Effort level and competitiveness are equally important, if not more important, than performance for ECU’s defensive line. A group that had to be put back together after the Pirates lost all four starters from a season ago, Mike Houston and his coaching staff recruited heavily at that position during the off-season.

Without any real experience returning up front, ECU started a redshirt freshman, two sophomores and a senior on Saturday against UCF. Combined, that group accounted for 22 career tackles prior to the 2020 season-opener, while Immanuel Hickman earned the nod at defensive end after graduate transfer Chris Willis was unable to participate.

Despite the combined inexperience and the overall game outcome, Houston liked what he saw in the effort department when he reviewed the game film after the fact.

“So many of them are playing their first college snaps ever,” Houston said. “I called D’Angelo McKinnie a veteran, he played his first defensive snaps in his career Saturday. We had very, very few loafs. We track loafs, we have up-downs for loafs on Sunday. We expect maximum effort and we had just minimal loafs on our defensive front Saturday. That is huge, because those are the kids usually that you have some problems with because they’re big guys, teaching them to play hard. I think that’s a plus.”

A loaf is a lack of effort on the field. Between the white lines, coaches expect players to operate at full-speed all the time and for every snap. Not doing so often results in poor performance on the field and being tagged with a loaf by the coaching staff.

While the Pirates made their fair share of mistakes on Saturday — 11 penalties and four turnovers — Houston identified true freshman Xavier McIver as a potential bright spot for the position group. He also praised Kareem Stinson’s versatility and willingness to shift around on the line despite proper practice reps.

“Kareem Stinson was playing three-technique on Thursday and he played five-technique on Saturday,” Houston said. “His first snaps working there came Friday afternoon in the walk-through. For him to go out and play 20 snaps and have one loaf, that’s got to be positive.”

With positives, of course, are going to come negatives. Opening the season against a top-15 team in the country was always going to be a major challenge for new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell and his young defense to overcome.

All told, the Pirates yielded north of 50 points and 600 yards, but kept the game at one score for a quarter and a half. Eventually the extra snaps for the defense that came with three consecutive turnovers by the offense caught up with them and allowed UCF to take control of the game.

The Knights’ tempo on offense was something both Houston and Harrell pointed to ahead of the opener and attempted to prepare their team for in practice. Simulating that pace and actually lining up against it are two different things, however, and as the game wore on, it became harder and harder for the Pirates to adjust to that speed.

“Just adjusting to the speed of the game,” Houston said. “Adjusting to, especially in that tempo situation, being able to execute the call at a high level. You had some issues there, I think that’ll improve with every snap those players take.”

Under Harrell’s new scheme, the Pirates plan to play numerous defensive linemen this season. With around 15 of them on the roster, finding fresh bodies for late-game situations should not be difficult. Having them compete at a consistently high level will be the challenge, one the Pirates’ defensive line overcame last weekend.

“Anybody that has not played in the trenches there does not understand what it takes to compete down in there,” Houston said. “I came out pleased with the way they played Saturday.”

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