No college football team in the state — or perhaps even the country — has been more affected by the coronavirus pandemic than East Carolina.
The Pirates didn’t play their season opener until Sept. 26 after having their first three games either postponed or canceled. Then just when things finally appeared to be going their way following a 44-24 win at South Florida, the COVID-19 bug bit again.
This time it forced several key players into quarantine, including quarterback Holton Ahlers, whose absence could easily have made a difference in a 27-23 loss to Navy two weeks ago.
It was a frustrating loss because of the circumstances involved. But at the same time, it showed some encouraging growth for a program still in the early stages of the building process.
“You hear coaches talk about the process, but that’s what it is,” ECU coach Mike Houston said in the immediate aftermath of the Navy game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. “Our kids, they believe in the way we do things and they do things right. It’s in every way we operate.
“You’re going to compete for what playing time you get, nothing’s going to be given to you. You’re going to practice every day. You’re going to be on time to workouts, you’re going to go to class, you’re expected to perform academically. People are going to care about you, people are going to worry about you. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there, and it’s getting there pretty fast.”
Not fast enough, though, as the emotion in Houston’s voice after the close loss to Navy suggested.
But culture changes don’t happen overnight, especially for a program that has gone six years since its last winning season and whose four victories a year ago were its most since 2015.
And the signs are tangible.
Last season, ECU lost by 25 to South Florida, a team it beat by 20 this year. And the close Navy loss was a far cry from a 2019 game Houston called “the most humiliating loss of my career,” a 42-10 shellacking that saw the Midshipmen roll up 315 yards on the ground.
Even without the results, ECU is 1-3 heading into Friday’s American Athletic Conference game at Tulsa, Houston is already starting to see a transformation he hopes will eventually begin to show up in the win-loss column — especially as the team’s young nucleus grows and matures.
It’s a group that includes running back Rahjai Harris, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the past two games, and quarterback Mason Garcia, who got some valuable playing time with Ahlers on the sideline against Navy. Both are true freshmen.
Defensive end Rick D’Abreu, who recorded 10 tackles and a forced fumble against Navy, is a sophomore. So is Malik Fleming, who picked off a pass in the game.
And there are many others like them on the roster, all of whom will get an extra year of eligibility because of the NCAA’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I said it during the first couple games and I know a lot of people were critical, but I told you how much we were improved because I see those kids and I see the way they work, compete and their attitudes,” Houston said. “That’s something that wasn’t here. It was very selfish, entitled, soft. This bunch is not that. They are about team, they’re about each other, they know how to compete, know how to work. I’m proud of them.”
Now that the Pirates have had a week off to regroup and get most of their key players out of quarantine, including their preseason All-AAC quarterback Ahlers, they’ll have five more chances to make Houston even prouder.
It won’t be easy.
In addition to a vastly improved Tulsa team, which beat ECU 49-24 in Greenville last year, the Pirates’ remaining schedule also includes games against nationally ranked Cincinnati and SMU, a Temple team it hasn’t beaten since joining the AAC, and Tulane.
“The most obvious is I want to see us win those games,” Houston said. “I want to see us continue to compete at a high level and learn how to close out games against quality opponents.
“There’s a lot that goes into that. There’s a lot of individual things, whether it’s in specific position groups or specific units, where we want to see some things improve, and we’ve spent a lot of time the last few days as a staff talking about that. But the big thing is getting over that hump, which we feel like we’re right there.”