The nearly two weeks that ECU football was on pause after identifying a cluster of COVID-19 cases associated with its program has forced head coach Mike Houston and his staff to start over in their preparation for the season.
“We are absolutely starting from scratch,” Houston said on Thursday. “Those 12 days off just really — it’s like anything else — we got out of rhythm. You’re having to reteach everything, reinstall everything from the very beginning. We’re having to work our tails off right now.”
From the beginning of July through mid-August, the Pirates spent much of their time catching up on strength and conditioning work that should have been done during the spring. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, student-athletes were not allowed on campus and missed the normal spring workouts. That means when the pause was announced on Aug. 20, ECU’s players were just beginning to round into shape and catch back up on all those missed live reps.
“Twelve days off, that’s really detrimental to your preparation now,” Houston said. “It’s set us way, way back. Obviously, we talked about it Tuesday, being a struggle. Yesterday was a tremendous struggle with the added heat and then we were in shoulder pads. But really I thought the kids pushed yesterday, but it’s just going from 0 to 60 kind of deal.”
The time away from the practice field has wreaked havoc on the defensive side of the football, according to Houston. After losing all four of their defensive line starters from a season ago, and a handful of starters on the back-end, ECU’s defense figures to be very young in 2020.
That youth has translated to some of the younger players not retaining defensive coordinator Blake Harrell’s new scheme, much of which the Pirates had been working feverishly to install.
“Install-wise — especially on the defensive side of the ball, new system, a lot of young kids, a lot of first-year players — some of that stuff it’s like they never learned it in the first place,” Houston said. “It’s not surprising, but we’re having to really take time, just really teach and reinstall everything from the very beginning.”
Time is a luxury ECU does not have right now. Even with the Sept. 12 season-opener against Marshall postponed, it is only 22 days before a potentially nationally ranked UCF team marches into Greenville, North Carolina. Two weeks out from kick-off, Houston wants to lock in on the Knights and begin installing the game plan, making this next week a vital one for working back into shape.
While the defense lags, a Holton Ahlers-led offense has not missed a beat, despite the time off.
“I think a lot better than the other side, and I think that’s because of experience,” Houston said in regards to how the offense has looked this week. “So many players back in the same system, same scheme. Those guys really have their rhythm. Really executed well today, really played well. I thought Holton handled everything well today. Today was a big third down day, so he was seeing a lot of pressure, a lot of different looks from the defense. I thought he handled it very well, got the ball out of his hand quickly.”
With no quarterback battle this preseason, and all of his major targets back from a season ago, Ahlers has had an opportunity to really work on fine tuning his game, rather than worrying about his job. Going against a new and more aggressive defensive scheme everyday in practice will better prepare Ahlers for a conference that will likely once again feature some tough defenses.
By all accounts from Houston, the offense is leaps and bounds ahead of the defense right now, something that could not be said at the beginning of preseason practice. As a whole, however, it will take some time before the Pirates get back to their pre-pause look as they continue to knock the rust off for a second time in as many months.
“Loved the edge that our offense played with today,” Houston said. “I kind of dug into a couple of the coaches in the staff meeting this morning. You know how that goes, it rolls down hill. The kids really responded this afternoon, just loved their aggressiveness. I liked the way we finished practice in the heat.”