Playing hard and playing fast is the go-to arrow in football coaches’ quivers when directing a team how to perform on the field. Mike Houston is no different in that regard and brought with him a reputation for guiding physical, hard-nosed football teams at previous stops in his career.

At The Citadel in 2015, Houston got the Bulldogs back to the postseason for the first time in more than 20 years and has won numerous Coach of the Year honors preaching the same style of football.

“It’s the way my teams have always played,” Houston said. “They have to be trained to play that way. It’s not easy because human nature is not to give great effort, human nature is to kind of mander along, go through the motions. People that excel at their jobs are those that out-work their opponents, out-work their coworkers, out-work their competition. It’s no different in athletics, it’s no different in football.”

Over the years, Houston has developed a sort of talent for taking under-achieving or rebuilding programs and vaulting them back to success. After three consecutive 3-9 seasons under former head coach Scottie Montgomery, that is exactly what the Pirates needed of Houston.

Marketable success last year in the form of a 4-8 campaign signaled a turning point for the Pirates. Houston went to work instilling a positive culture in the locker room and a relentless work ethic on the practice field. In a little under two years, Houston has largely accomplished that mission of developing good habits within his program and making his players understand winning begins with practice.

“You got to be in great shape in order to run and play with great enthusiasm and play with great intensity because exhaustion, it’ll take all that out of you,” Houston said. “You got to know what to do. You see a lot of young kids play slow sometimes because they’re confused or they’re thinking too much. You got to make sure that they’re really sound with assignments and things like that. Then, you’ve got to have that internal drive to compete to be the best, to be a competitive warrior. You have to have it. We’ve all seen individuals that have it. It’s really special when you have an entire unit that has it, or an entire team that has it.”

Right now, the Pirates’ roster is chalked full of young players still getting their footing at the college level. Last week many of them took the first plane ride of their lives when ECU traveled to Georgia State. In many ways, that youth and inexperience has shown in the way the Pirates have played through the first two games of 2020, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

That was largely to be expected, but for the most part, a review of game film only reveals small, correctable mistakes standing in the way of success for ECU. Not many times has Houston had to get on his team for a lack of effort, but continuing to have 10-plus penalties and multiple turnovers per game cuts against the intensity the Pirates want to bring on a weekly basis.

“We want to play with intensity, we want to play with physicality, we want to play fast, we want to run and hit on defense, we want to be aggressive on offense,” Houston said. “That’s the way that we want to play the game of football. That’s the goal for Saturday night, that’s the message that I left the team as we walked off the field, that’s it. If you do those things — we all understand you got to do the other things, too.

“You can’t have turnovers, you can’t have stupid penalties. You’ve got to force turnovers, you got to play great in execution on special teams. I’m a firm believer that if you win the point of contact deal, if you win the team that has the most of that in them, more times than not you’re going to win the game.”

Houston said Tuesday was probably the best defensive practice the Pirates have had this season from an intensity standpoint and it took him back to his days at The Citadel. Getting that level of effort during a single practice is a positive sign, but stringing it together for a week or a month or a year is a different challenge entirely.

“Once you can get that consistently, you’re going to see a lot of improvement,” Houston said. “How are the kids? They’re motivated. They want to win, they want to play well. They work very, very hard for each opportunity they have on the field.”

ECU and USF are scheduled to kick-off at 7 p.m. on Saturday inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.

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