The letters of intent began arriving in the East Carolina football office at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, the new early signing day. Coach Scottie Montgomery, who has the ability to generate optimism despite a pair of 3-9 seasons, likes the latest harvest.
“It’s a fantastic class,” Montgomery said. “It’s a great class. The best part I think about all of it is, as you look around the country, there was a lot of movement by a lot of guys, especially in our conference. Guys decommitting and going other places, but the relationships that we have built, the guys that we had from the beginning that we really wanted to be here and that they really wanted to be here, they’re all still here and with us.
Even without the demands of preparing for a bowl game, Montgomery was extremely busy making personal contact with the newest recruiting class.
“It’s was just great, but it was a tough, tough three weeks,” Montgomery said. ” . . . I had 15 days to basically get to 30 people, which is pretty much the amount of people that we were really actively recruiting. Some of them were offered. Some of them were not offered. I mean 30 kids in 15 days, with people being all over the place sometime makes it really, really hard.
“But we had a lot of help. The Pirate Club gave me the ability to get to a lot of different people and different places. We’re very, very thankful for them and giving us the ability for our coaches to get out.”
Holton Ahlers, the quarterback from nearby D.H. Conley, helps make this class special. Ahlers was MVP of the Shrine Bowl in North Carolina’s 55-24 win on Saturday.
“We’re really excited about this class,” Montgomery said. “We really felt like this class, even coming out of the summer, had a chance to be special, highlighted by a big-time quarterback (Ahlers). If you’re going to be good in football, your classes have to have a great quarterback and that’s exactly what we have.
“We also got some great protection for him. Really, really skilled at the receiver position. The kid, Juwan Moody, that we were able to take and Andre Pegues. Moody is a blazing, blazing fast kid from Conway, S.C., and Pegues is just a big, dominant, athletic body. Things I like about both of those guys, they’re phenomenal basketball players. Looking forward to getting them in the building as quickly as we possibly can.
“We were able to add a real tight end body with Johnny Bogle that can play fullback/tight end to give us physically what we wanted. We’ve been on him for awhile and we’re happy that he stayed firm and stayed committed to the process. He really closed us up on offense..
“Defensively, we crossed a lot of hurdles that we had earlier. We think we got much bigger. We got much faster at positions that you talk about. One of the guys I’m really excited about in that class, Damel Hickman, probably one of the fastest guys in the class, 4.38 to 4.42 (seconds/40 yards) speed. I’m really, really, really excited about him at the corner position, but also we were able to go into the junior college ranks, a little bit less than we have before, and pull out two big-time corners, Warren Saba and Mike Witherspoon. We’ve been blessed to get those guys to come in here.
“Our speed at linebacker is probably the most impressive thing that we were able to recruit. Whether it was Gerard Stringer or Jireh Wilson or Xavier Smith. A kid that we wanted the whole time is a linebacker/safety, but we had to be really strategic in the way that we went about getting him was Khalil Barrett (Havelock). A lot of things that were happening was when I was going into schools and had people seeing me in schools or hearing that I was in schools, then the influx of Power Five schools were coming in right behind me to offer those kids to slow the process down. We started being a little more stealth in the things that we did. We were able to get Khalil Barrett here.”
Of ECU’s 19 signees, 13 of them are projected as defensive players.
“At our defensive end and defensive line position, we got some speed,” Montgomery said. “Chandler Medeiros is another one of those kids. D’Angelo McKinnie, another one of those kids.
“Both sides of the ball in the trenches, we got a lot better, but speed, speed, speed in this class and it’s highlighted once again by a big-time quarterback.”
Early signing period
Montgomery had expressed his reservations previously about the early signing date. Although the Pirates adjusted, he doesn’t know how well the new time frame will be accepted.
“I don’t know if it’s here to stay,” Montgomery said. “I just think there’s a whole ot going on. A lot of people found out [Wednesday] morning throughout the country. We recruited character and kids have done what they said they were going to do. A lot of people are finding out this morning that a lot of kids are not going to sign in this early signing period, which kind of shocked me.
“So I don’t know the answer if it’s here to stay. I will say, because of the young men that we have, I’m very pleased. We still have a few spots left that we can go out and get some things in February with but we wanted to come into this part of the class with at least 85 to 90 percent of the class done. A lot of people said they were going to be able to do it, but this morning, you wake up, and you see guys only able to sign 50 to 60 to 70 percent of their class. You know what they’re going through in this early signing period versus the [traditional] signing period. We really saw this as national signing day. That’s why all the kids we had committed as of yesterday, they signed.
“That’s a big, big, big deal. That lets you know that there is no questioning. They’re not going back into the process. They are Pirates and Pirate Nation means a lot to them. For us, we feel really, really happy about it right now. Some other people, they probably feel like this is a tough situation. They’ve got to go right back on the road in January and try to finish half of their class, which kind of stops you from getting to the next part of the process. The next part of the process is making sure we do a great job in North Carolina in 2019.
“This class, from North Carolina, we signed 13 kids. You start adding up the years combined with what we’ve been able to do in this state, the type of players we’re getting from this state, two years in a row where we’re getting the top quarterback. We’re starting to stack some great players and some great talent. For us, it worked out really, really well.”
ECU may add a running back in the current signing period. The Pirates also expect to bring in some personnel at the traditional signing date, the first Wednesday in February.
“We knew that we were going to be in some position battles for some guys who were going to sign that’s not going to sign,” Montgomery said. “There are a few more things that are going on today at the running back position. There’s a few guys out there right now that we really, really want. We’re competing with a lot of guys. I kept a couple of them quiet. One of them has probably been a little more out in the public just because we want to be able to have somebody out there.
“Strategically, you’ve still got to be recruiting some other people that people don’t know about. Hopefully, we’ll get one of those situations completely tied up by the time February comes. And then, we’re just going to go with best available, almost like an NFL draft. We’re going to get back out and they’ll be maybe one or two spots in February. We’ll do a good job of making sure we do that. We’re not looking to make any splashes.
“We want solid grade people, know a lot about their families. I didn’t let coaches go see a lot of new people this offseason because I didn’t want anybody to come in that I didn’t know something about previous to this point. Everybody on this sheet of paper at this point in time — all of our guys that have signed at this point — I’ve been in front of them. I’ve been around them. They’ve been on campus. We’ve really built a great relationship with all these kids. That’s the biggest point of our kids not going elsewhere and staying here or not telling me this morning that, ‘Coach, you know what? We’re just going to slow the process down and we’re going to sign later.'”
Plan for Ahlers
Montgomery didn’t rule out the possibility that Ahlers won’t be redshirted. The left-hander will enroll in January.
“The first part of the plan is spring ball,” Montgomery said. “He comes here in a couple of weeks. We know that his aptitude is already there. I’ve had him in camp, worked with him really tightly in camp a couple of years. I’ve had a chance to be around him a lot more with some of the new rules connected to the grant-in-aid.
“There’s a lot of things that come with familiarity with him. Spring ball, we’ll give him a chance to play. I’m not going to hold him back from spring ball. Sometimes, we don’t give guys that quick the ability to play. We’re going to give him a chance to play, but playing college football is really, really tough. There’s a lot on him, but if he’s super talented, and we think that he is, and he comes in and does his job, we’re going to try to give him the ability to go out and compete just like anybody else would if they came in despite the position that he’s coming in at. Really think this kid is special.”
Former Pirate player and coach Kirk Doll has returned to ECU along with new defensive coordinator David Blackwell. Doll will serve as special teams coordinator, allowing Shannon Moore to focus on tight ends and new duties as recruiting coordinator.
“This wasn’t about winning a press conference or anything,” Montgomery said. “This is about winning games. I really felt like we brought in the best defensive coordinator in the country. I have been tracking him for a little while and the research that I had been able to put together, when everybody else was talking about this and talking about that, I was simply working to try to put together the best staff that we could put together at this point in time. What you learn is that there are a lot of learning lessons that you go through as a coach. What thing I wanted was people that really, really wanted to be here and that is exactly who both of those coaches are, whether it’s David or whether it’s Kirk. Those are guys that I really respect, not only on the field but off the field. But it’s about winning games and I want to give our guys the best opportunity to win games. That’s what both of these guys are about.
“I’ve had extensive conversations and meetings and different deals with them to make sure that we’re all on the same page and what I expect to get done here quickly. It’s been a blessing to have those two coaches join our staff.”
Spring practice earlier
ECU has moved up its dates for spring practice.
“Spring ball [starts] Feb. 19,” Montgomery said. “The spring game is the last week in March. We’re rolling. We’re trying to make sure our guys get a little bit of continuation of football. With a new defensive coordinator coming in, it gives us the ability now to even get our install done earlier so we’ve got more time during the summer for football. We’re getting much more football than we would normally get. . . . On the back side of it, we wanted to make sure if there are any dings or bumps and bruises, now we'[re putting more time between the end of spring ball and the start of camp, a very critical camp that we’re going to have. We’ve put a lot of thought into it and given our kids the chance to play as much football as they can before we get to camp.”
State of the program
The Pirates want to be involved in a bowl game at this time in 2018.
“Obviously, that’s the case,” Montgomery said. “I thought that we were in a good position against Cincinnati moving forward and I think we ran into a really, really good football team. No excuses for that outcome (70-13 season-ending loss at Memphis). It gave me the understanding, and I knew before, we needed to add some people that can stay close to people, that can run, like Damel Hickman or Michael Witherspoon. We needed to add some body types, but there was also some speed that we needed to add in our second level of defense with our linebackers. So we knew that coming in and we’ve done that. We have more depth than we had two years ago, which depth wasn’t our problem this year. It was getting our players at the top of the depth chart playing at a better and higher level.
“We know who the teams are in this league. We don’t have a problem talent-wise and playing-wise when we play against certain teams. But now, we’re battling, and I told our coaches, in recruiting I don’t want to be in battles with the people that we’re already beating or the people we can compete with, I want to be in battles with the teams that are beating us. That’s the way you catch up. You’re not going to win every battle. That’s for sure but if you get into these battles and you start winning those battles, that’s the way you catch up to those teams. We had a chance this year to beat Power Five teams on some really good football players because we didn’t give in. We didn’t quit because the relationships that were built there, because of the type of kids that we recruited.
“The state of the program, as far as the talent that we have is in a great place. The next part of it is the science to it all. We’ve really done a good job over the last month or so of trying to make sure we progress in the development of our football team once they’re here. Coach C (Jeff Connors, assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning) and myself, we’ve had a chance to get together and really talk about our nutrition and how it pertains to growing and getting faster and maintaining. I’ve talked to a nutritionist, of course. We’re working on a plan to be able to help some of our guys and moving forward, the science part of it. So we have to aggressively attack it from the other standpoint. That’s the science part of it. Then the t6eaching and coaching. That’s why we had some staff changes and brought in some guys that I really respected the way that they coached. I respected their background and their history. Every phase, the talent, the science behind getting our guys better and the teaching and coaching, we’ve addressed all of them so it’s time for us to start showing all of this together that we don’t get in one week against a Cincinnati or a BYU. … We’ve got start playing on that level on a consistent basis. There has to be kind of a three-pronged attack on what we are now.”
A&T up next
The Pirates will open the 2018 season at home against North Carolina A&T, which went 12-0 in 2017 with a 21-14 win over Grambling in the Celebration Bowl on Saturday.
ECU opened 2017 against James Madison, which won the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision. The Dukes downed the Pirates, 34-14.
Once again, ECU will face a challenge from the upper echelon of the FCS.
“Our challenge is right in front of us,” Montgomery said. “We’ll be ready to play that football game. I think a lot of it has to do with our changes. Not only our changes in staff, but we’ve got more kids in the building now. We have an understanding of what the process is. We’ll be ready to play that football game. It is going to be a challenging game. Coach Broad (A&T coach Rod Broadway), he’s done a great job with that football team. When it’s that time to play again, we’ll be running out with a little bit of a different football team, a different mentality than we did last year and knowing a lot more about our football club. We’re really fired-up to open.
“As far as deja vu, the only thing that’s deja vu about it is just the fact that we’re dealing with two champions. We’re going to play well and we’re going to be ready to go when we come out of the tunnel.”
ECU sent out ceremonial letters of intent on treated paper as a keepsake for recruits.
“We’re on the cutting edge here in everything that we’re doing, our innovation, because we’re trying to make sure we cross all the Ts and dot the Is” Montgomery said. “So. collectively with Ethan (Johnson, director of player personnel) and his entire staff, what we literally have to do is we have a special printing paper that we print the mock NLI on. We literally stain it. The process is unbelievable. We stain each one individually with a sponge and coffee. It has to dry, sponge and coffee, then it has to dry. It takes forever to get this done. Then we go back and take some smoldering kind of fire and we burn the edges all around. kind of still having to damp it and do everything.
“That process takes such a long time with the attention to detail that we’ve got to have. It’s a really, really good job by our entire recruiting department. It’s just been fantastic. I challenge these guys to always be on the cutting edge and I’ll come up with ideas, just out of the blue. . . . It’s not something that we’re mass producing. We’re producing these letters in the building one page at a time.”
The finished product has the texture of a Blackbeard treasure map.