Mike Houston wraps up 2020 ECU football season

Published: Dec. 1, 2020 at 3:58 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Second-year East Carolina head football coach Mike Houston addressed members of the media Tuesday wrapping up the 2020 season. Below is the full transcript:

Full Press Conference Video:

Opening Statement

“Something we may have taken for granted in the past; we aren’t taking for granted today. That’s having an in-person press conference. For everyone’s knowledge out there, everyone is distanced. I’m the only one not wearing a mask so this is a COVID protocol-appropriate press conference to discuss the end of the football season and the beginning of the offseason – the next steps for East Carolina football.

“I could not have asked for a better end of the season. The two-game winning streak to close out, especially being able to win the finale here at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in the manner we won it against a quality opponent was the perfect script. Just really excited for the players and coaching staff for the hard work they did each week throughout the fall with everything they had to manage just to play football. If you would go back to 2019 and say this is how you were going to have to play, manage and practice in 2020, no one would have believed anyone. There is no way you thought you could pull it off with everything you had to go through with the protocol and testing and the way you had to meet and practice. Not having spring practice. Not having summer training. It took a lot resource wise. It took a lot mentally for each person involved. The way this group came together and functioned throughout the season, I’m just very proud of them. You guys didn’t get to see this group work throughout this year, but the way they practice now versus what it was two years ago tomorrow when I took this job is night and day. They work and practice now the way I expect them to and the way that winners do. The result is their continued improved play on the field.

“That moment postgame Saturday on the field is something I thought about throughout the week because of the way I thought our program was trending. I felt like we were going to play well Saturday. I didn’t expect 45-7 at the half. I wanted to capture that moment so I got them together for a postgame photograph with TowneBank Tower and the fans we had in attendance in the background because in that moment, which I talked about in our final team meeting before they went home, we have an opportunity that many long for. Hopefully it’s when everything flipped for our football program, the players and direction we’re headed. Great weekend. We had great weather. I know we only had 3,500 in attendance but I appreciate them because it was an electric atmosphere in the stadium. I wish it would have been 50,000 because it probably would have been suffocating for the opponent with the energy that was on our sideline and in the stands. You could feel it. It was a great way to end the season. There is a lot to reflect on in the coming months and lot to discuss today. Certainly, as we stand here today, things have changed drastically as opposed to Dec. 2, 2018.”

On The Status Of The Roster Currently

“I’ve had a lot of dialogue with our players over the last month. We’re anticipating the vast majority to return next year. We’ll have a few that were recognized on Saturday that where they are in life – graduating from East Carolina University – and having made preparations to go to that next step where they will transition on. We support them and will celebrate them. There are one or two that have some things to consider. Those guys were probably not coming back, but having had such a positive experience, they want to discuss things with their families.

“We feel good about the roster that’s coming back. I don’t want to stand up here and put a dead number on it now, but the vast majority will be back next year. We also have a recruiting class we will sign, part of it on Dec. 16 and the rest throughout the spring and early summer to have a full roster ready for next fall. As far was where I think we are right now going into what I hesitate to call year three, since we were really robbed of an offseason, I think we are in a really good spot. My expectations are very high, and the kids’ expectations are very high. Whatever goals our fanbase has, I promise you that our internal goals will exceed that.

“We have a lot of work to do. Despite all the damage the pandemic has done, especially with the financial impacts where families have been devastated, there has been one positive with the extra year of eligibility. I went through the room. Holton, you’ll be a junior next year. Bruce Bivens, you’ll be a senior next year. Rahjai, all those defensive lineman, you’re going to be freshmen next year. They have a tremendous amount of experience now. Experience is not something you can create. You can’t replace it either. We have a special moment the next eight months to capitalize on the opportunity to take an experienced group of freshmen and develop them. We laid out a plan yesterday. It’s just over six weeks until they return. They’ll start returning the week of Jan. 10. We’ll have to go through testing before they start working out. We’ll begin our winter conditioning the week of Jan. 18. We have to hit the ground running on that date. They have to be in shape before they return because I don’t want to have to get them in shape then.

“We struggled with the quarantine. There were guys that didn’t recover from the quarantine. We didn’t manage that as well as I would have liked to. We can’t have that happen between now and Jan. 18. We have a chance to hit the ground running and have a great couple of weeks of strength and conditioning. Mack drills with the coaching staff. Teaching a group how to have spring practice and a summer. It’s not just lifting weights and running. It is character development. It is team, cohesive development. It’s maturity. There are so many things this group did not get last year.

“Heading into 2021, we have the chance to become a highly-competitive team that can compete with anybody. Our schedule is tough next year. There’s no bones about it. We’re going to play quality non-conference football teams. The American is a beast. We have goals that are very lofty.”

On Offseason Focuses

“The number one focus right now is our current roster. Guys need to heal up. We did have some injuries down the stretch. I told the guys they need to unpack the season and decompress. For example, Fernando Frye played an enormous number of snaps. They need to let their bodies rest before Jan. 18. We need to stay on top of our current roster and have them in a good place heading into the spring semester.

“Recruiting is the other big focus right now for the staff. We’re starting virtual visits tomorrow. We’re using some of the suites up here (TowneBank Tower) trying to show recruits and their families everything they can’t see. We’re trying to get as much face time with recruits and families that we can over the next two weeks and develop the relationship that we haven’t had the opportunity to develop. Right now, we have 10 commitments. I don’t see us signing a number enormously larger than that on Dec. 16. That’s on purpose. We have specific needs we’re being very direct with in terms of the offers we are sending out. I like our returning roster a lot. I’ve said it all year – I like the kids in our program. We have put this together with some intent. I’m so proud of the older players we have that have been with us here the whole time. I mentioned Bruce (Bivens) earlier. He’s playing the best ball of his career right now. He carries himself as such a positive leader. Those guys have changed. I’m also proud of the young group that has joined them. We need to make sure we are very cautious but direct with who we bring in.

“We have the culture we said we wanted to create. We’re achieving at very high levels academically. We’re representing the university in a very positive manner. I talked to them yesterday and said I pray we don’t have an incident that douses that between now and when they come back in January. I talked to them about all the things they need to be cautious of. They need to represent each other and the university in a first-class manner. They’re doing that. Our play on the field in continuing to improve so the roster is my biggest focus right now. All of those things I mentioned before from strength and conditioning to spring practice will be critical.

“We need to do the postseason evaluations of schemes, what we did on the field that was good and what we didn’t do well. I’m not in a big hurry to do that but we’re beginning it this week. I want to take my time with it as we look toward tweaks and changes that we’re going to make moving forward. That will take place over the next month and some change. I pushed spring practice about as far back as I could. We aren’t going to start until mid-March at the earliest. The spring game will be in late April. It will be the latest I can have it before final exams. I want to give Coach Big John and his staff the maximum amount of time they can have with these guys in the weight room and on the field. Bigger, faster, stronger and – for some of them – slimmer. Those things, as well as maturity, are what I want to focus on right now.”

On The Offense Moving Forward

“There are some reasons we had inconsistencies throughout the year. One is having consistent personnel on the field. Our projected offensive line as we sat here on this day a year ago and who we played with were completely different. Some never played a snap. Some played one game then never again. Some played a lot. I think that group played very well on Saturday. No matter what happened week in or week out, that group improved throughout the season. We want to be what we were on Saturday. Very balanced. I think Holton threw for 300. I don’t know what we ran for, but it was a significant amount. I don’t think anyone can deny the fact that our ability to run the football effectively this year improved our offense. It gave us a shot and kept us in ball games. We’ve shown our explosive ability in the passing game too. Part of that consistency is growing up and continuing to improve the guys we have. Our philosophy remains being balanced and aggressive.”

On The Improvement Of The Defense

“It’s night and day from where we were a year ago. It’s something I wanted to accomplish. It was tough for Blake (Harrell) when he first came in, but who would have imagined when you put your staff together, you would get sent home and wouldn’t see them or get to know them. The kids were sent home, so you didn’t get to know them. You’re not going to have spring practice. You’re not going to have summer. All install is going to be done via Zoom. You’re going to teach your playbook via Zoom. Then, we are going to play a full year. What you’re asking of that group when they got in here was a pretty tall task.

“I could not be more excited about the job he did. The positivity, energy and enthusiasm. He did a great job bringing the coaching staff together. The kids embraced it and did a great job. As we sat here a year ago, this was a group that did not have a lot of confidence. Now they think they can play anybody and go toe to toe with them. That confidence is so important. Believing in yourself is so important for any athlete. We all saw the way they played Saturday and last week at Temple. The way they played a Tulsa. The way they defended Navy. The performance of that group on the field consistently throughout the year. We can continue to improve. The traits of high energy, physicality, intensity, camaraderie. There are no “me guys.” They do it together. That’s what we wanted to create and what we were able to create. I’m excited to see what’s next for that group.

“Blake does a great job evaluating his opponents and a great job of self-evaluation. He’s going to be his biggest critic going into the offseason. The biggest thing he got was the experience of facing the American Conference. Steve Ellis had the experience last year at South Florida. You try to tell Blake, Tripp (Weaver), the graduate assistants and analysts that this is a big boy league. The running backs are going to be 220. Every team has them. All of these quarterbacks are good. The speed you’ll see from the skill players. The size of the offensive line. You can talk about it, but you have to experience it. It impacts recruiting. You have to recruit guys that can play in this league because it’s a big-time league. It’s going to benefit Blake going into the offseason to better in 2021 because of his experiences.

On Saturday’s Postgame Team Photo

“It represents everything we are trying to create culturally. Family. Caring about each other. Trusting each other. Believing in each other. Supporting each other. I’m not talking about just players. I’m talking about coaches too. There’s such a warm feeling in all of us when we look at that picture. Certainly, it’s a picture I’m going to put up in my office. We’ll put it up all around the facility. My college football coach who is still at Mars Hill today has a photo of our group on his wall. He came into a very similar situation to ours and he’s had a lot of success since we left, but we ended my senior season on that kind of note. A huge win against a big rival at home. He’s kept that photo up there because to him, it signifies when the program turned the corner and started moving upward. To me, this group is the one we will look back on and say it played a season during a pandemic, went through so much but gave us all belief in what we can achieve here.”

On Scheduling Uncertainty During A Pandemic

“We were one of the first teams in the country to start fall practice. You still have some teams that have played one game out west. It’s the craziest year you could ever imagine. A month ago, we went into a game with two scholarship tackles. The backup was your center. You went into a game with three healthy safeties. With the combination of injuries and COVID, you wondered if you were going to get to play the schedule you had in front of you.

“Today, we are a fairly healthy team. There is no way to predict the future. There was no way to predict that we would get all the games in. Temple was touch and go. There’s some relief that we played all the games on our schedule. With the way you’re playing right now, heck yea you’d love to play another game. All things happen for a reason. I’m a firm believer in that. Could we have been 5-4? Should we have won the Tulsa game? It’s no different than me being here. I believe that God had this plan for my life. It sure hasn’t been an easy road. It won’t be an easy road ahead. Everything is to prepare us for the next step.

On Jake Verity And Jonn Young

“Jake would say that he’s better than what he showed at times this year. At the same time, the reason you’re thinking that is because the expectation is way up here. I thought Jonn improved significantly this year. The competition from Luke (Larsen) helped a lot. I had discussions with both of them. They both want to return. We’re still talking through a couple things. I feel good about both of them. I feel good about that room.

“The reasons we had some blocks were because of a combination of things. A couple of kicks maybe didn’t have enough trajectory. A couple of kicks had penetration in the A gap. It wasn’t just one specific thing. I thought we did a much better job Saturday with protection. Jake would give anything to have the kick back that he missed. He has had a great career here. I know he wants to end it on a really high note. He has a lot of devotion to East Carolina University.

On Any Positives To Glean From A COVID Season

“I don’t know how much positivity there was with anything we did. The COVID protocols took away so much of the in-person factors whether it was recruiting, the Pirate Walk or the way we meet as a team. I’m a big believer in relationships. I want to get to know our recruits very well before they sign with us to make sure they’re a right fit. I guess the only positive thing I would take moving forward is the virtual stuff. You can accomplish a lot of things virtually that you didn’t know you could in the past. I feel like I’m an expert on Microsoft Teams, Zoom and all these other platforms. I didn’t even know what they were a year ago. That’s the biggest positive I can take away. I wish I never had another PCR test, but I know they’re coming back in January.”

On Keeping The Players Engaged The Next Few Weeks

“My message to the team yesterday could not have been any more direct. It was a this is what could happen and what couldn’t happen type of deal. We’ve split the roster every which way you can, whether into position groups or in terms of strength and conditioning. Those that did suffer from the quarantine are aware of it. It cost some of them a year of playing because they just could not get on the field. Some of them did not play at a level they expect. They’re all well aware of the impacts, positive and negative, that the quarantine had. Some players handled it great. They showed up in a condition that prepared them to play at a very high level. That realization is important. As much as we tried to stay on top of them during quarantine, we still have to do better. I told the position coaches that their number one priority is returning players. You have to make sure you stay dialed into them. Our strength and conditioning staff are really dialed into that also. They have experience now using technology that can make sure the kids have some guidance. Same thing with our nutrition staff. We’ll have the ability to have our facilities available for guys who will be in the area. We didn’t have that back in the spring and summer. I do think the vast majority will handle it much better. The ones that don’t will have to pay the price.”

On Personnel

“Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any player who has not signed with the university. When they do sign with us officially, which will be Dec. 16 and beyond, then I’ll be able to comment.”

On The Progress Of The Offensive Line Since The Georgia State Game

“The continuity just wasn’t there. You had guys like Nishad (Strother) playing tackle for the first time in their careers. There were so many things that day that were on display. Then you look at Saturday. Nobody touched Holton all day. We ran the football effectively. Nishad wasn’t there for that one. When he was redshirted last year, I thought he had a chance to be really good. I can tell you for a fact that he’s going to be a good player for us. He’s had successful surgery and is rehabbing right now. Looking forward to getting him back healthy.

“It’s not just him. Fernando Frye started out playing center for the first time ever. Certainly, he had some ups and downs with that early in the year but his performance the last several weeks has been impressive. Here’s a guy reaching three techniques in our zone run game. That’s tough. Nobody can understand what I mean by that, but very few guys can do that. Sean Bailey played as well as he could have and he’s such a positive piece of that room right now. Bailey Malovic was a guy that needed that offseason development and was robbed of it, but the way he played throughout the year was really positive. The new guys, whether it’s Avery Jones or Justin Chase. What they did with no spring or summer, thrown into fall camp. They were very solid down the stretch. Walt Stribling. Significant playing time at Temple. Trent Holler. Significant playing time across the board. Those guys came so far, and I’m really pleased with that group going into the offseason.

“Noah Henderson is going to be back. He will make a recovery. I look forward to getting him back into shape and on the field this spring. I have some young guys in the program right now that will be brought along. We do plan on adding some older players to the mix to give us the depth and size we need. Some guys probably played before they should have this year. We’re getting ready to go play Temple and I tell Walt he’s starting at left tackle and probably isn’t ready for it. You’ve worked hard. I believe in you. You’ll never forget this day. He played really well against a really good defensive line. Now he can use that experience and confidence in the offseason to continue to develop.

“It’s a group that trended upward through the year. With some of the obstacles they faced, that’s pretty impressive. We do plan on adding as many as six offensive linemen to that room with a combination of high school kids and transfers.”

On The Biggest Positive Takeaway From The Season

“It’s the confidence within the roster. The belief in themselves. The frustrating thing about the Tulsa game is that you played the way you did. No one can take that away from you. That was an impressive performance that night but the thing you have to have at the end is the win. You can say you won that one, but it’s not on our record. That mental piece is significant. As much as we tried not to let it hurt us the next week, it did. All of a sudden, we have that confidence of winning back-to-back conference games. Beating a seven-win team. If you throw Tulsa in, that’s two really good teams ranked in the top 25 and you essentially knock both of them off. We didn’t get the one, but no one can take SMU away from us. The confidence and mentality going into the offseason is the biggest positive. Does it help recruiting? As soon as the game is over my cell phone is blowing up from our recruits, both commits and guys that are still out there, that watched the game Saturday and loved the way we played and the energy.”

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