GREENVILLE, N.C. – First-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Mike Houston addressed members of the media Tuesday prior to Saturday’s home opener against Gardner-Webb. The following are selected comments:
“Before we get started here today, my dad passed away this morning at my home in Franklin. It’s the home I grew up in. He was with my mom. I was able to see him last night. One of the last conscious things he did this weekend was watch our team play against (NC) State. My dad taught me how to throw a football when I was a kid. He taught me how to shoot a basketball. He was the one that instilled a work ethic and a tough mindset in me at a young age and how I did things. He taught me how to care about people. He taught me how to see people for who they were on the inside and not judge them by the way they were on the outside. He was a good dad and he was a good man. His connection the last couple of years has been through a lot of you guys. He kept up with our teams, he was the biggest fan I had. He read everything there was about East Carolina football and he was excited for me to be back in the state of North Carolina. Just keep my mom, my sister and my brother in your prayers. He was at peace this morning when he passed and after seeing him last night, it was time.
“With all that though, I’ve got a good staff, they’ll help me throughout this week. My focus is going to be on our players here and then on mom and our family back home. The service will be on Thursday. We’ve already made arrangements to ensure everything is taken care of here with the team so that we’re prepared to go on Saturday. I know Dad would want it that way.”
On NC State Game:
“This past weekend, obviously we were disappointed with the loss. As I spoke of on Saturday, I thought our team had a very good Friday and Saturday in preparation. I thought they were prepared to play, I thought they were excited to play, and I told them on Sunday, that was very encouraging to me. Just knowing the confidence and motivation they had as they took the field. I thought that showed with the way we performed early in the ballgame. We’ve all talked about the turnover going into the endzone on the first drive. It’s probably been blown out of proportion, but at the end of the day, yes it was a big play in the ballgame and yes it would have given us a tremendous amount of momentum. Yes, it would have solidified so much that we’ve worked so hard to achieve here since I took the job here in December. Because it would have given us, our fans, everyone so much momentum to start the season.
“All that being said, I thought that there were a lot of positives that we could take out of on Saturday. I thought that there’s a lot of things we need to correct and a lot of things we need to do better. I think that the kids responded very well on Sunday. They were upbeat, they were disappointed in the loss, no doubt, but they were upbeat in the way they approached film and practice. They understand that we’ve got to improve, and they’re motivated to improve. I thought that we played hard for the most part, I would say that in comparison to what people have seen on the field over the last couple of years. At the same time, that was well below our standard and the way we are going to play.
“The big thing I want to challenge the players to do this week. I’m going to challenge them on many levels, the big one is that we’ve got to play harder, with more intensity and we’ve got to play with more physicality. We’ve got to play more with our chin out over our toes and behind our pads. We’ve got to develop confidence in what we’re doing and we’ve got to develop better unity in how we do it. Those are the big focuses this week. We’ve got to fit things more correctly in the run game. The quarterback counter got out because of the form mistake by our edge defender. We’ve got to have better eyes with the screen-and-go, it’s something with a defensive back in training your eyes. We should have played the wheel route better. It’s something I’ve talked about all preseason camp. It’s formation recognition and alignment by the linebacker. All of those things we’ve got to do better. We spent the bulk of practice on Sunday addressing that and we’ll address it all through this week. We’ll take care of the X’s and O’s stuff, but the mental approach and being prepared to play a certain way is going to be the emphasis this week.”
“Gardner-Webb, I know Coach (Caroll) McCray very well. I faced him several times. He’s a veteran coach. He’s a good football coach. He’ll have his team ready to play. (Assistant Head Coach) Kenny Ray is an outstanding offensive line coach. They’ll come in here with a plan and I’m sure they’ll be excited to play in what’s going to be a great environment. We have a great challenge this week in them, but our focus is primarily going to be on us. I really do mean that. Because we have to take a tremendous step forward this week. The NC State game was our first opportunity against competition that was somebody that wasn’t ourselves, so it gives us a measuring stick of where we are right now. I think what you saw Saturday was a veteran, well-developed roster in a program that has had stability for seven-plus years. That’s what it should look like. What we saw was a young roster in a first-year under a new head coaching staff. That’s where we are right now and we look forward to improving drastically not only this week, but every week throughout this year.”
On Preparations For The Possible Impact Of Hurricane Dorian:
“Our administration is following and tracking it obviously. We don’t anticipate having to adjust anything with the game. It might impact practice a little bit late in the week, but we’ll have contingency plans for that also.”
On Needing Improved Facilities:
“We need a suitable indoor practice facility. It is critical not only for situations like this, but the lightning here in Eastern North Carolina can pop up at any time. So, I think that anytime that you get in those situations, you have to have a place to conduct a practice and I think that’s something that’s well overdue here at East Carolina.”
On Improving From Game One To Game Two:
“It’s for all of those reasons we just talked about. We’ve been going against each other and you see certain things when you go against each other. When you go against another opponent, especially one that is at a level like I talked about, that is going to be a team that is going to be one of the better teams in the ACC. It is a team that has had a lot of success over the past several years. So those redshirt seniors, redshirt juniors, redshirt sophomores have had time in weight room and time nutritionally to develop and they’ve been a part of a winning program. So, you’re facing a team that is a solid, Power 5 football team.
“It’s a great test, a great evaluation for us because it shows us exactly where our strengths and weaknesses are. So, it gives us something to really work with the kids on correcting our mistakes. We can sit and beat up all we want to; we all feel the score should have been a heck of a lot closer on Saturday. But it was our mistakes that caused the score to be 34-6. If we recover the fumble like we should nine times out of ten there on the six-yard line, they don’t stick one touchdown in. If we get our pads down and cover up going into the endzone, we score right there. Go over and over and over again, the mistakes that we made were why the score was what it was. It gives us a great evaluation to improve on. So, we should see drastic improvement from week one to week two and that has been my experience in the past.”
On The Reaction Of The Players After Watching The Film:
“They’re positive. They want to win. We spent a lot of time on those mistakes on Sunday. You’ll probably see, those half a dozen to ten plays on each side of the ball that were the critical mistakes on Saturday, you’ll see us cover those plays every single day this week in addition to preparing the schemes that we’re going to see from Gardner-Webb.”
On The Health Of The Team:
“Very good. I thought that was evidence right there on Saturday of the great job (Director of Strength & Conditioning) John Williams and our strength and conditioning staff have done throughout the past eight months and also (Head Football Athletic Trainer) Jack Moore and our athletic training staff have used their ability to take care of our players.”
On A Surprise He Saw On Film:
“I’d rather focus on the positive standpoint. We had guys competing really well at a high level. Just individually, you talk about some of the receivers that made some tough, contested catches with tight coverage. The ability for Holton (Ahlers) to consistently put the ball on target. I think those were positive things to see against a very aggressive defense. I think defensively, if you take away just the flat busts that gave up some big plays and I thought we tackled better. I think we did a decent job at times of fitting the run better. When we did let some stuff get out, we had some pursuit to get the ball most times. There were positives there. At the same time, it is what it is.”
On Moving From Road Underdog To Home Favorite:
“If we pay any attention to that stuff, we’re missing the target. It’s about us, that’s the deal. Someone asked me on an interview this morning about what my mindset would be if I was Gardner-Webb because I was an FCS school. I told them, every time we played in one of these games, we expected to win. I promise you they do too. There’s 11 people on field and the field’s the same size – it’s the old thing from Hoosiers. They’ve got every bit of an opportunity to win as we do. It comes down to who executes at the highest level and who can do the most things right. That’s stuff you can’t get caught up in. Last time I checked; this program hadn’t had a lot of success against FCS opponents here recently. So, we better be focused on winning the ballgame.”
On The Mood Of The Team:
“I think it’s what we talked about earlier. They were motivated on Saturday to go out and play a high level and win. They were disappointed not to get the win. They’re very motivated to improve this week. I think there’s no one hanging their head, there’s no negative body language, there’s no griping in the locker room. You don’t see that stuff. You see guys that are very locked into what we’re doing. I think that they see the hope, they believe in what we’re doing and I think they’re committed to getting this turned around. No different than we were a week ago. I said it on Saturday. If everybody loses all their excitement about this because we lost a tough road game to a good opponent, they weren’t really excited to begin with. We’ve got a chance to have a real special year. We’ve got a chance to get things heading in the right direction and our focus is on the biggest game of the year against Gardner-Webb.”
On How To Improve The Running Game:
“It’s got to. I think there’s a couple of things. Our offensive line has to continue to develop schematically. When I say that, I mean assignment-wise, they have to be on the same page. Their fundamentals have to continue to improve. We’ve got to get more of a downhill approach to our fundamentals and get out of playing so sideways like we did on Saturday. Our running backs have got to understand you can’t block everybody. If the other team is doing their job, they’re going to have a free hat at the point of contact. That’s just it. I’m accustomed to our running backs running through that free hitter at the point of contact. We wear our shoulder pads. We’ve got to be able to do our job at the running back position and not just go down at the first hit. We’ve got to be able to break contact and yards after contact are very important.”
On His Philosophy Of Redshirt Rules Going Forward:
“I think it’s a really good rule for college football. It allows you to get some guys some experience. It allows you to see where they are early on. It allows you to have depth without sacrificing eligibility. I remember in 2016, we had our quarterback go down in week 10. It was an injury that was going to be a three-week injury or so. We were making a run at the national championship and we had to burn the redshirt of our freshman quarterback for two games. That’s a travesty. Was it worth it then? Absolutely it was. We won both games that he played in and then the starter came back. But you look at the rule now, he would have been able to retain his redshirt. So, I think it’s a great rule.
“Our philosophy on redshirting is this, if they’re good enough to play, they’ll play. We’re always going to do what’s best for the student-athlete in that we’re going to maximize his eligibility because they have only so many games to play in during their career. You’re much better playing them when you’re older, when they’re 21 or 22 years old than when they’re 18. That being said, if they can go out there and play significant reps, Ja’Quan McMillian is a great example. I think he’s a special young man in a special situation in that he’s good enough to play right now and the stage isn’t too big for him. He’s a guy that’s going to play. We’re going to evaluate the four-game rule weekly. You’ll see us be cautious with guys early in the year because the biggest area of need is probably going to be late in the year. If you can have a guy that can come in and sub for a couple of ballgames late in the year and still redshirt, I think that’s a real positive thing for us and for the student-athlete.”
On If The Plan Is For Peyton Winstead To Still Redshirt:
“I think right now with where he is and where our offensive line is, I would say yes. Because I think he can benefit from the year with Big John (Williams). He was kind of robbed from that last year because of necessity. I think it would be a good thing for him and a good thing for our program if we could. That being said, we need to see how everything plays out. Right now, he’s practicing hard every day and preparing. He’s an important part of our program.”
On Expectations For Gardner-Webb’s Offense:
“I think you’ll see them, no matter what the personnel group they have in the ballgame, you’ll see them in a lot of two back formations. Certainly, the senior running back (Jayln) Cagle has had some big moments for them over the years. They ran for 160 yards or so on Saturday. He has solid ability. I think that you look at what their game plan looked like on Saturday; I think you’ll see something similar this week. They have three receivers that are 6’4” and 210 pounds plus. I’m sure they’re going to try to run the ball effectively and take big shots down the field with those receivers. I mean that’s what I would do if I were them.
“Schematically on defense, they are a three-down front. We saw a three-down front last week, but it’s a little bit different with a little bit more variety to it than what we saw last week. Still, they’re going to move around and stunt and they’re going to challenge us. So, we’re going to have to be really sound with communication up front and how we pick things up. Like I said, Coach McCray will have a solid game plan coming in here and I’m sure they expect to come in here and have some success, so we’ve got to be ready to go.”