East Carolina was one of the first college football teams in the nation to hold a preseason practice.
Players, who have all been tested for COVID-19, took over the Cliff Moore Practice Facility on Friday morning for their most organized activity since a loss to Tulsa at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Nov. 30, about four months before COVID-19 rocked the sports world and put it on pause.
Masks are a must on the practice fields.
Players wear them inside their helmets and the players themselves were spread out on three fields. Coach Mike Houston described Friday as being like conducting separate workouts.
“We kind of have multiple practices going on at the same time, and it’s really stretched our coaching staff extremely thin,” Houston said during a Zoom session with media members after Friday’s full official workout. “It’s something we have to do right now. Whatever we are in, we are trying to keep the guys really spaced out if they are not involved directly in that drill. On the sidelines, everybody is spaced out, and if they have their helmet up, they have their mask up. It’s a deal where you have to be really cautious because they have to have that mask on if they don’t have their helmet on. I have to stay on them about it.
“They are creatures of habit and all revert that if it’s a water break, they all swarm to the same place even though you have water set up all over the place. We just have to keep reminding them and keep harping on them.”
Athletics director Jon Gilbert said Friday that five active cases remain among a total of 641 COVID-19 tests conducted by the school on student-athletes, coaches and staff members. Houston said “a couple” players didn’t practice Friday while still in quarantine. The second-year Pirate coach also said expected transfer addition Ryan Jones still needs to complete his degree requirements at Oklahoma before transitioning fully to join ECU’s squad.
East Carolina had a 10-game schedule, as of Friday afternoon, and it could still start Aug. 29 in Greenville against Marshall. There are other date options with the Marshall game, Gilbert said Friday, but the AD also said ECU is firmly committed to playing the Thundering Herd.
“I talked to the players after practice that we can’t worry about anything past today and tomorrow,” Houston said. “We have to have a very short focus. ... We have to have a better practice tomorrow than what we had today, and that’s where we have to be right now because we’ve been through too much and there’s been too much taken away. I really don’t care when we play or where we play, we’ll be ready, but we can’t worry about that right now.”
After ECU allowed an average of 44.0 points in its final six contests to end 2019 with a 4-8 record, Houston dismissed defensive coordinator Bob Trott and replaced him in January with Blake Harrell from Kennesaw State.
Harrell’s unit recently added former Appalachian State lineman Chris Willis and former Alabama cornerback Nigel Knott.
“We can’t do anything about what was taken away (spring practice), because that’s not fair to coach Harrell and not fair to the players,” Houston said. “But nobody cares. The walkthroughs (in July) have been good, because they allowed us to install the defense, but walkthroughs and live moving bullets are two totally different things. ... We had a lot of busts, but we also did some good things. I think the players, overall, are very excited about the defense and excited about the diversity and aggressiveness of it.”
Houston began his Zoom address by breaking down factors about conditioning that need to improve.
“It’s not something we didn’t expect,” he said. “I knew we would not be in near the shape that we have been in preseasons in the past with our program, but it is where we are and it’s our starting point. We had a practice not as long as we typically would on Day 1.”