Leadership is often one of the most important parts of an athletic program. Student-athletes turn to their coaches for that leadership and guidance, but there is only so much the staff can do from the sidelines during practice and on game day.

The rest is generally left up to the older players on the field, those that have been around the program for a while and know what is expected and necessary in order to win football games. While the Pirates are a young team after losing numerous starters on defense at the end of last season, they still possess some older, more experienced talent that is helping the younger players find their way during preseason practice.

On Tuesday, in the Pirates’ first practice back after 12 days on pause, that leadership from those veteran players shone through as the team worked its way back into shape after the lay-off.

“We finished practice with a deal that we call four quarters,” head coach Mike Hosuton said on Tuesday. “It’s a flat conditioning deal. It’s a series of gassers and it is very challenging. Today I knew it would be difficult. I told a couple kids at the end, I was like listen, ‘if you can’t push yourself right here to finish, then you’ve got to remove yourself. But just understand that you’ve got to be ready to play in 25 days.’ I was really proud of our kids, because a couple of the freshmen — I’m telling you, I could see it in their eyes — they were getting ready to tap out.”

The Pirates only have 24 days until a nationally ranked UCF squad visits Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. In a normal year, Houston said he would be on his players pretty hard at this point in preseason practice about conditioning, but understands the challenges and roadblocks that have stood in his players’ way in the last few months.

While Houston gave some of his struggling underclassmen the opportunity to tap out of the drill on Tuesday, none took him up on the offer, thanks, in part, to the leadership from some of the older players on the roster.

“I was very proud of the encouragement from upperclassmen — everybody finished the four quarter drill,” Houston said. “It was hard, especially those big guys, it’s hard for them. I was really pleased with the leadership there. I thought we had some great leadership from some of our older skill kids; just in the way they attacked the drill and really kind of set the tone for ‘listen, if you want to run with me, you’re going to have to push yourself.’ I thought there were so many positives from that respect at the end of practice. Could we play a game right now? I doubt we could play a quarter right now. But nobody tapped out, nobody has laid down and quit. I knew it was going to be hard after a two-week lay-off.”

Before Tuesday, the Pirates last hit the practice field on Aug. 19 after beginning preseason practices on July 31. In the 12 days ECU was on pause, college football saw a slew of players opt-out of the 2020 season, citing COVID-19 concerns or the desire to protect their draft stock.

One of those players who opted out due to the pandemic was 2019 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year Kenneth Gainwell from Memphis. Tuesday brought with it news that 10 players from UCF would be opting out of the season, according to the Knights’ head coach, meaning the Pirates’ first opponent will likely be down on depth when Sept. 26 rolls around.

With all the talk of players opting out Houston said none of his players have currently expressed interest in doing so, something he once again attributes to the strong leadership and guidance his older players are providing in ECU’s locker room.

“I’ve said it many times, and it doesn’t mean somebody won’t do that here at East Carolina, but I do feel like all the players, they’re on board with our staff, they’re on board with each other,” Houston said. “They have a positive attitude. I feel the character of our roster is improved. We’re young, but — I think with the older kids we have — I think we have a lot more strong leadership there from those few. Xavier Smith, Holton Ahlers, D’Ante Smith, Warren Saba — those guys — Myles Berry, Bruce (Bivens), Fernando Frye, those guys are doing a good job of keeping everybody in a positive frame, positive mindset.”

Of course, Houston would respect the decision if a player or group of players did not feel comfortable playing football in the face of a pandemic. While no Pirate has taken that route just yet, that could change at a moment’s notice, either during the preseason or in the middle of the season.

Right now, however, the Pirates seem to be unified behind the idea of getting back into shape as quickly as possible in preparation for their Sept. 26 season-opener. Before the pause in activities, ECU was just beginning to turn the corner from a strength and conditioning standpoint after nearly three weeks of mandatory practices.

It will likely take that long or longer for the players to get their wind back, making these next few days critical in the Pirates’ march to get ready for the 2020 season.

“We’re going to have to push through stuff right now, it’s going to be difficult,” Houston said. “We’re going to have to stack days upon days, and the thing is, tomorrow we got 24 days until Central Florida. We don’t have a whole lot of time. This is going to be an important two weeks right now.”

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