In the short term, it appears that senior Philip Nelson will be healthy enough to start for East Carolina against visiting Southern Methodist on Saturday at noon.
In the long term, Nelson may be playing at ECU next year.
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Nelson has taken his normal snaps as the No. 1 quarterback this week in practice, according to Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery.
Nelson was pulled last week in a 45-24 loss at Tulsa and Gardner Minshew put up 336 passing yards with a late touchdown in a relief role.
“Physically, Phil had a little tenderness in his shoulder last week and didn’t practice a good portion of the week,” Montgomery said. “He didn’t get out there [at practice] until Friday. In the game . . . he wasn’t as sharp as he normally is. . . . We really needed him to be able to step up in the pocket and make some throws.”
The Pirates turned to Minshew late in the first half with the Golden Hurricane leading, 17-7.
“At that time, we decided to go in a different direction — not all because of his performance but his performance connected to not being sharp and not being able to throw it the way he wanted to throw it,” Montgomery said.
It’s been business as usual as ECU (3-6, 1-4 AAC) prepares for SMU (4-6, 2-3).
“This week, in practice so far he’s been great,” Montgomery said of Nelson. “He’s took every rep just like a normal week and Gardner has still got all the reps that he normally gets. We were pleased with the way Gardner came in and competed. We thought he scrambled up in the pocket well. We’ve got a great future with him but Philip is our quarterback unless just physically he’s not able to do it.”
This is only Nelson’s third year playing although he began his college career at Minnesota in 2012. He played in 2013 for the Golden Gophers before transferring to Rutgers but did not play for the Scarlet Knights. He transferred to ECU last year. This is his third season on the field.
Nelson has said he plans to apply for another year of eligibility when this season is over. Then the matter would be adjudicated by the NCAA.
“I really don’t have the answer to that because that’s really kind of out of our hands,” Montgomery said. “I couldn’t say a positive or a negative on that. That has to go through a lot of different levels before that happens and none of it is in Greenville.
“It’s elsewhere so I don’t have a whole lot of information about that. . . . There would be a case for him but there would also probably be a case why he should not be able to do it so it could go either way. I really don’t know anywhere near the answer to it. I just know that process is out of our hands. It’s a process that we don’t have any control over.”
Fronts get attention
ECU only netted 38 yards rushing last week and threw for 436. Part of the disparity was that the Pirates were playing from behind for virtually the entire game and could not wait on production from the ground game.
Play in the trenches has been a focus in preparation this week.
“We’re working really hard to get better in our offensive and defensive fronts,” Montgomery said. “We thought that may have been a little bit of the difference in the [Tulsa] game. Going into the game, we thought they were really good on both of their fronts and it proved to be some of the difference. We know we’ve got to be better in that situation and we can’t wait on recruiting and everything else to help it.
“We’ve got to do the best job we can to give our guys the best opportunity. What we’re trying to do is alleviate a little bit of the stress on our offensive and defensive fronts without killing our defensive backfield and then without killing our quarterback — always keeping him on the run and having to get the ball out quick. We need to be able to run the football and we’ve got to be able to stop the run. We’ve spent a lot of time in our fronts and putting our fronts against each other as well as putting our receivers and DBs against each other. The main emphasis this week has been trying to get our front up to par.”
SMU up and down
The Mustangs have been inconsistent, good enough to stun Houston 38-16 on Oct. 22 but subsequently struggling in a 51-7 loss to Memphis last week.
Montgomery can identify with some of the issues SMU is facing.
“They’re young in the program,” said the ECU coach. ” . . . There are some inconsistencies but they play really hard. They have some of the issues that we have from a depth standpoint. If a team is playing at a tempo . . . things can go wrong and then they’re young. They’re young at some spots. Special teams, they’re young. They’re having to play a lot of young people on special teams.
“If things are going the right way for them, they play really well. Coach [Chad] Morris, does a great job with his team but I can see some of the same issues that we’ve kind of had at certain spots. . . . They’ve struggled at times turning the ball over. The flip side of it is they’ve done a good job of getting the ball. Turnovers and being young. In the second year of the system, they’ve gotten a lot better. Truly competitive but the inconsistent play you see is when you’re playing people that may have not played two or three years.”
SMU’s Jekyll and Hyde behavior was apparent against the Pirates last year. The Mustangs took a 23-7 lead in Dallas before ECU stormed back with 42 unanswered points in a 49-23 win.
ECU coverage teams improving
East Carolina has been several games without giving up a big return on punts or kickoffs, a problem during a five-game losing streak.
“They’re playing well,” Montgomery said of the coverage units. “They’re getting better week to week. The specialists are getting better. The people that we have on special teams are giving everything that they have. We’re doing everything in the book to make sure that we continue to work.
“Since spring in practice, we’ve really paid close attention to special teams. Our biggest problem is our depth on both our offense and defense. Because of that depth, we just don’t have a lot of depth in our special teams. So our guys are going out, working as hard as they can. We have starters out there. We have other people out there, trying to give us everything that they’ve got and we’ve just got to continue to push forward.”
Keys this week
Getting some production from the ground game is at the top of Montgomery’s list as he sizes up the contest with the Mustangs.
“We’ve got to come out and establish the run, whether that be in our run-pass option game or just our run game,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to run the football better than we did it last week. We’ve got to have an undying desire to run the football. You’ve got to run the football if you’re going to win.
“On the other side of the ball, we’ve got to stop [Courtland] Sutton, their big receiver and then also just maintain the run game. If we do those things, I think that our passing game and our ability to get the ball out to Zay [Jones] and some more of our other playmakers gives us a really, really good chance this weekend.”