Post-practice conversations for the East Carolina football team Tuesday included discussion about COVID-19 vaccinations and how to properly plan for hopefully playing a full game schedule, beginning Sept. 2 in Charlotte against Appalachian State.
ECU’s afternoon practice, which was conducted in helmets and shorts without pads, served as a return from a COVID-19-related pause announced a week ago, and it also came a few hours after it was announced there will be no spring football game for the general public.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell the kids they have to get the vaccine in order to play, but I am strongly encouraging them to get the vaccine to protect themselves, protect their family, to protect us and to eliminate this,” ECU coach Mike Houston said. “Obviously, if we are going to do the things we want to do this year as a team and this fall, then we have to eradicate the virus from our program completely. You were sitting there today with some guys still in the return-to-play protocol and coming off a 10-day pause, it just will not allow us to reach our maximum potential this spring, or in the summer or this fall.”
ECU did not practice at all last week. The university last Tuesday identified a cluster of 14 positive COVID cases within the team.
Houston said coaches were vaccinated about three weeks ago.
“Some of the players already had been vaccinated, and we’re hoping to have some more taken care of this week,” he said. “I know the university has a big push right now to make sure it’s available to students. We’re setting it up and just educating them and letting them take care of it themselves. ... We should get most of those guys back next week (to practice) when return-to-play protocols kick in sometime around Sunday or Monday.”
The Pirates had planned for a Purple-Gold spring game, with fans and some of the usual but modified hoopla, for April 17. The team instead will hold a typical spring scrimmage in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on that day, and a week later have something of a private spring game.
“We are going to have a spring game, as a football program,” Houston said. “Now I understand everything from the university perspective and athletic department perspective. We had the pause, so we can’t have it on the 17th, and you can try to announce it on another date, but things have to go smoothly in order for that to work. ... To avoid having a mass crowd gathering, because we are still in the middle of a pandemic, the athletic department decided we are not going to have an organized spring game for what it traditionally is every year. We, as a program, are going to have a spring scrimmage (April 24) to finish spring practice with families to come and watch their sons compete and available to the media, so that’s how we are going to finish the spring.”
ECU’s pre-practice release referenced the main focus of the next few weeks being safely completing workouts.
“Our goal is to be cautious moving forward in the spring while working closely with our medical staff and make sure we get our 10 remaining practices in,” athletics director Jon Gilbert said. “We are looking forward to welcoming our fans back for a Meet the Pirates event in August followed by the home opener against South Carolina on Sept. 11.”
The team was thin at defensive back and other positions Tuesday.
Returning to action in a shorthanded manner also meant coaches leaning on veteran leaders like quarterback Holton Ahlers and offensive lineman Sean Bailey, plus defensive leaders such as D.J. Ford, Ja’Quan McMillian and Myles Berry.
“Your experienced, older guys handled it a whole lot better than the young guys did, which is not surprising,” Houston said. “Holton did everything he can from a leadership standpoint. ... (Running back) Keaton (Mitchell) did a good job. (Fellow lead RB) Rahjai (Harris) was struggling a little bit with his conditioning today, from his layout at the beginning.”