GREENVILLE, N.C. – Fourth-year East Carolina head football coach Mike Houston addressed members of the media Tuesday morning prior to Saturday’s American Athletic Conference home contest versus Houston. The following are selected comments:

Opening Statement
“Really disappointed last Friday night in not being able to secure the win up at Cincinnati, but very pleased with the way our team competed and played, and I thought the kids competed at an extremely high level in a tough environment on the road against the one of the best teams in our league and one of the top teams in the country. We had our chances and certainly had our chance in the last drive of the game to win it. just didn’t make the plays there at the end. Cincinnati did and that’s the difference between winning and losing. The players continue to be very driven. It’s what’s made this group special this year, it’s just their drive and leadership. I expect us to have a very good practice today, we have a challenging opponent coming in here Saturday, a red-hot Houston team. They’ve won four of their last five and over that span, averaging 45 points a game. I think that Clayton (Tune) is probably the best quarterback we’ve faced all year, he’s having a phenomenal year. Nathaniel (Dell) is maybe the best receiver we’ve faced all year and they’ve got other guys too. They’ve got multiple receivers that are dynamic threats, they have a very solid tight end, they have a great one-two punch at running back and a solid offensive line. That’s the reason they’re scoring the way they are. They’re long and athletic defensively. They’re very dynamic on special teams. It’s going to be a great challenge on Saturday, they come in 6-4 like we are and they’re 4-2 in the conference. It’s a huge game for us. Excited to be back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and expecting a big crowd Saturday and we’d be disappointed in anything less. It’s a special group that we’re honoring on Senior Day. It’s a group that was here for the most part when I was hired. There’s a few that have been added in since, but this group has really led the turnaround of the program. They’ve invested, they’ve led, they’ve worked, and to have a chance to honor them before the game and then the big thing I challenged the roster with was to honor them with the way we play the game. It’s a big game for us. It’s the next game. It’s the most important game of the year. It’s the only one we’ve got this week, but it’s also one that’s special for this group and so I expect them to have a great week of practice. Expect us to play well on Saturday, and it should be a fantastic matchup between two really good football teams.”

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On the emotions of Senior Day
“Well, that’s what I’m going to talk to them about and that group about, is to still try keep your emotions in check to a degree. I mean, it’s certainly a chance to honor them and I still remember my Senior Day, we all do. You just want to make sure that you play the game that you envision on Senior Day. So, I think it’s a mixture of managing those emotions and then using those emotions to fuel you. This day will be very emotional for our fan base, it will be emotional for me for the same reasons that this group has achieved a lot. I’ll never forget them, and they’ll always be a part of Pirate Football.”

Thoughts on Virginia shooting
“First off, it’s horrific. It’s devastating. I can’t imagine going through that, it’s painful enough to hear about it and watch it. You spend so much time with these kids and you become so attached to them. It would be very similar to your own children. I think it’s a parent’s worst nightmare with something like this happening. Our thoughts and prayers have been with them all week, what they’re going through, you shouldn’t be going through it and it’s a terrible story. I just hope that they’re able to process this appropriately and honor the lives of those who are lost. We continue to pray for the two young men that are still hospitalized and hope that they can navigate that as best possible but it’s hard to put into words.”

On what Holton Ahlers has meant to the program
“I’m just very proud of him. When he decided to come back for his last year of eligibility, you always want to see guys maximize their potential. I think just the work that he did in the offseason and the way he’s prepared himself this year, has allowed him to elevate his level of play to a point where I think that he is playing at the highest level of his career, and I think maximizing his God-given ability. I’m just very proud of him, he’s just a special kid, and we’re obviously very close and I care about him tremendously. I’m just thankful that we’ve had our time together and just excited to see him finish his career here. I hope Saturday is another great performance for him but also for us. He’s meant a lot to our football program and meant a lot to me.”

On what it means to finish the season strong
“Well, I think the big thing is to keep our focus right now firmly on Houston. I think it’s very important. It’s a chance to get win number seven. I think that’s the next big milestone for this team. Obviously, how we play the next several weeks is going to dictate where we go during the postseason. We’ve got to keep our focus right now squarely on a very good Houston team and try to finish things here at home season here at home with a win. It would be a great way to finish the regular season at home and I think we’ve just got to keep our focus right there.”

On C.J. Johnson and Keaton Mitchell’s health and the calls in the Cincinnati game
“First off health wise, we came out of Friday night very well. Obviously, some significant precautions were taken with both Keaton and C.J. on Friday night and our medical staff did a great job. I think Cincinnati’s medical staff really stepped up and did a great job with helping us there. After thorough evaluation, both Keaton and C.J. have been cleared of anything serious, we do expect both to do something today at practice. Expect them to probably be full speed by tomorrow and we anticipate both playing on Saturday and we’re thankful for that. It was a highly competitive game. I know that there’s lots of calls that people question, and I’ve spoken with the director of officials and shared my thoughts there. At the end of the day, we didn’t make the plays at the end of the ballgame to win the game. That’s on us. We’ve got to play better, and we’ve got to coach better but that’s in the past. You’ve got to focus on the next one.”

On taking anything from last year’s game against Houston
“They’re a quality program. They were a 12-win team last year and I think they are equally explosive and talented this year. Just a very solid football team. I think just knowing who they are from a talent perspective and from the fact that they come in winning four of their last five, they’re playing well right now. They’re one of the better teams in our conference and their transitioning to the Big 12 next year along with Cincinnati and UCF. They’re in the middle of transitioning to a different league and have been using that from a recruiting standpoint going into this year and into this recruiting cycle. They are as talented as anybody we will see. I think that’s the biggest thing I take from it is just that we have a great challenge.”

On Houston QB Clayton Tune
“He’s playing as well as any quarterback we’ve faced this year. I think it’s a combination of a couple things. I think like Holton, he is good in the pocket as far as identifying coverages, defenses, pressures, and making sure they’re in the right protection. I think he does a great job with decision making and with the weapons he has around him, he can go to a lot of different people. It’s not like he’s just centered on just Dell, his mobility has added an even greater dimension. They’re running him quite a bit on quarterback design runs, he scrambles a lot, and he throws very well on the run. He has over 500 yards rushing on the year, in addition to 3,000 passing, completing 70 percent for 31 touchdowns. He is playing at a special level. It creates a lot of challenges for us. I can promise you that the defensive staff hasn’t slept very much. I’m not going to sleep very much this week. They’re working very hard to prepare guys to try to slow them down a little bit and try to get some stops. I don’t think you’re going to shut down a player or an offense of this caliber. You’ve got to try to slow them down, get stops where you can and force turnovers. You do things like that to try to get them off schedule. I just think it’s going to be a tremendous challenge on Saturday.”

On the play of special teams last week
“I think some of our special teams played very well on Friday night. Our punt unit had their best night of the year. Luke (Larsen) averaged 42 and some change almost 43 yards a punt. I thought his placement was good and our gunners did a really good job in coverage there. I think we’ve got to be better in punt return, protecting Malik (Fleming) and giving him opportunities to field the ball and return the ball right there. We knew that Cincinnati’s punt gunners were at an elite level, so we’ve got to do a better job against in that situation right there. Our kickoff coverage outside of the one was okay on the night, but the one was obviously significant. We’ve got to tackle better, that’s what it is. We made first contact at the 15-yard line with our force player right there, the three was right next to him. I thought he was getting ready to make the tackle, he got hit in the back and knocked to the turf but then we had two or three other guys there to clean it up, and we just have to make the tackle. Our inability to make that tackle right there obviously resulted in a huge play and an explosive play, seven-point score that you just don’t want to give up. We’ve got a real challenge this week. Their kick returner is averaging 40 yards a return. Dell is averaging about 15 yards a return and in punt return yardage. They have two dynamic returners right there in the kicking game and we’ve got to improve that this week and that’s got to be another piece where we play at a very high level.”

On Mason Garcia’s redshirt and trying to get him reps before the end of the season
“I think now you’re not concerned about it; you’re not concerned about should you or shouldn’t you. You kind of have free reign now anytime that there’s an opportunity, he can go in there and help us. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to have him rotate or anything like that because when the day comes and he’s the starting quarterback, you’ve just got to be conscientious in how you handle that but certainly with the redshirt secured, anytime he’s needed, he’s now available without any kind of thought.”