The Pirates swaggered out of the locker room looking ready for battle on their first day in full pads Wednesday. Hip, thigh and knee joined shoulder pads and helmets to create a fully-formed look as practice started on a hot, steamy Down East kind of morning.

After a routine walk-through and stretch with plenty of chatter and music pumping, East Carolina’s intensity instantly exploded and matched the blast level of coach Mike Houston‘s whistle.

“This drill will tell a lot about who we are,” Houston shouted as the players sprinted toward him. “Max effort! Let’s go!”

With cameras rolling and a video drone flying low, three purple-clad Pirates dropped into their defensive stance. Three linemen in white lined up on the other side with a quarterback and running back behind them. The remaining players turned into spectators on a makeshift sideline, packed tight to the action while screaming encouragement at full volume.

Pads popped, bodies collided and sounds not heard since last fall emitted from the scrum providing proof and perhaps comfort that it’s football season once again. Teammates mobbed players who reached pay dirt, while defenders did the same when they didn’t.

“We had great energy on our three-on-three goal line drill,” Houston said. “We had great competition and it will be fun to evaluate that film. It sets a great tone for the first day in full pads. I thought we were challenged by the heat as practice went on, but I was pleased with the way we responded.”

There were also plenty of opportunities for plain-spoken corrections during position work and live team competition.

“We’re going to keep it real.” Houston said. “We have to be realistic and honest, and I think our players appreciate us being honest with them. I’m not going to tell them or our fans something that’s not so.

“I try to stay very positive with the kids, but it’s my job to develop them. If I sugar coat things, pat them on the back all the time, tell them how great they are doing and don’t instruct and push them to do better, then we are not going to improve.”

Special teams is one area Houston plans on improving dramatically. Coordinator Roy Tesh has coached with Houston since both were assistants at Brevard (N.C.) College in 2006. The journey has taken him to Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel, James Madison and now to ECU.

“I don’t know if it’s because I do a good job or Coach Houston just feels sorry for me,” joked Tesh. “In today’s world, when you run across someone who you truly believe has your and the group’s best interest at heart, you better stick fast to that person. That allows me to loosen up and go do my job because you believe in the man who is running the show.”

Tesh is in charge of a unit that includes junior kicker Jake Verity, a first team pre-season All-AAC selection by Athlons and Phil Steele’s College Football Preview Magazine, along with highly-regarded punter Jonn Young, who also serves as Verity’s holder. Red-shirt freshman Tyler Snead is at the top of the pre-season depth chart to return punts and kickoffs, something Tesh describes as a team effort.

“Tyler will be the first to tell you that he can’t do it by himself,” said Tesh. “This staff has always preached the team concept for offense, defense and special teams everywhere we’ve been. It’s about blocking to open a hole and all the other little things it takes to bust a big play. Improving the small things that fans don’t see is what we try to accomplish out here every day.”

The Pirates ended practice with a full speed competition featuring third-down situations from the three-yard line. The energy level was once again sky-high as the first, second and third units lined up helmet to helmet.

“There were half-gassers on the line,” Houston said of the infamous running drill that players wanted to avoid at all costs. “The offense won the three-on-three drill, so the defense had to win this one. They did, so nobody had to run. We wrapped up practice with some live special team work, so everybody was involved.”

After the defense denied a touchdown on the final series, Verity’s field goal split the uprights to send the Pirates to their air-conditioned locker room, with lunch just around the corner.