A 12-day pause from football activities due to COVID-19 did not do Mike Houston’s program any good. From Aug. 20 to the first of September, the Pirates were barred from the practice field after a cluster of COVID cases were identified in personnel associated with the team.

Without practice or workouts for the duration of that time period, ECU lost much of its progress in the strength and conditioning department and overall preparedness for the season so much so that the Pirates’ season-opener against Marshall was postponed from its Sept. 12 date.

With more than a week under their belts since returning from the pause, however, the Pirates are slowly beginning to recoup what was lost.

“Pretty spirited practice today,” Houston said on Tuesday. “I think being back in week two off the pause and also getting a little more comfortable weather — those two factors — game day being closer — that factor — those are probably the reasons for it. Just a very spirited day, very highly competitive practice. I think the one thing I can say since the last time we’ve talked is, I felt we’ve improved everyday out there. Just pleased with the way the kids are working, we’re starting to get in some better conditioning shape. We pushed through today without an interruption the entire practice. We’re getting a little bit better everyday.”

Much of ECU’s practices this month have centered around conditioning drills and reteaching parts of the scheme that was forgotten by some of the younger players. In extreme Eastern North Carolina heat for much of last week, Houston said practices were rough the first couple days back, with some of his student-athletes visibly struggling to finish drills.

ECU’s pause impacted the defense more so than the offense. Major reasons behind that included the group’s youth and inexperience compared to the slew of returners on the offensive side of the football. While much of Blake Harrell’s new defensive scheme was installed even before preseason practices began, a lot has been thrown at what figures to be an extremely young defensive unit this off-season.

Since the Pirates were cleared to resume practices, the coaching staff immediately began the process of reteaching various aspects of the playbook, something that has progressed well in the last week or so.

“I think we’re getting back to where we were,” Houston said. “I think the pause maybe hurt us a little bit more defensively than it did offensively, because it’s a new system and you have a lot of young players. I think they’re improving everyday. I think they’re having better and better days everyday. The one thing is, they get challenged, they get challenged offensively. I like a lot of the stuff our offense is doing. I think we’re playing with a little more edge and physicality than what we did last year. I really like that, I think it challenges our defense.”

Before the spike in COVID-19 cases within the program, Houston was beginning to zero in on a potential depth chart for the first couple games of the season. With two scrimmages already in the books and a third scheduled for the day after things shut down, it seemed like we were only days away from seeing resolution on some position battles that have been fought this preseason.

Assuming this week transpires as planned, that third scrimmage will finally happen this Friday after the Pirates completed a mini-scrimmage with referees and game-like situations during practice on Saturday. That proposed scrimmage will lead ECU into its game preparation for UCF, a time when the depth chart will likely come together completely.

Nevertheless, piecing the two-deep and beyond together will be harder this year than ever before given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. At times this preseason the Pirates have been without some of their biggest names because of the virus, prompting Houston to take a wider-angle approach at establishing a depth chart.

“I think we’re close (to establishing a depth chart),” Houston said. “The tough thing we’re battling right now with this deal is all those guys that were out during the pause, getting them back and getting them participating in practice because they haven’t been with us. That’s been a real challenge because a lot of those guys are front-line guys. I think we’re getting closer, I think we’re getting a lot of guys reps. I think it’s a little bit different than most years where you just try to establish a two-deep and maybe who’s next. Now, you’re looking at where your room sits overall at each and every position.”

With the number of players either in quarantine or isolation decreasing by the day, Houston said it is possible that everyone will be ready to practice by next week. That would obviously be a huge boost to the Pirates’ cause as they work tirelessly to prepare for a potentially nationally ranked UCF squad on Sept. 26.

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