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Program overhaul underway as ECU opens first spring practice under Mike Houston

East Carolina football coach Mike Houston speaks after being introduced during a press conference at the Murphy Center at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018.
East Carolina football coach Mike Houston speaks after being introduced during a press conference at the Murphy Center at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. ehyman@newsobserver.com
East Carolina coach Mike Houston is compiling “before-and-after” pictures to illustrate his new football program’s growth. That explained staging not one but two media sessions to open his first spring football.


Friday marked the Pirates’ initial practice leading up to the spring game on April 13, but on Thursday he met with the media and provided a tour of the football facility contained within the Ward Sports Medicine Building. Houston, 47, contrasted some “before and after” dating to his first day on campus, Dec. 3.


“I was astonished at the state of the facility and other things about our football program,” he said. “But since then, everyone in this building on everyday has been committed to evaluate and to adjust or dramatically overhaul this program. Everything that touches our young men on a daily basis has been reevaluated.”


Houston wants his players to have a sense of pride in their campus home and for visiting recruits to view a classy setting.
He sensed none of that in the rooms and hallways upon taking command. The worn and mixed-and-matched carpeting has been replaced with one consistent style. The walls have been re-painted a rich purple and gold. The lighting is new and ceiling tiles replaced.


The brighter look shines on slogans and mantras – “core values,” Houston calls them – that speak in the hallways, meeting rooms and Pirate Lounge.


“These quotes are core values put together over 25-plus years of borrowing, stealing and coming up with things that I believe are how our football program should be run,” he said. “The point is, it’s about more than me talking to the players. I can talk about it every day, but when they walk in here the first thing they see are the words that reinforce our core values.”


This was in the locker room: “Your last name is ECU.”


“I want them to remember they are always representing ECU,” Houston said. “It’s the last thing they’ll see when they leave the locker room for practice, to go home or on the field on game day.”


The new look on its own won’t rebuild ECU’s three straight 3-9 seasons that created an opening for Houston.


But he sees them as building blocks that contributed to a winning culture at James Madison, his previous job the past three years. JMU posted a 37-6 record with a 2016 Football Championship Subdivision national title, 2017 runner-up finish and second-round trip in 2018.


“I can guarantee you our JMU facility looked better than what you see at most FCS schools,” Houston said. “We’re going to go after the best recruits to build this program. Everything should scream first class and pride at ECU.”


While the aesthetics were upgraded, the coaches evaluated players on film and strength and conditioning coach John Williams worked with them in the off-season.


Now, the Pirates are on the field. Houston has thrown out the depth chart until spring drills wrap up and the players return to fall camp to prepare for the season opener Aug. 31 at N.C. State.


“We want to have an idea of where everybody fits,” he said. “What abilities we have at certain spots. After spring practice we’ll adjust schemes to what we have. I have looked at a lot of film from last year.”


Houston said sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers, who missed the season finale with a knee injury, guard Branden Pena and center Peyton Winstead are “full-go” from injuries. Wide receiver Blake Proehl will participate in most of the spring drills. Center John Spellacy has remained with the team, but his clearance from concussions remains under evaluation.


Despite the lack of an official depth chart, there are seven returning offensive starters and seven on defense with a chance for that to be bumped to eight.


Defensive end Nate Harvey, the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year who led the nation in tackles for a loss, practiced Friday with the team while awaiting an NCAA ruling. He has applied for a fifth year based on not playing his first year at Georgia Military College, and NCAA rules allow participation during the waiver process.
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