East Carolina football coach Mike Houston said Tuesday he expects the five players who were not available Saturday to return to the team next week before the Pirates’ game Oct. 30 at Tulsa.

Quarterback Holton Ahlers received a positive COVID-19 test early last week, pushing freshman Mason Garcia into the starting role for a 27-23 loss to Navy. Contact tracing also ruled out running backs Demetrius Mauney and Darius Pinnix and defensive players Tank Robinson and Damir Faison.

“We tested yesterday and we’re testing again tomorrow, so it’s part of our daily life right now,” Houston said Tuesday during the Pirates’ bye week. “Those protocols are giving us the opportunity to play. Have there been some frustrating things as a result of the testing and the protocols? Absolutely, but those are things that I can’t control and there’s some things in there that nobody can control. I think you have to respect the protocols and respect the people in those positions that they are doing what’s best for your players and your staff to keep everybody as safe as possible while playing this game.

“We have one active positive in the program right now and a handful of players out as a result of contact tracing. We do expect all of those players to be back with us this weekend within a day or two of each other. So as we go into next week, that group will be rejoining us as long as there are no setbacks as far as testing goes.”

Garcia was second on the Pirates in rushing versus Navy with 15 carries for 63 yards, trailing Rahjai Harris’ game-high 172 yards. He was 10-of-20 passing for 104 yards as part of the Pirates’ cautious approach on offense with a freshman at QB instead of the junior Ahlers.

ECU (1-3, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) took its only lead of the game, 13-7, on Garcia’s 3-yard TD run with 7:03 until halftime. It was 13-13 at the half and the Midshipmen took control of the contest with a 14-0 advantage in the third quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“It’s not until you’re the one out of the field and now how he’s seen himself the last two days on film and he sees himself with what he’s thinking in his mind versus what happens on film,” Houston said of Garcia. “That is when you can really have tremendous growth. He did not have the opportunity to have spring practice with us or have the opportunity to be with us this summer, so it has been a little bit of an accelerated development of him this fall to prepare him to go out there on the field. That was his first significant playing time. He did a ton of great things on Saturday and I think he showed all of us some of his potential and why we signed him here, and he also had some things that he can do a lot better and will do better in the future.”

ECU’s defense was instrumental in keeping the Pirates within striking distance of the AAC’s first-place Mids. Most notable was Navy finishing with only a 288-268 edge in rushing yards.

The Pirates had four tackles for loss, including one each by sophomore lineman Rick D’Abreu and redshirt freshman end Chad Stephens.

D’Abreu had 10 tackles and a forced fumble. Linebacker Xavier Smith led with 15 tackles.

“You had a couple of those fullback runs where maybe we had a mistake here or there, but there wasn’t much,” Houston said. “I thought the kids did a great job with the game plan the defensive staff put together. (Defensive coordinator) Blake (Harrell) did a good job of calling the game and mixing up the read key. ... The execution at that level was what gave us a shot in that ball game. I loved the way our kids played with physicality and energy. That is the identity we want to have on defense.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.