Outside of a Week Two beating of N.C. State and Zay Jones’ pursuit of the FBS single-season and career receiving records, there wasn’t much to write home about for the East Carolina football team in 2016.
That much is indisputable.
So at this point, rather than looking backward and rehashing the Pirates’ worst season in a dozen years, lamenting over all the went wrong — and there was plenty that went wrong — it’s more constructive to look ahead and identify the areas of greatest concern as coach Scottie Montgomery and his staff work to make sure that things get better, not worse in 2017.
Here are a few of the top priorities:
Improve the pass rush
The Pirates recorded just one sack through the season’s first seven games and finished the year with only eight, exactly half of which came in a win against UConn on Oct. 29. That’s not going to cut it regardless of who you’re playing, let alone the kind of challenging schedule ECU annually faces.
Whether the upgrade involves a schematic change from the current 3-4 alignment or simply bringing in better players, something has to be done. Because as promising as young defensive backs Colby Gore, Corey Seargent and Devon Sutton might be — along with serviceable veterans Bobby Fulp and Travon Simmons — they’ll continue to get picked apart as long as opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw.
To their credit, Montgomery and his staff have already taken steps to address the problem by bringing in immediate help in the form of two junior college defensive ends Marques Ford, a former four-star prospect who originally committed to Tennessee out of high school, and Blake McClain, a former Florida State and Nebraska commit who spent some time at South Carolina with current Pirate DL coach Deke Adams.
But with end Fred Presley, nose tackle Demetri McGill and outside linebacker Dayon Pratt (who led the team with 2.5 sacks this season) all graduating, ECU is going to have to rely heavily on newcomers and untested youngsters to get the job done.
Upgrade talent and depth on offensive line
As was the case on defense, the Pirates’ failure on offense started up front thanks to an offensive line that all too often lost one-on-one battles and kept quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Gardner Minshew running for their lives.
To be fair to the current staff, the inability to block people is a shortcoming they inherited. They did what they could to plug the gap by signing fifth-year grad transfer Will Dancy from North Carolina. But Dancy didn’t work out as well as hoped and was eventually replaced in the starting lineup at right guard by junior Christian Matau.
The good news is that with the exception of center J.T. Boyd, by far the Pirates’ best lineman, everyone else will be back. The question is, how much improvement make between now and the start of next season? And even if they do step up their game, how big a dropoff will there be to their backups when injuries and fatigue start to take their toll as the long season goes on?
Establish a more consistent ground game
As pass-happy as the Pirates were during the Air Raid days under former coach Ruffin McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, the real key to their success was their ability to run the ball effectively as well. Vintavious Cooper posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012-13 while Breon Allen was a weapon both on the ground and as a receiver out of the backfield in 2014. But this year’s team was never able to establish a consistent rushing threat outside of James Summers taking direct snaps in the Wildcat formation.
Summers did gain more than 800 yards while playing a number of different roles, but Anthony Scott was a disappointment after a strong start because of his inability to hold onto the football, and neither Devin Anderson nor Shawn Furlow carried enough to establish any kind of rhythm. Those two sophomores will likely be given the chance to play a bigger role in the offense next season and Scott could also potentially get another chance.
Part of the problem goes back to the offensive line situation. It’s tough to run the ball when there aren’t any holes through which to run. Regardless of the blocking situation, Montgomery and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen need to make a concerted effort to be more balanced in their offensive game plan.
Learn from the mistakes, don’t repeat them
If nothing else, the Pirates were consistent during their season-ending stretch of nine losses in their final 10 games. And that’s not a good thing, because more times than not their downfall came about because of the same mistakes being made over and over and over and over again.
Among them were turnovers, ill-timed penalties, an inability to score touchdowns in the red zone and an incredible 149-71 scoring disparity in the second quarter — particularly when it came to giving up momentum-swinging points just before halftime.
ECU ranked 125th out of 128 FBS teams this season with a turnover ratio of minus-16. It wasn’t much better at No. 121 in red zone inefficiency, a stat that led to the Pirates to be ranked ninth in the AAC in scoring despite being among the league leaders in total offense at 467.1 yards per game.
Montgomery has expressed his frustration often over the recurring problems and has pledged to do whatever it takes to keep them from cropping up again next season, to the point of talking to other coaches whose teams have overcome such issues to see how it’s done.
The rookie coach clearly has a lot to learn from his first season leading a program, but his bloodlines are strong and his enthusiasm appears to remain intact despite the disastrous results his team produced. How he grows into the job, particularly in addressing the areas discussed here, will go a long way toward determining whether 2016 was just an unpleasant course correction or a wrong turn from which it could take years to recover.