Versatility and depth will be the words that dominate the 2020 college football season. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, head coaches and their players are having to adapt […]
Versatility and depth will be the words that dominate the 2020 college football season. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, head coaches and their players are having to adapt in ways never seen before in the modern era.
Positive tests and subsequent contact tracing efforts have left teams all across the nation, including ECU, scrambling to prepare as many players as possible for a season that figures to be filled with quarantining of players.
While the Pirates have seen their fair share of COVID-19 cases among student-athletes, coaches and staff, the athletic department has done a solid job containing the virus. Nevertheless, when there is a positive case, or a suspected one, practice lineups and rotations are impacted, meaning the Pirates are relying more and more on younger, inexperienced personnel.
To combat that, ECU’s coaching staff is double training as many players as possible in an effort to be at least three-deep at every position. Versatility among student-athletes makes that a reality, and while the Pirates are not preparing players to cross sides of the ball, they are readying them for multiple assignments.
“On the offensive line most of those guys are playing at least two positions,” head coach Mike Houston said on Tuesday. “A couple of them can play all five. Certainly anywhere we can double train someone we’re doing that. This is the year you got to create depth. You have what you have. It’s not like we have a waiver wire or something like that where we can pick up a free agent in the middle of the season, you have what you have. You’re going to see some guys out there on the field playing this year that maybe normally they would play less, be redshirted, whatever. This is going to be one of those years where a lot of guys got to be ready to play.”
The social distanced nature of ECU’s practices are allowing younger players the opportunity at more live reps, while Houston and his staff have made a point to rotate as much personnel through intrasquad scrimmages as possible.
Even so, there exists players on the Pirates’ roster that have the ability to play multiple positions. C.J. Johnson played some defensive back in high school, while defensive lineman Traveon Freshwater found himself playing all over the field, but mostly at running back, where he excelled during his high school days.
Tight end Jeremy Lewis also played both ways at the prep level, serving as a linebacker for South Central High School. While those guys will not be making that transition as members of Houston’s squad, that has not stopped new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell from attempting to snatch Lewis away from the offense.
“I know everybody out there is fighting over Jeremy Lewis,” Houston said smiling. “Coach Harrell is trying to recruit him every single day over to the defensive side. I don’t think (tight ends) coach (Fontel) Mines is going to let go of him anytime soon.”
More so than attempting to convert players to other positions at this point in their collegiate careers, the Pirates are doing things like training their more versatile linebackers at all three positions. Jireh Wilson made the switch from safety to outside linebacker during the off-season, but can still play on the back-end if needed.
On the offense side, ECU is taking a similar approach with its receivers by getting them reps at both the inside and outside positions.
“We do have a lot of the SAM’s (strong-side linebacker) — you might have a guy that plays field safety, buck-end (weak-side linebacker) and SAM, they’re learning all three positions to create that depth there,” Houston said. “The receivers, Blake (Proehl), for the most part, can play any of the slot or outside receiver spots. Really Audie (Omotosho) can also. There’s a lot of learning another spot that’s similar to yours that is going on.”
In a season that will be unlike any other, only the teams that have prepared as much depth as possible will rise to the top. Roughly two weeks into preseason practices, ECU is feverishly attempting to make sure they accomplish that before welcoming Marshall to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Sept. 12.