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Finding toughness

ECU football establishing a new identity

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GREENVILLE — After a trio of 3-9 seasons that weren’t under his stewardship, Mike Houston isn’t about to sugarcoat anything when it comes to his East Carolina football team.

The first-year coach, who arrived in Greenville three years removed from a Football Championship Subdivision national title at James Madison, hasn’t hesitated to dole out praise when it’s due during spring practice and fall camp. But when a particular position group or side of the ball doesn’t meet a prescribed standard? They’ll hear about it — publicly and otherwise.

“I just try to be consistent,” Houston said during ECU media day Saturday afternoon in the Murphy Center. “I try to be real and I don’t try to shoot a bunch of bull at them. For me right now, I’m trying to lean on my track record, lean on my experiences. The kids know — they played against one of my teams. They know what our programs have done. You’ve just got to lean on ‘Listen, you’ve got to trust us.’ But after kickoff (Aug. 31 at N.C. State), everything in the past really goes out the window. It’s how you’re playing right now.”

A proven track record at successive levels of college football has Houston equipped to turn around a program that hasn’t qualified for a bowl game in four years. He’s a combined 80-25 at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, FCS member Citadel and FCS power James Madison, winning that division’s national title in 2016 and returning to the championship game one year later. In just two seasons, Houston turned The Citadel into Southern Conference champions. If that’s not enough, Houston’s 2017 JMU team came to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and physically manhandled ECU to the tune of a 34-14 drubbing and 422 yards on the ground.

While the term “culture change” is thrown around freely when new regimes enter in their efforts to uplift downtrodden programs, the Pirates have had to get used to a routine that’s steeped in physicality.

Practices under Houston traditionally get underway with a 3-on-3 inside run drill, designed to set the tone for practice with a primal battle between a running back and opposing lines in a confined area. There’s little room for hesitation, or timidity in picking a hole.

“It’s been a grind, physically and mentally,” junior offensive lineman D’Ante Smith said. “But I feel like that’s what we need to do to become the team that we want to be. I feel like what we needed to do is get to where we understood what we needed to do as a group, as a Division I program. The adversity and stuff that we had to overcome, the mental toughness that we had to gain was very important for us to gain right now.”

At quarterback, sophomore Holton Ahlers returns as ECU’s leading rusher with 592 yards and six TDs. He took over full-time starting duties in the seventh game of 2018 against UCF and missed the finale at N.C. State due to injury. Ahlers, a left-handed passer, is competing with junior Reid Herring, more of a traditional pocket passer, for the starting job. 

Herring started the 2018 season behind center before yielding to Ahlers, who threw for 1,785 yards and 12 TDs. to go along with three interceptions.

“Three on three is a fun drill,” Smith said. “Because everybody’s hyped up, and that’s the drill where you’re fresh when you first practice. So you get to have fun with your teammates, you get to celebrate when you do well and if you don’t do well, you get to come back harder the next time when you get a chance to.”

Junior Darius Pinnix returns with the most production among running back returnees, but that was limited to just 222 yards and three TDs. Over one-fifth of that total came on his season-long run of 48 yards in the second game of the year against North Carolina — a 41-19 win. However, that kind of production did not continue for the ECU ground attack.

“The 3-on-3 drill and the inside run, it really shows what kind of team we are,” Pinnix said. “We’re a hard, physical team. On offense and defense, we compete, and that’s one thing I love about this team is how much we compete, each and every day.”

ECU’s last meeting against N.C. State was a lopsided 58-3 defeat for the Pirates, which played out following the ouster of head coach Scottie Montgomery.

The rematch at Carter-Finley Stadium in just under two weeks is expected to carry a much different emotional tenor.

“That game is such an outlier when you look at it,” Houston said. “They lost their head coach three days before, and certainly the program was in disarray. You go into that with a lot of injuries against a really good football team, it was a recipe for disaster. That’s a tough situation that those kids were put in last year. It’s not N.C. State’s fault. You go out there and play, it’s a game that kicks off and you play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. But it was a tough situation for the players that were here then. I think we’re in a different situation now and there’s more stability in the program today. That’s obvious.”

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