshall pushed back to Sept. 12, the Pirates have been taking a more conservative approach to practices. After last Friday’s scrimmage, the Pirates went light during the weekend and largely did not practice in full pads today. As the third scrimmage rolls around, Houston is planning another softer week of practice, while fully understanding the time to begin ramping up for Marshall is fast approaching.

“We’ll be in shells tomorrow, similar practice to today,” Houston said. “Going to try to go real light on Thursday and just try to sharpen some stuff up. Have another intrasquad scrimmage on Friday. Saturday is an off day for football. (Director of Strength and Conditioning) Big John (Williams Jr.) will have them in the weight room Saturday morning, then they’ll get treatment and rehab, and that’s it for Saturday. Then Sunday is a typical Sunday.”

ECU’s initial two scrimmages of the preseason have involved as many different players as possible in an attempt to get everyone on the roster live reps. As the season dears near, however, work has started on a depth chart that will be used early in the season.

“I want a really good look at everybody this Friday and then we’ve got to start — we started a little bit today — kind of developing depth charts, getting the right guys working on special teams,” Houston said. “After this week, then it becomes, get everybody healthy, get the young kids enough reps so they’re ready to play and then start getting ready for Marshall.”

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