Houston’s East Carolina tenure begins at NC State, site of a Pirates debacle in 2018

While East Carolina will start this football season where the last one ended, Mike Houston wants the connection to last year to end there.

N.C. State clobbered the Pirates 58-3 last Dec. 1 at Carter-Finley Stadium two days after ECU fired Scottie Montgomery as its head coach. Houston arrived from James Madison to replace him three days later.

As Houston prepares the Pirates to open this season on Aug. 31 against the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley, he is demanding better effort, and hopefully results, from his team.

“Hopefully they’ve forgotten about what they were doing on the field last year because it wasn’t what they were really, and it’s certainly not what we want to be,” Houston said Friday at the annual Pigskin Preview luncheon. “I think a lot of our players are very bothered about the way that game played out. It obviously was not competitive at all. I do think that fuels you a little bit during preseason camp.”

Houston joined N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, Duke coach David Cutcliffe, UNC coach Mack Brown and N.C. Central coach Trei Oliver to preview their teams Friday.

All but Houston are familiar to Triangle football fans, with Cutcliffe entering his 12th season at Duke and Doeren is beginning season No. 7 with the Wolfpack. Brown is starting his second tenure with the Tar Heels and Oliver, though in his first season as head coach, is a former NCCU player.

Houston played at Mars Hill and got his first head coaching job at Asheville’s TC Roberson High School. His first college head-coaching job came at Lenior-Rhyne in Hickory where he was 29-8 from 2011-14.

After going 14-11 in two seasons at The Citadel, he moved to James Madison and led the Dukes to the 2016 FCS national championship.

While Houston was succeeding at James Madison, Montgomery’s East Carolina teams floundered. The Pirates posted 3-9 records in three consecutive seasons under the former Duke assistant, leading to his dismissal last November.

Houston said his film study of his new players in action showed him a stark issue.

“Our biggest thing is we are going to learn how to compete,” Houston said. “That’s what I did not see on film from this group last year. We are going to compete every single Saturday. If we are good enough, we’ll win it. But we are going to compete no matter what each weekend. If we can get that accomplished in year one, that will be a big stride.”

Houston sat next to Doeren on the dais in a ballroom at the Embassy Suites hotel Friday. Back in 2016, Montgomery’s first season started with two wins, including a 33-30 win over Doeren’s Wolfpack.

Houston wants to match that kind of start but certainly hopes to have more success beyond the matchup with the Wolfpack.

N.C. State has been to bowl games in each of the last five seasons, posting 9-4 records the last two seasons. ECU has gone 9-27 the last three seasons, so Houston is rebuilding the Pirates.

“No matter what you are up against, there is no excuse for not going out there full throttle,” he said. “That’s going to be the tone here for preseason camp.”

When the five coaches were asked Friday to raise a hand if they knew who their starting quarterback would be, only Cutcliffe did so. He has fifth-year senior Quentin Harris lined up to replace Daniel Jones, now with the NFL’s New York Giants.

Houston has a talent in sophomore Holton Ahlers, who played in 10 games with five starts as a true freshman a year ago. Junior Reid Herring, who started the other seven, is also in competition for the starting job.

Though Ahlers showed plenty of potential last season, Houston is focusing on building an entire offense to help whoever the quarterback is.

“He’s got to learn he doesn’t have to be superman,” Houston said. “I think it’s very dangerous when you put too much on one player because, No. 1, it can lead to him playing outside the system, and No. 2, it can lead to, as we saw last year when he was not in there, the team was lost. He’s a great player. I’m glad he’s on our team but we’ve got to develop everybody else around him to develop a very solid unit. Hopefully, he’s going to win the job and become our leader but he’s got to take care of that also.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.