Sports

New coach Mike Houston trying to change the losing culture of East Carolina football

ECU coach Mike Houston smiles as he listens to N.C. State coach Dave Doeren during the 17th annual Pigskin Preview on Friday, July 19, 2019 at the Embassy Suites in Cary, N.C.
ECU coach Mike Houston smiles as he listens to N.C. State coach Dave Doeren during the 17th annual Pigskin Preview on Friday, July 19, 2019 at the Embassy Suites in Cary, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Football coaches analyze video frame by frame, stopping and replaying tape to grade performances. They evaluate games, scrimmages and practices. Sometimes they seek outside advice they value.

If new East Carolina head coach Mike Houston wants a critique from Ricky Proehl, a 17-year NFL veteran wide receiver who coached another six seasons in the league with the Carolina Panthers, here is what he told his son after Saturday’s scrimmage two weeks into fall camp:

“He told me we look like a more disciplined team,” said Blake Proehl, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver. “My dad has been flying around between my brother’s games [Austin Proehl is with the Los Angeles Rams] and here, but he came to the scrimmage today. He told me we look a lot neater on the field, we played like a team and we were flying around to the ball a lot more than before.”

If ECU is to improve upon three consecutive 3-9 seasons, such discipline and a more physical mind-set Houston has preached since he was hired in December will have to be the difference. That’s because aside from graduated players, the roster ECU sends onto the field for the opener Aug. 31 with N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium won’t differ much from the one that was embarrassed by the Wolfpack 58-3 in last year’s regular-season finale.

“[Houston] is holding us to standards that we didn’t see before,” Blake Proehl said. “For example, if we have a team meeting at 8 a.m., we know we have to be in our seats by 7:45 because coach is going to start that meeting 10 minutes early. Little stuff like that carries onto the field.”

In the football’s frozen tundra days, they called that Lombardi Time. They named the Super Bowl trophy for Vince Lombardi for his time winning with the “little things” coaching the Green Bay Packers.

Whatever time it is in Greenville, Houston has his players’ attention.

“We’ve got to go on the field with a sense of urgency and passion for the game,” Proehle said, echoing teammates. “There was so much negativity around town last year entering games it didn’t even feel like we were playing a game. Right now the excitement around town for Coach Houston and our team is so good for us.”

Every new coach and his inherited players make such comments, but the fact that Pirates seem to buying into Houston’s message is half the battle.

“I just try to be consistent,” Houston said. “I don’t shoot a bunch of bull at them. For me right now, I’m trying to lean on my track record and to trust us. The kids played against one of my teams [a loss to James Madison in 2017]. They know what we’ve done.

“But after the [N.C. State] kickoff, everything in the past goes out in the window to how you’re playing right now. We have to believe in ourselves and believe in each other. We have to learn to win together. That’s a big obstacle right there.”

Houston’s career record at three schools is 80-25 (.762 winning percentage), with a 37-6 mark the past three seasons at James Madison. The Dukes were three-time Football Championship Subdivision playoff participants, winning the 2016 national title and finishing as the runner-up in 2017.

He inherited at winning program at JMU, but he proved he can turn around programs at The Citadel (14-11) and Lenoir-Rhyne (29-8).

As a veteran coach, he understands changing his team’s mind-set means telling them what he demands this year, rather than berating what they did wrong last year. He said he wouldn’t disparage their previous coaches, Scottie Montgomery (2016-18) and for players in their fifth season, Ruffin McNeill. Both were popular with the players.

In addition to discipline, a more physical team has been Houston’s emphasis from offseason workouts to spring drills in pads to fall camp.

On offense, that means balancing the offense with running the ball more. ECU leaned on quarterback Holton Ahlers, who not only led the team in passing but in rushing, last season. As a true freshman he ran 119 times for 592 net yards and six touchdowns, but there were 126 yards in losses. That reflected running for his life too often.

Houston hasn’t named a depth chart yet and was reluctant to single out names, but Darius Pinnix, a 6-foot, 227-pound junior from Western Alamance, he said has shown himself to be a power back in spring ball and so far in fall camp.

Up front, he likes the grit of three returning starter offensive linemen, junior left tackle De’Ante Smith (6-4, 295), senior left guard Cortez Herrin (6-3, 328) and senior center Brandon Pena (6-2, 288). Pena was granted a sixth year after two years in a row of knee injuries.

On defense, he said senior nose tackle Alex Turner (6-2, 293) and the inside backers Bruce Bivens (6-0, 230) and Xavier Smith (6-0, 239) have “jumped out.”

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