Disjointed spring practices still offer chance for growth

ECU, App State, Charlotte, NC A&T and NC Central are hoping for a smooth fall after more than a year of turmoil and uncertainty

East Carolina coach Mike Houston is pleased with the progress the Pirates have made since he came to Greenville, though he said it has "certainly not been ideal" due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Aaron Doster / AP Photo)

The East Carolina football team was back on the field Tuesday. This time, coach Mike Houston is hoping it’s to stay.

Between the cancellation of last year’s spring practice, the loss of three games to the coronavirus pandemic and yet another COVID-19 related pause last week, the Pirates have had more stops and starts than a rush-hour traffic jam.

The latest stoppage was caused by a cluster of at least 14 positive cases within the program, a situation that not only required those affected to be isolated but also called for numerous other team members to be quarantined for contact tracing.

“It has certainly not been ideal coming in and taking over a program and then dealing with the pandemic the way we have, but it’s the situation we’re in. It’s the situation everyone’s in, to a degree,” Houston said. “Some programs are more established and probably able to navigate it a little better.

“But I’ve really been pleased with the players and the staff and how they’ve handled everything. They continue to make progress in spite of this.”

The Pirates had completed five of the 15 spring workouts allowed by the NCAA when activities were halted.

Because the pause lasted only a week and most of those quarantined for contract tracing have been cleared to return, Houston is hoping his team will be able to pick up where it left off without losing any of the momentum that has been building since winning the final two games of its abbreviated 2020 season.

ECU returns 10 starters on each side of the ball and welcomes back 63 lettermen, including star quarterback Holton Ahlers, running back Rahjai Harris — the American Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year — and its top eight tacklers on defense.

“At the start of spring practice, we were starting to look like the team I envisioned we could be,” he said. “We’ve got to work through this because, at the end of the day, we know we’re going to play football this fall and we’ve got to be ready.

“You hope that you can go out there and it looks like Day 6, not Day 1 again. But you don’t really know until you get out there.”

While ECU is dealing with an element of the unknown as it starts back up, its opening week opponent — in-state rival Appalachian State — heads into the spring with some unaccustomed familiarity.

For the first time in four years, the Mountaineers aren’t breaking in a new coach.

But while the faces of second-year coach Shawn Clark and his staff are familiar after the changes that were made following the departures of Scott Satterfield in 2018 and Eliah Drinkwitz in 2019, there are still adjustments to be made because of a change in the team’s on-field leadership.

Three-year starting quarterback Zac Thomas, who went 32-6 during his career, is gone and has been replaced by well-traveled transfer Chase Brice.

While the transition has led the defense to be farther along than the offense thus far in the spring, thanks in large measure to the return of 10 starters, Clark said that Brice — who played at Duke last season — and his unit have been picking things up quickly.

“The offense is starting to catch up,” he said. “Chase Brice has really taken his game to another level the last few (practices). The running backs are running hard, and we’re getting some weapons outside.”

At Charlotte, coach Will Healy and his 49ers began their spring drills last Thursday looking to put a disjointed 2020 season in which they were only able to play six games — and only one after Oct. 31 — behind them.

“It’s exciting just to have a chance to go back out and practice again,” Healy said after the first workout of the spring. “What last year teaches you is that you don’t take anything for granted.

“Obviously, there’s a million different things you can clean up. But I’m proud of them. I thought they’ve had really good energy and shown their excitement for being back on the field. I love seeing them smile. When you step between the white lines, it’s about the only time all day when it feels like you’re back to normal.”

Things aren’t likely to be back to normal until fall for the state’s two HBCU programs, both of which opted out of the spring season currently going on among many FCS programs around the country.

NC Central was one of the first to choose not to play and is currently finishing up its traditional spring practice, with a final scrimmage scheduled for Saturday.

NC A&T had originally hoped to play at least some games. But when the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference announced its decision to cancel spring competition on Feb. 11, the Aggies were forced to the sidelines as well.

Because A&T coach Sam Washington and his team had already begun practice in the anticipation of playing, they counted the work as spring practice, wrapping up their 15 sessions on March 27.