East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery and staff began figuring out personnel needs during spring ball in 2016. The Pirates looked to have made significant strides in needed areas as the 2017 recruiting class was announced Wednesday.
Depth and talent on the offensive and defensive fronts were priorities after ECU went 3-9 overall last season and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference.
The Pirates may have attracted sufficient talent on the defensive line to go from a three-man to four-man front. More pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be an objective after ECU had just eight sacks last season.
New coaching staff addition, defensive line coach Robert Prunty, can be a big help to new secondary coach Brandon Lynch if the front can reduce the time the defensive backs have to cover receivers.
The Pirate class is ranked No. 6 among 12 teams in the AAC by 247 Sports, but it’s No. 1 at ECU, because glaring needs were addressed.
There are stars to be sure among the signees, but remember that Justin Hardy was just a walk-on at the outset for the Pirates and he has contributed to Atlanta’s run to the Super Bowl. Zay Jones, who set Football Bowl Subdivision receiving records last season, was not an acclaimed recruit. He had only one offer — from ECU.
Former Pirates coach Steve Logan always cited a disclaimer on signing day.
“I’ll tell you how good they are in four or five years,” Logan would say.
Montgomery didn’t overly hype the newcomers after thanking supporters who enabled the talent search after the season ended Nov. 26 with a 37-10 loss at Temple.
“I don’t need to sell these guys,” Montgomery said. “Just turn on the tape. These are the type players that you need to transition a program from one place to the next and that’s exactly what we did. We’re really, really happy with that we’ve been able to get so many playmakers, as many playmakers as we did.”
Safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson had offers from Alabama and Clemson among others, but the elite schools backed off apparently as Robinson navigated through some academic issues. He’s good to go and he expressed his appreciation for ECU’s continued interest with a national signing letter fax.
Kingsley Ifedi is an intriguing run-throw quarterback who orchestrated a deep 4-AA playoff run by Charlotte Vance in 2016. Trace Christian and Darius Pinnix are big running backs. Every member of the class has a story and Montgomery spoke briefly about all the signees from the defensive meeting room in the Ward Sports Medicine Building after the group was officially announced.
Receiver Blake Proehl has proven genes. His dad, Ricky, played on Super Bowl champions with the St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts. He played and coached for NFC champions with the Carolina Panthers. The younger Proehl remained a Pirate on Wednesday despite late overtures from Virginia Tech.
The ECU staff was tickled to get defensive lineman Kennan Solomon on Tuesday.
Ten of the signees are already enrolled. The Pirates are bringing in 11 players on each side of the ball.
If there was a downside to the day, it was the imminent departure of wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, who apparently got a lucrative offer from the Buffalo Bills and will return to the NFL.
Further evaluations in spring ball
The signees already at ECU include freshman defensive lineman Taijh Alston, freshman wide receiver Jayden Borders, junior college linebacker Cannon Gibbs, freshman wide receiver Leroy Henley, junior college defensive back Marcus Holton Jr., Ifedi, freshman offensive lineman Matt Morgan, freshman linebacker Ben Norris, junior college offensive lineman Dqmarcus Shaw and sophomore tight end Eric Weber, another juco transfer.
“The early enrollees do get the benefit of being evaluated and being able to know exactly where they should go as we move forward,” Montgomery said. “A lot of times, when you come in at this point in time, you get that advantage over everybody else. The bigger advantage for those early enrollees is that get to be around their teammates. They get a chance to jell with their teammates. They get a chance to come in and compete socially with their teammates. That’s really important. I like that part of it.
“I like the fact they’re in winter conditioning, physically getting stronger with their teammates so when they do get to the evaluation point, we’re not evaluating a kid the same way that we evaluated one out of fall camp because they’re coming in and they’re going right into football. They’re getting Coach C’s (Jeff Connors) best right now so they’re building strength, they’re building size, they’re building character, they’re building attitude and by the time we get to football, they’ll be much better than they were when they came in.”
Montgomery more settled
Montgomery took the ECU job in 2015 like a handoff on a reverse. He helped Duke win the Pinstripe Bowl while putting together a coaching staff for the Pirates and working to keep recruits from the previous ECU staff.
It was hardly a transition recipe for success. Numerous other AAC programs will be dealing with coaching transitions this year.
“Last year, just starting from the beginning, you talk about recruiting, we had to keep together a class that all of us didn’t know as well,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t know them athletically as well. We looked at tape for two or three weeks and we had to go sign them.
“Then we come into a team where we don’t know everything about the team. We really learned a lot about our team in the spring. That’s why our class is reflective of what it is. Spring is what told us that we had some issues. Coming out of spring ball, we knew we had some depth issues. We had some size issues.
“We also knew we had some really good players and, unfortunately, we ran some of those players into the ground in game one, in game two, in game three and in game four. We did it. That was the way we had to do to win those games or to compete in those games. We had to play those people like that.”
Montgomery gains experience
Montgomery has been through a yearly cycle as head coach and that experience will be beneficial. The personnel additions have great potential value. Good players make good coaches.
“So now I know that we’re going to have some of that help,” Montgomery said. “I am more confident in that. I also know our staff and some of our staff needs, and how it pertains to the offensive line or the defensive line or receiver or running back, linebacker and how everybody is going to work together so there’s so much more knowledge that I have now than I had last year.
“If you go back and look at some of the greatest transitions, the gains between [years] one and two happen because of the kids and the knowledge that they have of what you’re doing. Our kids are starting to really understand. For instance, last year we had several tardies or several absences at this time — three to four weeks in [the semester]. At this time [this semester], I’ve hardly seen anything whatsoever. We just don’t see lists [of class absences], the way we used to see lists a year ago. That’s kind of where we are now. That settles me and gives me more confidence and I know what we have coming in.”
The players faced an adjustment with the coaching transition.
“The players know more about what to expect,” Montgomery said. “I think it was a shock to their system at certain times. Now, it’s almost like they’re programmed to do what they need to do to be successful. Not to say anything was done a certain, different way. It was just different, not saying it was bad. It was just different than the way we do it. The guys get it.
“We’ve had some great work by some of our guys. The most impressive guy at this point and I’ll throw him some sugar is Yiannis Bowden (outside linebacker), the way he’s worked. He’s gained about 15 pounds. He’s been where he’s supposed to be. His name hasn’t been on any lists. Those are the things that you judge your program by.
“We’ve already made huge gains from last year at this time to this year.”
Defensive tweak possible
Incoming athletes may allow ECU to switch from a three- to four-front defense
“That’s in the analytical phase,” Montgomery said. “That is a great possibility. We are trying to create more of a pass rush.”
Montgomery evaluated a number of program factors at the end of the 2016 calendar year.
“That’s what December was about and it was a great December because of that,” said the Pirates coach. “It was a very important month for our program. I had a chance to be away from everybody and look at what we needed to do. . . . Now I know our personnel as well as anybody that coaches their personnel. We know our personnel and we’re going to do what’s best for our program.”
The Pirates had hoped to redshirt quarterback Gardner Minshew last season but Philip Nelson’s concussion issues forced Minshew into action.
Minshew played in seven games, completing 119 of 202 passes for 1,347 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
“We think Gardner has done a great, great job of understanding the offense,” Montgomery said. “He only got here in June. He got here then and helped us in some games, basically as a true freshman even though he had some experience elsewhere (Northwest Mississippi Community College). He was a true freshman for us. He’s a natural leader. We think he has a chance to continue to lead the team in the way that we want it to go. He’s just a great competitor, a great arm, great pocket presence. He can throw the ball. He’s not afraid to step up in the pocket. He’s the only guy we’ve had with significant playing time.”
Reid Herring redshirted last season.
“Reid Herring is a football player here locally, from Raleigh,” Montgomery said. “The sky’s the limit for this kid. We’re going to continue to work him in this spring. He had a fantastic fall. The only scrimmage he was in, he threw for two or three touchdowns, 170 yards, very few incompletions, in last fall’s camp. So we’re really happy about him. We have something called Hollywood at the end of every practice. We call it Hollywood because that’s where all the new stars are born. We let our young players play against each other in a scrimmage format without tackling. . . . Every day, Reid is the star of that so we’re really happy about Reid.”
Ifedi has the potential to put pressure on opposing defenses with his feet or his arm.
“We’ll find out about Kingsley, and where he is and his development,” Montgomery said.
Duke played more than one quarterback when Montgomery was offensive coordinator for the Blue Devils.
“We manipulated it,” Montgomery said. “We were always trying to get the extra number. . . . That’s one of the ways that we did it. The biggest thing is that they’ve got to have the ability to truly throw it. We’ve had guys that can truly throw it and I think we’ve got some of those type of bodies on our team.”
ECU averaged 132.4 yards per game rushing last season. James Summers accounted for 915 of the team’s 1,926 yards on the ground as a senior.
The first thing we’ve got to do, we’ve got to establish an identity,” Montgomery said. “We struggled to establish an identity even though we had some great games running the football. I think we’re going to hang our hat on a few things. Sometimes your back helps you establish your identity. We know our backs. We know who guys are now. I’ve given some certain backs some things that I want them to do — lose 10 pounds, lose 12 pounds.
“I think we’ve got a guy who’s going to kind of come out of some stuff this year. I’ll leave it at that, but I just think he’s changed his body type. When he came out of high school, he was a certain body type. Then he went to college and gained weight. It changed his style. He was more upright. Now he’s lost that weight back and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
It seemed that Montgomery was talking about Derrell Scott, a Havelock product who gained 40 yards on 11 carries as a freshman at Tennessee in 2014.
“I don’t want to put him out there too bad,” Montgomery said. “I like what I see. I went to him and asked him to lose 12 pounds. The next time I saw him, he was 12 pounds lighter. He’s been great in winter conditioning.”
Objectives in spring
Spring practice will culminate with the Purple-Gold game on April 22. Montgomery will approach the offseason developmental phase with several goals.
“I want to know that we can run two defensive fronts out there and two offensive fronts out there on two separate fields and it be a physical battle,” Montgomery said. “We can have two fronts, ones and twos or ones and 1-As and we can come out of there knowing that we can run the ball and we can stop the run.
“The other thing, I want to see the people that are just getting here create some pass rush opportunities without anybody coming from the secondary on defense.
“Offensively, I really want to establish one or two runs that we can hang our hat on and we’re going to do that.”
Leading off with defending champs
James Madison will be ECU’s season-opening opponent on Sept. 2. The Dukes defeated Youngstown State 28-14 for the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision title.
Former Pirate assistant Donnie Kirkpatrick is offensive coordinator for the Dukes, who return quarterback Bryan Schor. JMU has added Georgia Tech transfer running back Marcus Marshall, who gained 1,278 yards in two seasons for the Yellow Jackets.
“Great team,” Montgomery said. ” . . . They’ve done a great job. We’ll be ready to play. There’s no question about that. We’ve addressed a lot of our issues and our needs. We’ve got a lot of work to do to go and have a chance to play against a national champion. We’re going to do a lot of work between now and then. We’re going to work. We’re not a national champion. We’re going to work to get our team exactly where it’s supposed to be.
“Our guys, they hear. They hear the rumblings. They hear everything — who you’re playing and where you’re playing. They get that. They understand it. They’re really, really hungry right now.”
Click the link below to view thumbnail sketches for ECU’s recruiting class of 2017.