Pirates forced to adapt in wake of pandemic

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If there’s a moment or two of levity to be had during an unprecedented interruption of the college football calendar, it is this for East Carolina head coach Mike Houston.

Remember those rousing pregame locker room speeches from The Citadel and James Madison that turned into YouTube sensations?

Well, Houston won’t be repeating that ritual to get himself pumped up for an esports event.

“I found out last night that I’m not very good at ‘Call of Duty’ versus my 11-year-old,” Houston said during a media teleconference Tuesday afternoon in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This has forced us to slow down a little bit. I slept a little bit later in the morning and I’m not quite up as early as I have been. I’m there for dinner each night, and that’s not the norm. So you have, as a family, have a lot more time together which is possibly a really positive thing. Certainly for us, it has been, and probably for everybody’s families.”

But from an on-field perspective, the grinding gears of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision have slowed for an indefinite period of time. Beginning Wednesday, ECU’s residence halls will be closed for the remainder of the semester except in extraordinary cases, and classes have moved online. Recruiting, at least from an on-campus standpoint, has been suspended by the NCAA.

“These are unprecedented times,” Houston said. “None of us have ever been through anything remotely like this in our entire lives, and the world, as we know it, changed drastically two weeks ago. My thoughts each day are about the Greenville community, in addition to our football program.”

For a coach with old-school leanings, making the necessary adjustments to a structure that requires an abundance of technology in a social distancing environment has been a work in progress. Currently, the Pirates, coming off a 4-8 showing in Houston’s first season in 2019, are scheduled to face Marshall in their season opener Aug. 29. Preparations are still underway towards that end. Yet no guarantee exists football — or any sport — will be ready to return by late summer. The NCAA moved swiftly to cancel its basketball tournaments and all spring sports championships, leaving the start of the 2020-21 season as the next potential domino to topple.

“We’re learning right now as coaches, how to adapt and function at a very high level in our virtual world,” Houston said. “We’ve all had to get out of our comfort zone a little bit and learn how to do things technologically that maybe we haven’t had a lot of experience with in the past. But the program is functioning, and it’s functioning responsibly as we all try to do our moral obligation to distance ourselves from each other and try to protect each other as much as we possibly can.”

With the cancellation of spring practices across the country, players are left to their own devices in terms of remaining in shape. Once the virus threat subsides, Houston stressed that fitness will have to be regained before a resumption of traditional football drills can even be considered. The Pirates were particularly hit hard by the timing of the shutdown.

“We were in an incredible place when we left for spring break,” Houston said of his roster’s physical gains. “I sent them a message that Friday night as they went on break just about how excited I was for spring practice and how excited I was for the morale of the team. I still feel that way, but certainly that’s something we’re going to have to evaluate closely when we do come back is getting them back to that physical state we were in.”

The cancellation of spring practice stands to not only harm ECU from a physical standpoint, but in terms of mental repetitions as well. This was to be the first spring under new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell, who came over from top-10 Football Championship Subdivision Kennesaw State and brings a pedigree of stopping the run.

“I am concerned about not having spring practice to just find out what we can do right now schematically,” Houston said. “We’re going to be a very young football team in some spots next year. We needed spring practice, and they’re not going to get spring practice. It’s just how can we bring that youth — you’re going to see freshmen on the field next year — how can we bring those guys along as quickly as possible? I’m excited about the talent in our youth, but they are still young and inexperienced.”

However, the Pirates are far from the only team who will have to potentially adapt to a different run up to the 2020 season. Coaches, the ultimate creatures of habit, have all been thrown for a loop.

“The reality is, we’re all in the same boat all across college football,” Houston said. “We’re all dealing with the same basic issues.”