GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – First-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Mike Houston addressed members of the media Tuesday prior to Saturday’s road game against SMU.
9 on your side Sports Director Brian Bailey also caught up with Coach Houston for WNCT’s exclusive weekly interview.
“Exciting weekend and a tough loss this past weekend here at home in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Very disappointed in the final outcome of the game. From the casual fan’s standpoint, if you didn’t care who won the game, what an exciting ballgame – back and forth. Both teams played at a very, very high level. Both teams competed. Very physical game. You say you want to have a shot to win in the fourth quarter, we had more than just a shot. We had every opportunity to win the ballgame and that’s the next challenge.
“You have an opportunity to knock off the No. 17 team in the country, you’ve got to make the plays there at the end of the ballgame to put the game away. A lot of credit goes to Cincinnati. I’ve always said, and we’ve been fortunate enough to experience it a couple of times, if you’re going to have a special season, you’re going to have to win those kind of games on the road. The games where the other team is playing at a very high level and your backs are against the wall and certainly, I said it on Saturday night, I’ve seen that kick missed a lot over the years. Great job there at the end of the game by the field goal unit from Cincinnati.
“The disappointing thing is not being able to secure that one, first really special win for our young program and we had that opportunity. But you take all those experiences and you learn from them and you keep your focus on what’s right in front of you and that is continuing to push forward. Another great opportunity this week with another ranked opponent on the road in Dallas at SMU. They’re coming off their first loss of the season, another exciting ballgame between them and Memphis. A game that was on the national stage. They obviously played very well. Got behind but were able to come all the way back and almost knock off Memphis at home. One of the more talented teams in our conference and one of the more, if not the most explosive offense in our conference. So, we have a tremendous challenge this week. It’s homecoming at SMU. A noon kickoff (Eastern Time), 11 a.m., Central so get up and get ready to play on Saturday morning. A tremendous challenge, but just like last week, a tremendous opportunity for our program and for our players. The key really is to continue to push forward, focus on getting better every day and getting better every week. So, we’re excited about the weekend.”
On How To Prevent Taking A Step Back This Weekend:
“Well, I think they’re very motivated. I think we talked a lot about last week, taking the practice field to the game field and believing in yourself and having confidence in yourself. Then seizing the moment, taking your shot. I think you saw them gain confidence throughout the game the other night. Now the thing they’ve got to focus on is why did we play so well? We played so well because they had their best week of preparation leading up into the game. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I’ve said it many times, it was almost scary how well we did in those preparations and it’s what you become accustomed to when you have really good football teams. You have a really sharp Thursday practice, then Friday is really dialed in, you can feel it. Then we got here and finished the Pirate Walk on Saturday afternoon and I went in and told Coach (John) Williams, I don’t know how they’re going to play, but I’ve never felt so comfortable with our preparation and just their attitudes today.
“They were loose, not uptight, but very focused and locked in. I think they felt confident in each other. It all goes back to your preparation. So, it starts today. We had a good Sunday practice, it was shorter, coming off a late Saturday night game and a very physical game, but one where we really focused on a few corrections and some fundamentals. Today is when the work starts. We’ve got to have a great week of practice. We have a huge challenge in front of us, so we’ve got to really focus on doing things right every day. That’s what it really comes down to. Do right. Do right in every aspect of your life. If you’re doing things right consistently, good things are going to happen to you.”
On Opponents’ Recent Success Running The Ball:
“It’s something we’ve got to improve on, there’s no doubt. We look every week at why things happen, and you’ve got to do a great job fundamentally. You’ve got to do a great job schematically. We’ve got to continue to do a great with development. But it’s an area we have to continue to improve on. Obviously, here in year one you’re trying to lay those foundational things and the players understand the importance right there. It’s something that will be a big focus.”
On Multiple Contributors In The Offense:
“Well I think you’re seeing guys continue to gain confidence in themselves. You’re seeing guys start to bring more of the practice field to the game field. The big focus from last Saturday coming out of the game was obviously on the performance of Holton (Ahlers) and C.J. (Johnson). Sometimes it gets overshadowed a little bit, the performance of Jsi Hatfield, Blake Proehl, Tyler Snead. Even Zech Byrd, having his first college touchdown. Just so many other guys that we were able to get involved. Really, that’s what you want. When this offense is playing at a very high level, you should have multiple players being productive at a lot of different positions. So, I think you saw us playing at a much higher level, not just the guys getting the stats, but we didn’t give up a sack against a very talented defensive group from Cincinnati. Really, Holton was not pressured much. That’s a big factor also.”
On The Offensive Game Plan Going Into The Game:
“Well, the plan going into the game was to be aggressive. Part of that was taking your shots. But once you get into the ballgame, you have to see what their game plan is. Certainly, their game plan is going to show some things that are there and not there. So many of our plays are run-pass options. Where the ball goes is predicated on how the defense chooses to defend everything. We had some very productive option plays where the ball ended up being delivered accurately to a receiver making a big play. Just everybody being on the same page. The first touchdown to C.J. was an aggressive, take a shot play. We’ve taken a lot of those this year, it’s good to start hitting some of them. The bulk of the offense throughout the night was just our offense and guys playing at a much higher level.”
“The thing with SMU is they can do it all. They’re very explosive offensively. The quarterback, (Shane Buchele) a transfer from the University of Texas, was the starter at Texas at one point in his career. Very talented passer, above average rusher. But you look and his completion percentage is in the mid-60’s, he’s just under 3,000 yards passing for the year and he hasn’t made a lot of mistakes. Obviously, everything kind of centers around him. They have two, I think, high-end running backs. No. 5 (Xavier Jones) is sitting there just under 1,000 yards rushing on the season, but I think No. 2 (Ke’Mon Freeman), there’s not a whole lot of drop off when they go to him. Receiver wise, No. 3 (James Proche) is one of the top receivers in the conference. He’s having a really, special year. No. 8 (Reggie Roberson, Jr.) is probably out, but No. 11 (Rashee Rice), the freshman came in and went for 122 yards there in his place. The tight end, No. 83 (Kylen Granson) is very similar to the tight ends we’ve seen the past couple of weeks where they’re legitimate threats in the passing game as well as being solid blockers. Their offensive line has done a good job. You take all that into consideration. There’s other guys there, just like there is for us. But it’s a very explosive offense. They are going to play an up-tempo style. Maybe not quite as fast as UCF, but still, they are going to play an up-tempo game. They do everything. They’re going to formation us all over the place. They’re going to run every trick play in the book. They’ve double-reversed pass, throwback to the quarterback, everything you can think of, they’ve ran this year. We’re going to have to do a really good job of being disciplined and being dialed in to our responsibilities and being aggressive.
“Defensively, they’re a multiple four-down, three-down group. Very athletic. Another group that plays a lot of defensive linemen. They have tremendous depth in their defensive front. They’re very diverse on the backend with their coverages and do a lot of things back there. They’re going to take chances. They’re going to be very aggressive. They’re going to make some big plays. Hopefully we can capitalize and maybe make some big plays of their own. I think they’re a solid football team. There’s a reason they were 7-0.
“On special teams, they’re very dangerous in the return game. They’ve had a touchdown on the kickoff return this year. Coverage-wise, they’ve done a couple of different things there. They’ve been a little bit inconsistent at times with the kickoff team. But the punt team, they use a rugby-style punter that happens to be their strong safety. So, they do some different things there in the coverage. A complete football team. Coach (Sonny) Dykes has done a great job there. They’ve got a lot of new faces this year and those new faces are playing at a very high level.”
On The Earliest Kickoff Time Of The Year:
“Well, we had a noon start against NC State so that does help. I know that it’s 11 a.m. (central time) but to our kids, it will be 12 noon. It is daylight savings week so maybe their bodies are still a little bit on that clock. It is what it is. Just like with NC State, we’ve got to be ready to go on Friday. When we get off the plane on Friday afternoon, we’ve got to be ready to play. So, Friday morning, Thursday night, Wednesday night’s sleep, those things are going to be critical components. We’ve already started talking to the kids about it. But both teams have the same schedule. We just have to be the more fired up and ready to go Saturday morning of the two teams. Excited about playing in Dallas. It’s a city that we’ve had a lot of success in in the past. The Cowboys are home this weekend; I think (Brian) Bailey is going to see them on Sunday. The Cowboys got a big win over the Giants last night. I didn’t get to see any of the game, but I got the recap. It’s always good when you beat the Giants. The only thing better is beating the Redskins. But anyway, it’s going to be an exciting game. It’s their homecoming. It’s a big ballgame for us. Big ballgame for us.”
On What He Said To Holton After The Pick-Six Against Cincinnati:
“You make a mistake, with the quarterbacks, you have to have no memory. It’s like playing corner. The most important play of the game is the next play. You coach up the mistake. The mistake that was made there was something that was pre-snap in his head. We’ve corrected that. You’ve got to play within the offense. He obviously had an incredible game. That was a big play, there’s no doubt. Everybody’s going to look at that play. But I promise you, that play did not win or lose the ballgame. Certainly, it swung the momentum right there, but we had our opportunities to win the ballgame. There were a million little things throughout that ballgame that we’ve got to do better. We had our chance; we’ve just got to do better with a lot of those things. Even the late game stuff, we’ve got to do better with that to knock off a team the caliber of Cincinnati. You expect them to make a run. You expect them to make some plays down the stretch and you’ve got to match those plays.”
On Whether A Light Has Gone Off For Holton:
“I think, if you really look at it, you’ve seen this coming. I know you can say the South Florida game was not his best game. But you’ve seen this coming where he’s understood more and more of the offense each week. He’s playing better within the offense more and more each week. He had better protection on Saturday. He had his receivers doing more things better. You’re just seeing the evolution of guys getting on the same page. No doubt it was his best game of the year. But I can promise you, this is not going to be the last game he has like this either. He’s going to continue to improve the more comfortable he gets with that offensive scheme. I think he’s feeling more comfortable with Coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick and obviously you’re seeing that production on the field as a result.”
On SMU’s Punting:
“They have one (a traditional punter), they’re choosing not to use him. Early in the year, they used a traditional punter. I think it comes down to a very good football coach finding creative ways to give his team an opportunity. The scheme they’re using, it puts some stress on you. We’ve faced teams like that in the past. When you get that low, line-drive punt, you’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want that punt to bounce off somebody’s back or somebody’s helmet and it’s a live ball right there. It’s hard to field. Really, he’s doing something unconventional that’s being very productive at times and giving his team a chance to win.”
On How To Improve The Team’s Consistency:
“I think it’s not only a young team, it’s a new coaching staff in its first year with the players, even the veteran players. Our schedule and way of doing things is different. No matter who the previous head coach was, it’s different. Coaches talk about this, but it really is the truth, but it’s the process. How we operate, how we do things. At this point in the season, are we going to do things different than how we did things in the early part of the season? A little bit, but not a lot. We’re going to be full pads today. It’s going to be a physical practice today. We’re going to thud up the ballcarriers today. The practice is going to be a little bit shorter because we’re later in the year. But tomorrow, we’re going to have a thud practice. We’re going to have a physical practice tomorrow. We’re going to come out and we’re going to be on them about how fast they practice. I’m going to be on them about how they’re dressed. I’m going to be on them about being on time. It’s a process.
“It’s a continual process that they’ve got to learn, that you do things right consistently. That’s in every aspect of your life. You’re taking care of your body. You’re doing the right things nutritionally. You’re getting sleep every night. You’re doing a great job in the training room, taking care of yourself and getting treatment. You’re doing a great job with your personal life. You’re making great decisions off the field. You’re taking care of your business academically. You’re not on lists. You’re continuing to do things right and it’s every single day. It’s not a one day thing, it’s every single day. As you continue to work through that process, the more you learn that if you continue to embrace the preparation and you continue to do things right, you’re going to play better and better as time goes along. So, it’s not just the young guys. It’s the whole team learning how to prepare week in and week out and your preparation does not change. Your opponent changes and you’re going to do some different things based on who the opponent is. But your preparation does not change week-to-week throughout the year and that consistency is so vital to go along with great effort each week. That’s really the key, preparing to win on gameday. That’s the whole thing.”