The future of East Carolina’s football offense was secured in a span of 72 hours last week.
First, there was the major announcement January 30th that local product and highly rated junior quarterback Holton Ahlers will play for the Pirates in 2018. The Tim Tebow clone made a verbal commitment to ECU before a packed gymnasium at D.H. Conley High School, where he earned first-team all-state honors from The Associated Press last season.
The excitement created by Ahlers’ decision continued two days later when the Pirates added 11 new offensive players during college football’s national signing day. Among the signees were a quarterback many consider to be the best in the in-state senior class, a pair of receivers with special football pedigrees, and a pair of productive, but contrasting running backs.
The successes generated positive momentum heading into the offseason for ECU’s Scottie Montgomery as he moves the program forward from a disappointing 3-9 debut season. As Montgomery’s first full recruiting class since becoming head coach in December 2015, these players will create the direction and set the tone for the “Montgomery Era” at ECU.
Whether it’s an educated guess or merely speculation, here are our annual position-by-position grades for the offensive recruits in the Class of 2017, along with an organizational profile and a look ahead to what the Pirates may be looking for in the year to come.
Note that all class designations below indicate the player’s status for the 2017 season.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The only reason we’re not awarding A or even an A+ at this position is because ECU probably wanted to sign two quarterbacks. The transfers of Kurt Benkert in April and John Jacobs in July, combined with Philip Nelson completing his eligibility at the end of the 2016 season, left just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Further evidence the goal was to sign two is that a pair of quarterbacks were actually committed at one point. So even though they signed an A-caliber quarterback, we have to take points off for missing the number.
WHO SIGNED: Kingsley Ifedi enjoyed a prolific two seasons as the starting quarterback at Charlotte’s Vance High School. Ifedi passed for 3,213 yards and 30 touchdowns (800 rushing, 14 TDs) as a junior, then racked up the fourth-highest total offense figure (5,144) in state history last season. The total yards included 4,052 yards passing, 1,092 rushing and led to 64 touchdowns. Ifedi was one of those early committed players on offense Montgomery referred to on signing day, choosing the Pirates in May over offers from Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Harvard, Pittsburgh and Yale. Ifedi already had a strong connection to ECU because his brothers Casey and Jamine both attended school there. Casey was even a walk-on linebacker with the Pirates in 2013.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Ifedi is a DeShaun Watson clone, or at the least a slender version of the quarterback who led Clemson to the national championship. Ifedi is a strong-armed passer who stands tall in the pocket and delivers the ball with authority. But where he really takes on a Watson-like appearance is when he’s running or under pressure from the pass rush. Like Watson, Ifedi seems to have a sixth sense that allows him to routinely escape the rush, and the power to shed defenders when on the run. Unlike Watson, Ifedi speaks fluent Igbo, the native language of his family’s ancestral home in Nigeria. Having graduated early from high school and already enrolled at ECU, Ifedi will get a legitimate chance during spring practice to compete for a place on the depth chart.
MONTGOMERY ON IFEDI: “Kingsley is the No. 1 quarterback in the state of North Carolina. He is a big, dual-threat guy. It feels really good to say we got the best quarterback in the state. The best players in our state are good enough to beat anybody.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Mic Roof from Buford, GA, wasn’t the hot quarterback commodity on the level of Ifedi or Ahlers. But there was still a lot to like when Roof committed on the same weekend as Ifedi last May. He’s the son of former Duke head coach and current Georgia Tech assistant Ted Roof, so he’s both smart and tough. The younger Roof led Buford to 26 victories and back-to-back state runner-up finishes over his final two seasons. Out of the blue in late January, however, Roof backed out of his pledge to the Pirates and wound up signing with Charlotte.
WHO’S BACK: I suspect the ECU coaching staff didn’t intend to play junior college transfer Gardner Minshew last season, or at least not as much as they did. But now they’re probably glad for the snaps he was able to take because he’s the only returning player with game experience. With Philip Nelson dealing with concussion and shoulder issues, Minshew got an opportunity and made the most of it. He played in seven of the final eight games and started the last two, completing 119 of 202 passes for 1,347 yards for eight touchdowns (four interceptions). Also back and ready to compete for playing time is Reid Herring, a smart, pocket-style quarterback who impressed the coaching staff with his progress during a redshirt freshman season.
WHO’S GONE: Philip Nelson’s only season on the field for the Pirates was a successful one. The Rutgers transfer completed 237 of 349 passes for 2,621 yards and 16 touchdowns. Of course, most of that came before concussion and shoulder problems forced him in and out of the lineup down the stretch.
NEEDS FOR 2018: With Ahlers already in the fold for the Class of 2018, and young talents like Ifedi and Herring already on campus, it will be difficult to convince another quarterback prospect to sign with ECU. But reportedly the staff does have scholarship offers out to Jacksonville, FL, quarterback Carter Bradley and Michael Barrett from Valdosta, GA, so at least attempting to grab two in this class would appear to be the goal.
RUNNING BACK A-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates are well stocked with running backs, putting the position down the list as far as priorities go with the Class of 2018. But signing at least one in each class is standard for depth chart purposes.
WHO SIGNED: Darius Pinnix from Western Alamance High Elon was one of the earliest prospects to make a pledge to ECU last July. Pinnix shuffled around to a variety of positions in high school, including quarterback, running back, receiver, safety and defensive end. He seemed more like a receiver as a senior when he caught 73 passes for 1,201 yards and 16 touchdowns en route to earning Burlington Times-News Offensive Player of the Year honors, but he also rushed 73 times for 451 yards and 14 more scores. Appalachian State, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, East Tennessee State, Virginia and Wake Forest were among the other schools who offered Pinnix scholarships.
Trace Christian, a 6-foot, 220-pounder, produced three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Lake Brantley High in Longwood, FL. He logged school single-season highs with 145 carries for 1,316 yards while scoring 16 touchdowns as a senior. More than 20 major programs extended scholarships to Christian, including Miami and Virginia Tech.
Another addition to the ECU running back stable 5-11, 207-pound Nathaniel Harvey, an in-state product from Knightdale who played the last two seasons at Georgia Military. Harvey was GMC’s third-leading rusher with 278 yards on 42 carries in 2016. He’ll join the Pirates as as walk-on player in spring practice.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: In Pinnix, ECU snared the ultimate utility guy. He can run or catch the ball out of the backfield as a running back, take snaps in the Wildcat formation, throw the ball on the halfback pass, line up in the slot as a receiver and return kicks.
Christian plays with a different style than the rest of the backs in the Pirates’ stable. He reminds me of the old I-formation tailbacks because of his size, power, ability to pick holes and accelerate. Having a power back like Christian on hand could immediately help ECU improve in red-zone offense, which was one of the worst nationally last season.
MONTGOMERY ON PINNIX: “This guy has a unique skill set. He has great hands, can catch the ball out of the backfield and make you miss in space. We can’t wait to get him on campus and had a great time recruiting him. He is one of those guys in our state you read about later who became really good football players. He could have gone many other places, but chose to stay with us.”
MONTGOMERY ON CHRISTIAN: “Trace is exactly what we need. He is big and physical. The running back position has changed my outlook on taking big backs because usually when you take big backs you don’t get the athleticism. Trace was the one we wanted.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Jerry Howard was one of the top running back prospects in South Carolina at powerhouse Northwestern High School. He decided to join the ECU recruiting class in June and was looking forward to reuniting in Greenville with former Northwestern High teammate Corey Seargent. But five months later the lure of playing running back in Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack apparently was too strong and Howard flipped to the Yellow Jackets.
WHO’S BACK: Four players who logged carries last season are scheduled to return along with a former consensus four-star prospect who has yet to fulfill his promise at ECU.
Senior Anthony Scott is the top returning rusher after gaining 384 yards on 79 carries in eight games a year ago. But fumble issues eventually led to Scott’s benching late last season before a broken collarbone eventually ended his season. Shawn Furlow moved into the backup role with Scott out, but carried the ball just five times for 23 yards. Furlow will be a junior next fall.
Junior Devin Anderson, a former walk on, was ECU’s third-leading rusher last season with 57 carries for 258 yards and two touchdowns, while Hussein Howe carried three times for seven yards as a true freshman.
The mystery in the ECU running back stable remains junior Derrell Scott, who transferred in from Tennessee amid extremely high expectations. Apparently Scott didn’t perform well enough in practice to get an opportunity in game situations because he only played once last season in the South Florida game and didn’t carry the ball a single time. But unless the guy I once compared to former North Carolina running back Gio Bernard has totally lost his mojo, Scott could still be a valuable asset to the Pirates.
WHO’S GONE: James Summers, whose ECU career saw him move from wide receiver to quarterback and then running back, wound up as the team’s leading rusher in 2016 with 869 yards and seven touchdowns on 162 carries. The Pirates won’t only miss his production and versatility, but his presence in the locker room as well.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Anthony Scott’s eligibility ends after the 2017 season and three others are scheduled to exit the following year. The Pirates are obviously serious about replacing Scott and maybe adding a second rusher to the backfield corps based on the number of reported offers already made to running backs, which is 10 at our count. Three to follow as the recruiting cycle unfolds are 5-11, 190-pound Jalynn Sykes from Rome, GA, 6-2, 200-pound Trent Pinnix from Raleigh’s Sanderson High and 6-0, 195-pound Jahmir Smith from Lee County High in Sanford.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Signing a high number of receivers was necessary because of graduation losses and some uncertainty surrounding the future of three potential difference makers. Based on those factors, adding at least three to the roster was an appropriate goal.
WHO SIGNED: The coaching staff delivered a quartet of receivers with a wide range of skills, including two who are carrying on a family tradition.
Shelby’s Jayden Borders is the son of former North Carolina receiver Chesley Borders, and hails from the same Cleveland County that produced ECU’s Montgomery. The younger Borders helped Shelby to four consecutive state championships and an overall record of 57-7 with his 262 career receptions for 4,653 yards and 58 touchdowns. The 5-11, 170-pounder committed last June after also being courted by Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Miami of Ohio and Ohio.
Blake Proehl, from Charlotte’s Providence High, is the son of former Wake Forest and NFL wide receiver Ricky Proehl and younger brother of current North Carolina receiver Austin Proehl. Blake was an All-SoMeck 8 4-A Conference pick and Charlotte area receiver of the year as a senior after making 52 catches for 1,016 yards and 12 touchdowns. Appalachian State, Charlotte, Florida International, Georgia State and Virginia Tech offered the 6-1, 170-pounder scholarships. The Hokies actually made a last-minute push to sign Proehl, but he stuck with his pledge to the Pirates, which he made back in June.
From their own backyard at Greenville’s Rose High, the Pirates signed Mydreon Vines, a 6-1, 170-pounder who snared 72 career passes for 1,233 yards and 14 touchdowns. Vines’ senior season was interrupted by a knee injury that limited him to seven games. He still managed to catch 28 passes for 552 yards and seven scores. He chose ECU over Appalachian State and Charleston Southern offers.
The final member of the receiver class is 6-1, 180-pound Leroy Henley from Pompano Beach, FL. Henley amassed 163 receptions for 2,227 yards and 29 touchdowns between one season at Deerfield Beach High and three at Cardinal Gibbons. Henley was the most heavily recruited of ECU’s receiver recruits, entertaining more than 30 offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Tennessee.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Borders, Henley and Vines are all guys who can take it to the house on any given play. They can get deep, or turn a short pass into a big gain. Borders, in fact, was compared to former Duke star and current Washington Redskins receiver Jamison Crowder by his high school coach. Because Borders and Henley enrolled for the spring semester they could work their way into the receiver rotation, depending on the availability of some upperclassmen.
Proehl is a clone of his father and brother. He’s an excellent route runner, has an excellent football IQ and catches everything thrown in his direction. Proehl could use a year in Jeff Connors’ weight room before he’s ready to see action at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, but his consistency catching the ball could get him on the field sooner rather than later.
Another potential future contributor to the ECU receiving corps is recruited walk-on Duce Fuller (6-0, 175). Fuller was Ahlers’ top target at D.H. Conley, where he made 104 catches for 1,711 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior.
MONTGOMERY ON BORDERS: “He is the only kid we have under six feet tall, but he is dynamic. Jayden is a playmaker in the slot. I don’t think I have said this about any player I have recruited before, but he is a four-time state champion. That is a big deal, no matter who you are and where you have been.”
MONTGOMERY ON HENLEY: “He is versatile and a threat outside while catching the ball quick and moving the chains. I really like what I have seen out of him to this point.”
MONTGOMERY ON PROEHL: “Everyone knows about Blake’s pedigree. His father was a great player and coach. What is unique about Blake is his short space quickness. He is unbelievable with the ball after the catch.”
MONTGOMERY ON VINES: “Mydreon is long and will be a vertical outside receiver. He has a great skill set and can catch the ball all over the field.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Because all four receiver signees committed early, it’s fair to assume ECU landed the top guys on its board. But actually the first player to make a pledge to the Class of 2017 was receiver Da’Shaun Johnson from East Carteret High in Beaufort. Johnson is a 6-4, 203-pounder who gave his pledge to the Pirates in early March after making 85 receptions for 1,493 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior. But Johnson and ECU eventually parted ways, likely because of academic issues. Johnson has yet to sign with another school.
WHO’S BACK: Four receivers who registered receptions in 2016 return, led by seniors Quay Johnson and Jimmy Williams. Johnson ranked second behind the great Zay Jones with 58 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns. Williams, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA in December, made 45 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns.
Behind those guys, sophomore Deondre Farrier flashed his potential with 21 receptions for 164 yards and one score, while junior Terrell Green saw his first significant action by appearing in all 12 games. Green managed seven catches for 78 yards. Junior Malik Gray also appeared in four games, but didn’t log a catch.
The X-factors at receiver are senior Davon Grayson and junior Trevon Brown. Grayson was one of ECU’s primary receivers from 2013-15, but back problems sent him to the sidelines for the entire 2016 season. He has now been cleared to participate at full strength in spring practice where he’ll seek to re-establish himself in the receiver rotation.
Like Grayson, Brown has been a major contributor in ECU’s passing game at times. But last September the NCAA ruled him academically ineligible for the 2016 season. Brown has continued to work out and practice with the Pirates, but heading into spring practice he is still working toward regaining his eligibility. The return of both Grayson and Brown would be a real shot in the arm to the Pirate receiving corps. Also back and ready to compete for playing time will be redshirt freshman Tajh Deans.
WHO’S GONE: Well, quite simply the most productive receiver in Football Bowl Subdivision history. Zay Jones set NCAA records for career (399) and single-season (158) receptions during a brilliant four-year career. He completed his run at ECU as the school’s single-season record holder in receptions (158 in 2016) and receiving yardage (1,746 in ’16), along with the career mark for catches (399). He also ranks second in career receiving yardage (4,279) and touchdown catches (23) behind the great Justin Hardy.
One other player who contributed to the receiving corps has also departed in Brandon Bishop, who had 10 catches for 92 yards in 12 games.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Some big-time talent will be departing after the 2017 season as Johnson, Williams, Grayson and Brown close out their ECU careers, so the need here will be significant. Signing three or more would be the ideal number. Ahlers making an early commitment should be a significant advantage as the Pirates attempt to fill those spots.
TIGHT END C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates don’t often use the tight end in a traditional manner attached to the offensive line. But they usually keep one or two on the roster to use as at H-back or as a big receiver out wide. It wasn’t a big priority in this recruiting class, but with one of three current tight ends scheduled to graduate after the 2017 season signing one was a practical number.
WHO SIGNED: Eric Weber actually re-signed with the Pirates after spending a year at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Weber (6-2, 220) signed a letter of intent with ECU in February 2016 out of Blythewood High School in South Carolina. But he never enrolled and instead played defensive line last season at Southwest Mississippi. Weber appeared in four games, collecting five tackles on defense and special teams. Over his final two prep seasons, Weber caught 36 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Weber may lack the size of a traditional tight end, but he was tough enough to play defensive line at the junior college level. He’s likely to be more effective for the Pirates playing H-back, fullback or receiver. Weber will have three years of eligibility at ECU.
MONTGOMERY ON WEBER: “Eric is athletic and physical. He can catch it at tight end or even go into the back to the receiver position. He played defensive end all of last year so he is very versatile.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Weber was really the only tight end in play for ECU, so it didn’t really miss on any prospect at this position.
WHO’S BACK: Senior Stephen Baggett has appeared in 36 games over the last three seasons and started eight of 12 in 2016 (five catches for 62 yards). Junior Anthony Whatley was primarily a special teams player last year while appearing in 11 games. Ditto for junior Beau Huffman, who played in all 12 contests.
WHO’S GONE: ECU didn’t lose anyone at the tight end position to graduation.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Signing at least one tight end to replace Baggett would appear to be the goal, and ECU has targeted several in the Class of 2018. Zamari Ellis is a 6-4, 245-pounder from Southern Vance High in Henderson who has already been on campus for an unofficial visit. The Pirates also reportedly jumped out with a January offer to Atlanta, GA, tight end Maleak Bryant, a 6-6, 210-pounder who plays at Mays High.
OFFENSIVE LINE B-
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Two starters were already scheduled to complete their eligibility after the 2016 season, but then two other blockers on the depth chart decided to leave the program. The latter made securing at least three offensive lineman a priority, including one who could hopefully contribute immediately.
WHO SIGNED: Matt Morgan (6-5, 275) was his conference’s lineman of the year on offense and defense as a senior at Corinth Holders High in Clayton. Morgan played there for former ECU deep snapper Guy “Bubba” Williams, who is the son of the highly successful former North Carolina prep coach Chip Williams. The Pirates grabbed Morgan’s commitment way back in June when his only other offer from from UAB.
ECU dipped into the junior college ranks to sign 6-4, 320-pound Dqmarcus Shaw. Shaw, from Batesville, MS, was a two-year starter at Itawamba Community College and received offers from Arkansas State, Cincinnati, Louisana-Monroe and Southern Miss.
From Westlake, OH, the Pirates landed 6-1, 285-pound John Spellacy. Spellacy was a three-year varsity player at Cleveland-area power St. Ignatius, where he earned All-Ohio honors as a senior. Army was the only other program to offer Spellacy a scholarship, but that was due in part to the fact he pledged so early to ECU last April.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Shaw was one of five junior college transfers who signed with ECU in December and enrolled in January. If he can grasp the offense quickly enough and make a play for a starting job at tackle, it would free up some of the returning starters there to slide over to guard where the off-season losses had the biggest impact. At the very least, Shaw should assume a backup role at tackle.
Spellacy is a true center prospect, which is even more significant with the departure of both players at that spot who were on the depth chart when the 2016 season ended.
Morgan is long, athletic lineman with the potential to be 300-plus pounds after spending a year in Jeff Connors’ weight program at ECU. His versatility will allow him to eventually compete for playing time at guard or tackle.
MONTGOMERY ON MORGAN: “Matt is one of the guys that is here and already enrolled in school. He is long and athletic. What we found out in winter conditioning is that he is extremely tough.”
MONTGOMERY ON SHAW: “He is an offensive lineman in every sense of the word. I am looking forward to seeing how much he can help us.”
MONTGOMERY ON SPELLACY: “John is tough and hard nosed. He will probably be the most game-ready out at the center position that I’ve been able to recruit. If he works hard, he will be able to break into our two-deep quickly.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Connor Mills, a three-star guard from Buford, GA, originally committed to ECU in June. But when the Ivy League came courting in October, football took a backseat to academics. Mills backed out of his pledge to Pirates in early December to join the recruiting class at Princeton.
WHO’S BACK: Three starters along with three of their backups are scheduled to return for 2016.
Junior Messiah Rice started 10 of 12 games at left tackle and senior Justin Sandifer got the nod in the other two, including the season opener. Junior Garrett McGhinn lined up beside those two for 11 starts in 12 games at left guard, while senior Brandon Smith handled all 12 starts at right tackle. Sophomore Dalton Montgomery (11 games at tackle) and sophomore Cortez Herrin (one game at guard) served in reserve roles on the line.
McGhinn, however, could be shifting over to center this spring where he’ll compete with junior Erik Lenzen. Lenzen could also be a factor at one of the guard positions.
Others returnees in the mix on the offensive line are redshirt freshman guard-tackle Jack Doyle, junior guard Brandon Pena, redshirt freshman guard Sean Bailey, junior tackle Des Barmore (seven games in 2016) and sophomore guard D’Ante Smith (one game).
WHO’S GONE: Originally, the only departures expected on the offensive line were starting center J.T. Boyd and backup guard Will Dancy. But due to continuing medical issues, Christian Matau, who started nine of 12 games at right guard, has decided to end his playing career. Also, last season’s backup at center, Kyle Erickson, has left the football program. Erickson, who would have been a junior, appeared in six games last season.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Offensive line is always going to be a priority in recruiting. Nine scholarship blockers are in the junior or senior classes, so starting the process of replacing those will require ECU to sign at least three and possibly more in the 2018 class.
OVERALL OFFENSIVE GRADE B+
This was a strong follow-up effort to the first class brought in by the coaching staff. It complements nicely last year’s group and will bring what we believe will be future stars into the ECU program at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
OVERALL OFFENSE AND DEFENSE GRADE B+
Well, that was easy since both units received a B+ grade. But Scottie Montgomery can clearly call his first full recruiting class a tremendous success. He and the staff secured much needed immediate help on defense, snared the top quarterback in the state and improved the program’s overall depth and talent. A job well done.