football

ECU's football team plays against the University of Central Florida in a past season's game. 

We should be taking in the sights and sounds of East Carolina University football spring practice. We should be talking about ECU baseball and its opening of conference play and matchup with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Clark-LeClair Stadium. We should be preparing for the Elite Eight in college basketball and getting ready to crown a new national champion.

Instead, fans and spectators across the country can only talk about what could have been and how the cancellations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are impacting their favorite teams and leagues.

“These are unprecedented times,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston said on a teleconference with the media on Tuesday. “None of us have ever been through anything remotely like this in our entire lives. The world as we know it changed drastically two weeks ago. My thoughts each day are about the Greenville community in addition to our football program.”

In what should be the second week of spring practice for Houston’s Pirates, the general public is still practicing social distancing in an effort to rid the country of a virus that has virtually shut down every aspect of daily life, including early football activities for ECU.

Entering his second year with the program, Houston inked 25 signees during the team’s early period in December. The majority of those names recruited for the defensive side of the football after the departures of Kendall Futrell, Jalen Price and Alex Turner thinned ECU up front; spring ball was to be used as a breaking-in moment for the new faces.

“We are going to be a very young football team in some spots next year,” Houston said. “That youth needed spring practice and they’re not going to get spring practice. It’s just how can we bring that youth -- you’re going to see freshmen on the field next year -- how can we bring those guys along as quickly as possible.”

Right now, the questions swirling about how the rest of the offseason will look remain to be answered. With spring practice and preseason camp in jeopardy, changes from the NCAA will need to be made in order for teams like ECU to properly prepare its players for the rigors of a demanding season.

Even without those questions answered, however, the Pirates’ staff is working hard to ensure progress made by the players over the winter was not in vain.

“We were in an incredible place when we left for spring break,” Houston said. “I sent them a message that Friday night as they went on break of just how excited I was for spring practice, how excited I was about the morale of the team and where everybody was. I still feel that way, but certainly that’s something we’re going to have to evaluate closely when we do come back is just getting them back to that physical state that we were in.”

Keeping up with a roster full of players, as well as some recruits who had yet to join the team in Greenville, can present a challenge. As more and more businesses and services around the country shutter from the coronavirus pandemic, not every athlete is able to find a gym or training center to stay shape.

For that reason, Director of Strength and Conditioning for the football program, John Williams Jr., is playing a vital role during these shaky times.

“Coach Williams has created a body-weight workout for those that don’t have access to a gym,” Houston said. “He is in consistent contact with the players, he and his staff. They are monitoring what the players are doing on a daily basis.”

Able to tailor a workout for the players based upon their needs and access to equipment, Williams and his staff are allowing the Pirates to build on strength and athleticism picked up earlier in the offseason that will only pay dividends down the road.

On a more deeper level than just making sure players stay current on their workout schedule, guiding players through these uncertain times can be just as important as them learning Blake Harrell’s new scheme on defense.

Through technology, Houston and his staff are able to interact with players no matter where in the country they may be located. As an estimate, Houston said around 25-30 of his players remain on campus while the others are spread out far and wide.

“Our coaches are talking to their players at their positions daily and all throughout the day,” Houston said. “We’re doing virtual position meetings twice a week to kind of stay engaged with some football. We’re having some dialogue at the end of each day just about any difficulty we run into with any of the academic virtual learning that’s going on.”

Described as a fine line by Houston, he is attempting to balance keeping the young men in his program locked in on Pirate football while also allowing them time to interact with their professor as the university shifts to online course delivery. Doing so by sending them “tidbits” daily or a group text or even a video, Houston says it is important for his team to stay connected so problems do not crop up in the future.

What that future looks like is anyone’s guess. Not until countries have a handle on the coronavirus can leagues and conferences begin game-planning how to adjust their schedules accordingly.

For the Pirates, the timing of all this is less than ideal. With new faces on the defensive side of the football, both in uniform and on the coaching staff, practice is the only thing that is going to make this team better.

“We do have a new defensive staff and you’re installing a new scheme,” Houston said. “We’ve done about as much as we can without going out and actually practicing. I am concerned about not having spring practice to just find out what we can be right now schematically.”

Nevertheless the inconvenience of the timing and duration, it is important to recognize that everyone is in the same boat with these setbacks. Houston said as much on Tuesday. What will diffieriate programs and individual players is how they respond and react to the challenges presented.

“We will get through this and we will make it successfully through this,” Houston said. “When we come out on the other side, we will come out stronger than ever.”

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