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East Carolina defensive end Kendall Futrell claps his hands during a game against Temple at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Oct. 3, which was followed for the Pirates with a bye week full of practices.

One thing that stuck with Mike Houston as he navigated the East Carolina football practice fields during a bye week was the right level of commitment.

With ECU holding a 3-3 record halfway through the season, Houston said Monday that there are always exceptions with some players and especially under a first-year coaching staff, but the Pirates' bye week was a success in terms of attitude and improvement. His answer was to a question about what has surprised him during his first season in Greenville.

"The core and the bulk of our roster has been extremely committed, and I think that is why you saw us have positive practices last week," the former James Madison coach said during the American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference. "I think they want to be good and they are trying to do what what we ask them to do. I think we are getting better and we've made tremendous strides from last December to now, but we still have a long way to go."

While mixing a preseason-style series of drills with early planning for speedy UCF (4-2, 1-1), which will host the Pirates (0-2 in AAC) on Saturday at 7 p.m., a highlight for many players was the Thursday practice. That is when a mini scrimmage allowed for backups and third-string players to shine.

"It was very spirited, and that was the biggest takeaway," Houston said. "The travel team guys were into it, and the younger guys really went at it. We went 35 or 36 live-ball snaps, which is about half a scrimmage, and it was very competitive and was good to see the guys cheering for each other. Some of the young guys got to really play within our system."

Houston also noted that his team played its first six games during a 34-day window, calling it a "pretty good gauntlet."

UCF also is coming off a bye week. The Knights' last outing was a 27-24 defeat at Cincinnati on Oct. 4, when three interceptions by Dillon Gabriel were costly and the UCF freshman QB also was sacked three times.

The Pirates' second and final open date is Nov. 16 after playing at SMU on Nov. 9.

"I thought our kids came out and did a good job during our week of practicing. We got better," Houston said. "With our roster being as young as it is, I think it was really important to see how we improved, and we had some pretty specific things that we wanted to look at as a coaching staff. ... As we start the second half of the season, we keep talking about our entire focus is on getting win No. 4.

"Until you get win No. 4, you can't do anything else. Every single day we are going to show up and work very hard to get better and to improve. Every game out, we are going out there to compete."

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

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