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New coach, new spring outlook

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ECU Football is displayed at a newly renovated team room inside the Ward Sports and Medicine building at East Carolina University.

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BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Mike Houston was surrounded by new paint schemes and quotes and slogans as he maneuvered around the Ward Building on Thursday morning.

Being in the main football team meeting room got the former winning James Madison coach and first-year Pirate head man in a reminiscent mode, because it brought him back to Dec. 3 when he held his first meeting with East Carolina players who Houston described on Thursday as men who looked lost when they were undergoing a coaching transition.

“I can tell you that just like this room, physically, things are in a much better place than they were on Dec. 3,” Houston said on Thursday, one day before his Pirates will begin spring practice. “I am not about fake stuff, so if we are going to raise that (no quarter) flag and we are going to talk about what that flag means, then we are going to embrace that. I expect our players to respond to that.”

ECU will hold a team meeting at 7 a.m. on Friday. Houston then anticipates a full-speed practice session from 8 to 10 a.m., even with shoulder pads not being donned until Monday.

“There will not be any logo on the side of any helmet, because all of our players will have the right to earn the jolly roger on the side of their helmet this spring,” he said. “They will earn the right to represent our program, because it is a privilege and an honor to be a member of this football program and to represent East Carolina University.

“It is very important to me that our players understand that and that they embrace that. We need to be able to walk around with pride to have that ECU on the front of our chest, so we have to get back to establishing what that is going to represent.”

That status of Nate Harvey, the 2018 American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year, remains unclear. Houston said ECU could hear any day a ruling from the NCAA on Harvey’s possible extra year of eligibility for medical hardship.

The defensive end totaled 14.5 sacks a year ago to rank third in the nation.

“Right now he is preparing to play football next year,” Houston said. “I hope it is here with us and I believe it will be, but if it is not, then we are going to prepare him for what is next in his life.”

Houston took over a team in December that just finished its third straight 3-9 season. Rival N.C. State beat ECU 58-3 on Dec. 1.

The Pirate coach talked Thursday about a high level of physicality he expects during spring drills. He also outlined how he wants to continue to establish a desired culture, and that practices will lead to formulating a spring depth chart.

The annual spring Purple-Gold Game is scheduled for April 13.

“I have looked at a lot of film from last year, and at the same time, I am trying to give everybody a clean slate and that everybody has a fresh start,” Houston said. “I think about a couple of our kids who didn’t play last year and they’ve been fairly impressive in some of the offseason stuff, I think they are rejuvenated because they see that they have a chance. What I have stressed to some of the more established players is they have to earn their spot.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Holton Ahlers, quarterback: It is a luxury for college football teams to have a No. 1 QB entering the spring, and East Carolina has that in Ahlers. The Greenville native led ECU in rushing last season and finished his freshman campaign with 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions. This spring he will be looking to continue his grasp on leadership and new offensive schemes. The other quarterbacks on the roster are Reid Herring, who played in nine games a year ago, joined by Bryan Gagg, Zach Gwynn and Caiden Norman.

Matt Morgan, offensive tackle: Morgan will battle to earn the starting spot at right tackle, where senior and team captain Garrett McGhin played last year. Morgan is 6-foot-5 and 288 pounds and he played in eight games in 2018 as a freshman. Ahlers being a left-hander puts emphasis on the right tackle as the blind side position. Returning on the rest of line are senior tackle D’Ante Smith and interior veterans Cortez Herrin and Branden Pena.

Warren Saba, outside linebacker: One of the players who switched positions since the end of last season is Saba, a former conventional cornerback who has shifted to a hybrid linebacker role for the spring. The former junior college player is 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds and is aiming to find his niche in the multiple 4-2-5 formation. Xavier Smith, who experimented some at tight end late last season, also is listed as an inside linebacker.

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

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ECU

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