ECU football, much like many other programs around the country, has been through a lot this off-season. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted spring practice and summer workouts with the effects persisting into fall in the form of canceled and postponed games.

At first, ECU’s season-opener against Marshall was pushed back from Aug. 29 to Sept. 12, and later, was outright postponed after a cluster of COVID-19 cases were identified with the Pirates’ program. In all, three games were knocked off ECU’s schedule this fall, leaving eight conference tilts and a non-conference matchup with Georgia State as the only contests currently on the docket.

On Saturday, the Pirates will finally kick-off their season, this time against a nationally ranked UCF squad in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. As much of an emotional rollercoaster as this off-season has been, the beginning of this week brings with it an opportunity to finally get back to playing football. That in itself offers its own set of emotions, one that will likely be intensified given the struggles of the past few months.

Still early in the game week, however, Mike Houston said his squad has not experienced those emotions yet, but that they are coming.

“I’m sure that will come as the week wears on, as you get closer to true kick-off,” Houston said. “Right now, still very much in a preparation phase. There’s no doubt — just with everything we’ve been through with the uncertainty — I think all of us will have a feeling of excitement. You have so many guys playing in their first college game this week for us. I think those guys will be a little nervous, but still excited to get out there and play. I’m excited to watch our team compete.”

The Pirates that take the field this season will look drastically different than last year’s team. North of 50 players currently on the roster were not part of ECU’s program in 2019, making for a young, inexperienced football team, especially on the defensive side of the football.

While those players have three scrimmages under their belts, many of them have not taken a competitive collegiate snap. That will likely leave plenty of teaching moments for Houston and his coaching staff after Saturday’s game, but it will also present an opportunity for the Pirates to make great strides in 2020.

“I think that our roster is a lot different than it was a year ago,” Houston said. “I think it’s a group that you’re going to see improve as the season wears on, but we get our first look at them this week against an opponent that’s as good as anybody we’re going to see. I think you’ll have a great chance to watch them compete Saturday, really excited about the matchup.”

UCF will roll into Greenville, North Carolina on Saturday after dropping 49 points and 660 yards of offense on Georgia Tech last weekend. At times during the game, the Knights looked a bit out of sorts, as have most teams in their first contest back following an interrupted preseason.

ECU will not have the same opportunity to work those kinks out before they matchup with the preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference. That, Houston said, can offer positives, as well as negatives.

“Certainly with a team with the youth that I have, you’re always going to improve from game one to game two being able to get game experience,” Houston said. “Yes, I wish we had some game experience coming into this game. At the same time, there’s probably still a little bit of unknown about us as far as UCF goes, whereas we have a little bit of confirmation on what we thought we were going to see when we saw them play. All in all, I wish we had played one by now, but it is what it is. I’m just glad to be playing this Saturday.”

As the Pirates continue prepping for UCF, that just-happy-to-be-playing feeling is still dominating the minds of student-athletes and coaches, and for good reason. When game day finally arrives, though, the nerves and first-game jitters will undoubtedly begin creeping back into the picture, especially with a young team like ECU’s.

How the players handle those nerves may make the difference against a team that loves to jump on opponents early in games.

ECU will kick-off its 2020 season on Saturday at noon against UCF. The game will be televised nationally on ABC. 

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