East Carolina’s 2017 football season was barely in the books Saturday before coach Scottie Montgomery began turning the page and mercifully putting it into his rearview mirror.
Who could blame him?
A 70-13 humiliation at the hands of Memphis and a second straight 3-9 record isn’t the most desirable way to head into what is almost certain to be a make-or-break offseason, especially since it was the sixth time in 12 games that his team was torched for 52 or more points.
So instead of dwelling on the gory details of the 70 Burger that will be stuck in the Pirates’ craw for the next nine months, Montgomery spent a large portion of his postgame press conference looking ahead at what needs to be done in order to avoid such beatdowns in the future.
In doing so, he drew his own line in the sand, one that will ultimately make things easier for athletic director Jeff Compher to decide Montgomery’s ECU future come this time next year.
“I haven’t given a lot of guarantees since I’ve been here,” the coach said. “But we’ll be a better football team and we’re going to go play in the postseason next year. I’m [convinced]. I know that our guys will be.”
Assuming Compher decides to bring Montgomery back for a third season in 2018, an announcement he’s expected to make sooner rather than later, it’s going to take a minimum of six wins for him to have any shot at returning for a fourth in 2019.
That means he’s got a lot of work to do between now and the Pirates’ Sept. 1 opener against N.C. A&T to give himself a legitimate shot at the three-game improvement necessary to meet his goal.
The question is, where to start?
Montgomery had a few suggestions in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s loss, from his players’ nutrition to the need to get bigger, stronger and especially faster in order to compete with and eventually beat the likes of American Athletic Conference frontrunners Central Florida, South Florida and Memphis.
As important as those aspects might be, Montgomery’s first order of business should be a complete reevaluation of his staff, including the hiring of a new defensive coordinator.
With all due respect to Robert Prunty, who got the job in a battlefield promotion after Kenwick Thompson was fired after just two games, and 73-year-old “advisor” John Gutekunst, a forceful new voice is needed to give a fresh start to a unit that finished dead last among FBS programs in scoring defense and total defense, allowing an average of 45 points and 541.7 yards per game.
The optimal candidate would be a veteran with coordinating experience and a proven record of turning struggling defenses around.
It would also help to provide that new coordinator with a deeper talent pool, stocked with a more skilled caliber of players.
But while Montgomery has placed a premium on increasing his team’s speed, especially on the defense, his first priority should be building a formidable foundation of big guys up front on both sides of the ball.
Consider that ECU recorded only 11 sacks this season. While that was an improvement over the eight it had in 2016, it’s still not enough pressure to prevent opposing quarterbacks from standing tall in the pocket and picking the secondary apart.
A stronger pass rush will make the entire defense better, just as a bigger, deeper, more athletic offensive line will increase the Pirates’ chances of moving the ball downfield and getting into the end zone more frequently.
Next year’s roster will feature a number of skilled weapons, including quarterback Gardner Minshew, explosive receiver Trevon Brown and a pair of emerging running backs in Hussein Howe and Darius Pinnix. Those playmakers, however, can only make plays when they have time to pitch and catch, and have holes through which to run.
“We’re going to have a lot more playmakers all over the field, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got some. We’ve just got to compliment the guys that we have and we have to give them a better chance and a better opportunity to come compete against a team that’s going to be playing for a championship.
“… We’ve got to add some pieces to the puzzle, there’s no question to it. We’ve got to do some things differently and I accept that willingly. That’s exactly what we’ll do.”
At this point, he has no other choice.
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