ECU football entered 2020 in the middle of a transformation. Second-year head coach Mike Houston guided the Pirates to four wins in 2019, and signed a large recruiting class chalked full of talent and upside during the off-season. That has helped produce a roster where north of 50 players are first-year Pirates, with much of that centered on the defensive side of the football.
While preseason camp has focused on installing new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell’s scheme, those new players also have to be taught the basics of what it means to play football at ECU. That includes everything from culture, locker room protocol and even how to conduct pregame warmups.
In preparation for their first game week of the 2020 season, which will ramp up on Monday, Houston has done his best to simulate what those players can expect.
“I think everybody has done pretty good,” Houston said on Thursday. “With so many new young guys, there’s lots of firsts this week. We worked late-game situations again at the end of practice today. A couple of them get confused on exactly — ‘what is this, what’s this again?’ You go over it and over it and over it and you just got to keep going over it again, again and again. There is no replacement for experience, game experience means so much.”
Last year was a huge source of experience for guys like Holton Ahlers, C.J. Johnson and Ja’Quan McMillian. As a true freshman, Johnson paced the Pirates in receiving yards, while McMillian proved to be ECU’s best cornerback, also as a true freshman. Ahlers tossed for over 3,300 yards, including north of 500 against Cincinnati as only a sophomore.
Now, as those guys, and others, have grown up a little bit and are expected to step into leadership roles, the younger players are learning from some of the roadblocks that stood in their way one year ago.
“I told them the story of last year; we’re at NC State to open the year,” Houston said. “We had went over pregame warmup, we’d done like four days where we went through pregame warmup. We get out there right before kick-off and we get ready to go pass-scale, offense versus defense and Holton just has no clue what we’re doing. It was like a complete catastrophe, just chaos out there. Because game day you get the nerves, you get the little bit of pressure, you get a little bit of that build up and if it’s your first time, you never know what’s going to happen. We’re trying to cover as much of that stuff as many times as we can to try to get those guys that experience before next week.”
How teams go about their normal routine this year, however, will be anything but normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing for the virus will be conducted three times per week in-season, including a rapid result test on Friday. For the final 24 hours before game time, student-athletes, coaches and staff will be placed in a de facto bubble, with no untested individuals getting within close contact.
The Pirates plan to stay in a local hotel overnight ahead of their game against UCF, but will follow strict protocols and procedures.
“There will be a 20-foot barrier around the players inside the bubble,” Houston said. “Everybody will do the rapid return tests Friday morning. We won’t meet until everything is back and we’re sure as best as we can that everybody is negative within our roster before we do any of our meetings and walk-throughs on Friday. There will be temperature checks and screenings on game day morning, and that’ll have to happen early — 8 a.m. pregame meal with a noon kick-off. It’s going to be a lot of new things.”
With the NCAA extending sidelines to promote social distancing, the Pirates plan to have all 118 players present during the game. Obviously they all will not be available to play, but they will be there in some capacity to help create atmosphere for the Pirates. Those not playing are expected to wear masks and the coaching staff will do the same.
As far as on-field pregame warmup, Houston anticipates that staying the same, and the Pirates will be able to dress a few additional players for the game since they are not traveling. Right now all players except one are available to the coaching staff as the depth chart is in the final stages of being finalized.
On Friday, North Carolina’s Governor, Roy Cooper, authorized teams to distribute up to 350 tickets to players’ families. That is an increase from the 50 that would have been allowed under Phase 2.5 of reopening.
With that number, ECU will give visiting UCF 100 tickets, keeping 250 for its players. That allows each student-athlete two tickets apiece and some leftover for families of the coaching or support staffs.
Having those fans in the crowd will help create some atmosphere, but music and piped in crowd noise is also available to set the tone.
“There’s going to be stuff with the stadium,” Houston said. “We got to talk to UCF about that as far as crowd noise and music and things like that, I would think they would want that as well for the atmosphere.”
Playing football in the face of COVID-19 has forced players, coaches and teams to do things they otherwise would not. This year is all about adapting to change and overcoming challenges to put the best team possible on the field in a shortened 2020 campaign. Without the motivation of playing games, however, all the sacrifices made might not have been possible.
“There’s lots of things we’re going to have to do this year in order to play, but everybody is committed to doing those things because everybody wants to play,” Houston said.
ECU will kick-off its season against UCF on Saturday at noon.