The adjustments began almost as soon as South Florida’s final efforts to run up the score in a 38-22 win over East Carolina in Tampa on Saturday had failed.
Rain from Hurricane Matthew closed the Raleigh-Durham and Pitt-Greenville airports with the Pirates thinking an expedited return home was essential to prepare for a Thursday night home game against Navy.
The Pirates flew to Richmond instead and planned to bus to Greenville from there. That agenda had to be revised as I-95 was closed near the North Carolina-Virginia border.
Lodging was secured and the traveling party had breakfast at a Cracker Barrel before getting back around 12:45 p.m. on Sunday. Some of the Pirate players live in the area of town that called for evacuation and arrangements were made to provide living quarters for them.
More adjustments ensued Monday. With the Tar River still rising, the Navy game was postponed to Nov. 19 when both programs had an open date.
The region is still in danger and the recovery process appears lengthy but ECU is making the best of a bad situation. School has been out this week.
“It’s unfortunate the reason why it’s happening but our team has benefited from it,” Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery said. “What we’ve done is we created basically like an NFL mini-camp over the last three days.
“We’ve added some things to it. We’re into academics, life lessons and we’ve been on the field twice a day. One’s been a walk-through and one’s been a real practice and a lot of meeting time so it’s been really good for us from a football standpoint, but we’ve also had a chance to grow our team a lot closer.”
The first-year Pirates coach is getting some unforeseen bonding time.
“I get a chance to recruit them a little bit [Thursday night],” Montgomery said. “I’m going to stay with them this weekend and make sure they get everything they need while they’re here. We’re going to have some different things going on today and tomorrow — just me and the team.”
The effects of Matthew may be felt in the program five or six years down the road at ECU if the sudden opportunity to influence prospective players is productive.
“The coaches will be out recruiting as of Thursday,” Montgomery said “It’s been a great week to get back to fundamentals but also to get us healthy.
“We haven’t had our whole team together here in a long time. It looks like when we take the field next Saturday, we’re going to have our whole team.”
The Pirates (2-4, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) visit Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3) for a 7 p.m. game Saturday.
ECU senior quarterback Philip Nelson left the game at USF in the third quarter for the second straight week and was replaced by Gardner Minshew.
“He’s doing well,” Montgomery said of Nelson. “Really, really well at this point in time. We look forward to getting him back but also [senior receiver] Zay [Jones] will be back 100 percent healthy. [Nose tackle] Demetri McGill looks like he’ll be back. Both of our corners will be back. We’ll get a linebacker back. We’ll hopefully get one of our offensive linemen back. This is a good time and it just happened right in the middle of the season, rather than have that bye later.”
The Pirates lined up against Power Five conference athletes for three straight weeks and it had a cumulative effect.
“The N.C. State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech games really had a toll on our team,” Montgomery said. “It kind of beat us into a spot where we got guys playing way more reps than they should have been. Last week was really the first week we kind of got back to playing the way we can play with some guys getting back.
“It would have been hard to have been on that short week but we would have been ready to play but this really gives us an opportunity to get our football team back to the level it was when we came out of [preseason] camp. We titled it ‘East Carolina Football Mini-Camp.'”
Receiver-turned-quarterback-turned-running back James Summers had 18 carries for 114 yards against the Bulls as ECU successfully put a renewed emphasis on the ground game.
“I talked to people about getting the ball back to the line of scrimmage a lot more,” said Montgomery, a former Duke player and coordinator. “It’s kind of going back to some of the things we did before at Duke, just getting it back to no tackles for losses. A lot of plays we were getting one yard, zero yards and lost yardage. . . . We’ve been able to self scout ourselves over the last couple of weeks a little bit better. With Phil being banged up the last couple of games, it’s really helpful that our run game is getting rolling.
“If it’s rolling the way that it was rolling this last game and if Phil is back healthy, we feel really good about that part of it.”
The loss of McGill had repercussions all over the field.
“Defensively, the two weeks before we got to the American Conference were so taxing,” Montgomery said. “We had so many bumps and bruises and losing our best player on defense, we think, at the nose guard position weakened us a little bit in our interior so we had to commit more people to the box. Then people could hurt us over the top, throwing the ball over us, so this will give us a chance to play a little bit more coverage and get Demetri back in the middle.”
Special teams also made progress in the USF game as the Bulls got no major returns, Worth Gregory averaged 47 yards per punt and Davis Plowman made three of four field goal attempts. Those factors would have to come under adjustments, too.
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