ECU coach talks about Pirates’ return after off week, preparation for Houston on Saturday

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GREENVILLE, N.C. – Third-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Mike Houston addressed members of the media Tuesday prior to Saturday’s American Athletic Conference road game at Houston. The following are selected comments:

Opening Statement:

“It’s good to be back to game week after a week off and everything that revolved around that. It’s good to be back to getting ready for a big ballgame this Saturday. The kids had several days off coming into this week’s practice. We had practice on Sunday, but that was a lighter practice. Today is the first heavy contact practice we’ve had since last Wednesday, so it’s an important day for preparations.”

On Houston’s Team:

“I think we’ve had plenty of time to take a look at Houston and we’re certainly very impressed with what they’ve done so far. They’re 5-1 coming into the game. I’m sure they feel like they should be 6-0, they probably feel like they let one get away in the opener against Texas Tech. But they’ve been playing very, very well the past few weeks in all three phases. They’re dynamic in all three phases. You look at them defensively and it’s 10 of 11 starters back, the other starter is a transfer from Iowa State. They’re all juniors and seniors and maybe one sophomore, with five juniors and five seniors so older guys and experienced guys that have played together. They’re playing very well. I think ranked fourth nationally or so in total defense. So very good on that side of the ball.

“Offensively, they’ve put up some big numbers. They have an experienced quarterback coming back in Clayton Tune. Big offensive line. (Nathaniel) Dell has had a huge year so far catching the ball. Freshman running back (Alton McCaskill) has had a very solid year so far. So, a very explosive offense, lots of weapons. The quarterback has been in the system for a couple of years now, so he does a good job with that.

“Special teams wise, the punt returner, (Marcus) Jones is leading the country in punt return average, I think 17.1 yards per return. Two for a touchdown so a dynamic returner. Wouldn’t be shocked if he’s returning kicks this week also. It’s a complete football team. Very, very explosive. Very good football team. Got a big challenge. Homecoming in Houston so I’m sure they’re excited about Saturday, and we are too. Great opportunity for our program. The kids are really excited, and I expect us to have a good week of practice.”

On What He Liked About The First Half Of The Season And What He Wants To Improve Upon:

“You look at what you’ve been doing in all three phases. I think can you sit there, and we can talk in depth about all of it. I think defensively, you like a lot of the things we did defensively. I think we’re playing very fast; I think we’re playing with great physicality. I think we’re doing a good job of turning the ball over. I think we’re doing all those things very, very well. I think negatives, too many big plays. We looked at the big play cutup, just identifying what caused each of them. Is it a personnel breakdown, is it somebody took advantage of a scheme, what caused it? Adjustment, whatever. I think those are what you saw defensively.

“Offensively, the execution piece is what you looked at where the issues are. Because when we’re executing well, we put up some big numbers. You look at the points we’ve scored through six games and we’re playing very well and there’s been some games where we’ve struggled. Now, our opponents had something to do with that, but for the most part, I put it on our execution. The games that we’ve won the turnover battle, those are the games we’ve won for the most part. Special teams wise, I think we’ve been doing some good things. I think Owen (Daffer) and Jonn (Young) have both had solid beginnings to the year. I want to see us be more productive on kickoff return. I want to see us be more productive on punt return. That’s more the other ten guys rather than the returner because I think we have a returner that’s very capable and has a chance to make some big plays. We looked at a lot of things all over the board.”

On What They Need To Do Well To Be Successful Against Houston:

“Defensively, they’re 4-2-5, 4-3-4. They don’t pressure a lot as far as blitzes and things like that. When they do, they’re very effective. They don’t pressure a lot because they don’t have to because their front four generates a lot of pressure on the quarterback in the pass rush. We’ve got to do a great job of protecting Holton (Ahlers). We’ve got to be able to handle their front four. That’s going to be a huge piece to being successful Saturday. We’ve got to be able to pick up the pressures when they come. I think the two corners are the best tandem that we’ve faced so far. They’re both seniors, they’re experienced, they’re good players. It’s going to be a challenge in going against those guys. I think we’re going to see man-free coverage; I think we’re going to see quarters coverage. I think they’re going to take those guys and try to lock them up on our number one receiver. The safeties and the linebackers, they do a great job in the run game. They’re kind of downhill players, very physical. So, I think we’ve got to do a great job of handling them in the run game and then our backs are going to be one-on-one a good bit and so it will come down to who is better in that one-on-one situation there a lot of times in the run game.

“With them offensively, it’s just being sound about not giving up the big play. We’ve got to stop McCaskill and do a great job against the run. We’re going to have to get some pressure on Tune. If you let him sit in there and have all day to throw, he’s going to hurt you. They’ve got too many weapons. Dell is dynamic, we’re going to have to be able to handle him. Special teams, Jones is probably the best returner we’ve faced all year and maybe the best returner we will face all year. So, we’ve got to do a great job there in our coverage units against him.”

On How He Manages Balancing Holton Ahlers Taking Chances And Playing Conservatively:

“The thing we’ve encouraged with him is just play within the offense. He’s heard us. He is a good runner. When there’s opportunities there to run, he needs to run. He was trying to get the ball to C.J. (Johnson) on that play at UCF. It was a tough, tough throw. He made a great throw; you just don’t have a whole lot of space there in the back of the end zone. C.J. made a great play on the ball, there’s just not a whole lot of space back there. But you’d like to see him take that run. When I was listening to your question, people criticize him for doing too much, people criticize him for not doing enough. He needs to quit worrying what people say and quit worrying about the media, quit worrying about social media, quit worrying about what the fans say. He needs to focus on doing his job. That’s it, do his job. And have fun. He needs to have fun and quit worrying about everything around him. And I think he’s trying to do that.”

On How Important It Is For Holton To Spread The Ball Around To Different Receivers:

“Well, I think that’s important. The good thing this year is that we have more than one guy. Of course, everybody knows about C.J. Audie (Omotosho) is having a great year. Jsi (Hatfield) has made some big plays. Everybody knows about (Tyler) Snead. Shane Calhoun has been doing some good things. Ryan Jones is doing some good things. The backs are heavily involved in the passing game, they’ve got 30 catches on the year. So, it’s not like he just has one guy. So, I think that’s important. We’re going to have to do a good job pre-snap of identifying the coverage, do a great job protecting him and give him time because it does take time to get to that second and third read. Then you just have to make great decisions with the ball. I think there will be opportunities there because it’s not like we’re sitting here, and we don’t have options.”

On If There Are Designed Plays To Throw To The Tight Ends:

“With the guys that we have at that position, they’re a big part of our offense. The designs, they’re the first read, the ball is designed to go to them. Again, it depends on how each team is playing. We think we know how they’re going to play us, so we have some things designed for that. Once you get to gameday, you’ve got to adjust. It’s not any different than going into battle. Once the fight starts, you’ve got to adjust to what’s going on in the fight. It’s that kind of needle. We have a lot of confidence in those guys. I think Shane and Ryan have done a great job receiving this year and I think they create some matchup problems. So, we’ll see how much we can get them involved on Saturday.”

On The Bye Week Coming At The Right Time (Middle Of Season):

“I’ll let you know Saturday night. We’ve got some guys that have had the chance to rest up some. Had some time to really prepare for some things we’re going to see in the coming weeks. Really get a head start on Houston. But like I said, I want to give the guy’s time off and get their bodies healed up. If you don’t, you’ll look up in November and you won’t have anybody left. So, you’ve got to let them recover and get a little break, but at the same time you want to stay sharp. That’s why I say today’s practice is so important because they’ve had time away from heavy contact, and contact is the difference in football than every other sport. We’ve got to have a great practice today to make sure we’re sharp on Saturday. So, today’s practice is very, very important from the standpoint of getting back going.”

On The Center Position:

“Well, Avery (Jones) has had a great year. He’s what you want at that position. Fernando Frye started every game for us at that position last year. So obviously he’s got a tremendous amount of experience there. And then Isaiah Foote, he repped at center for about two and a half weeks during preseason camp when we had a couple of guys out. We’ve got solid guys there. It’s a situation where you hate when things happen, but you’ve got to move on. We’re excited about those guys and have faith in their ability to get the job done.”

On The Difference In Team’s Mentality Going On The Road:

“When you play at home, you’ve got 40 thousand Pirates screaming, yelling and you feel the energy from the time you start the Pirate Walk and it’s just a great home environment. You don’t have that on the road obviously. I think our kids have gotten where they really function well on the road schedule. I think they feel like they’re able to get a little bit of rest on Friday because of the travel. They sleep on the plane or whatever and then get to the hotel and they’re able to just get off their feet for a few minutes before we have dinner and stuff like that. So, I think we get a little bit of decompression during the day on Friday that we don’t get for a home game. But we’ve talked about it before, it’s kind of a circle the wagons type deal. It’s us against the world when we go on the road. Your roster is much smaller. The travel party is not very big. You don’t have as many fans there so when we went into UCF, when we went into Marshall, it’s kind of us against everybody else mentality.”

On Anyone Standing Out In The Intrasquad Scrimmage:

“Those are always fun events. The other players really get excited for those events. Ryan Stubblefield got to play a good bit and he looked really good. But you also travel him and he’s a guy we’ve got a lot of faith in. He threw the ball around very good. Some of the young receivers, Troy Lewis and Ray Rose, some of those guys made some plays. Pop (McKay) got a lot of work and that was good. He got a lot of work every day last week because he needs it. We’ve got to keep bringing him along. He understands the adjustment that needs to be made going from high school to college.

“It takes, with freshmen, it hits them between the eyes a little bit. They need to figure out that you need to show up every day and you need to work every day. You’ve got to be driven and be self-motivated. You’ve got to take care of your business off the field. You’ve got to be doing a great job with your diet and doing a great job with your academics. You’ve got to take care of your body and then you’ve got to wake up the next day and do the same thing again. Oh, and by the way, they’re all out there beating on you every day. The comment that he made to me at the end of the week was oh wow, I’m really sore this week. Well yeah, people are hitting you this week because you’re getting more carries than you normally do.

“So, I think a lot of those guys did some good things. It’s tough for some of those guys because they’re the show team most of the time, so they’re the group running Houston’s plays, running Houston’s defense today, so they don’t get the time that the travel team gets during the season. They really get that time during spring practice and getting ready for the preseason camp kind of stuff. I’m excited about some of those young guys. Last year, we had to play all the freshmen with just the situation that we were in, and it was kind of trial by fire. Fortunately, this year, we’re not in that situation because all those freshmen are second-year players now so they’re protecting those first-year guys a little bit. I’m pleased with the way everything went last week.”

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