Coach Scottie Montgomery established Gardner Minshew as East Carolina’s starting quarterback at the beginning of spring practice last month.
But it was hardly a ringing endorsement.
“Guys will have the opportunity,” Montgomery said. “I think we have talent at that position to give it some competition. But right now it’s Gardner.”
In essence, the second-year Pirates coach was saying that Gardner is his man, at least until someone else comes along and beats him out.
That doesn’t appear to have happened thus far into the spring as redshirt freshman Reid Herring and early arrival Kingsley Ifedi are still lagging behind the only quarterback on the roster with actual game experience.
At the same time, though, there’s reason to believe that Montgomery and his staff still aren’t completely sold on Minshew, either. Why else would they feel the need to dip into college football’s version of the free agent market and bring in graduate transfer Thomas Sirk?
You don’t add a player with only one year of eligibility remaining — especially when that player is in his sixth year of eligibility — without at least a tacit understanding that he’ll have an opportunity to start.
That’s especially true in Sirk’s case, since he and his new coach already have a history together from their days at Duke.
With Montgomery calling the plays as offensive coordinator in 2015, Sirk led the Blue Devils to eight wins. Among those conquests were a four-overtime triumph at Virginia Tech and a come-from-behind overtime victory against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl in which Sirk earned co-MVP honors by throwing for 163 yards and rushing for 155 while accounting for three touchdowns.
Because of that experience, along with his knowledge of Montgomery’s system and terminology, Sirk figures to pick things up quickly and be ready to play almost immediately even though he won’t arrive on campus until summer.
That arrival, however, does not come without its baggage.
For one thing, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Florida native isn’t a particularly accurate passer, as his .588 percentage in his only season as a starter suggests. That’s a stark contrast to Philip Nelson, who for all he was or wasn’t, connected on 67.9 percent of his passes in 2016.
Sirk’s average of 6.1 yards per completion also raises questions about his ability to throw the ball downfield.
Then there’s the issue of his health.
Sirk missed the entire 2013 season because of a torn Achilles tendon in his right foot, then tore his left Achilles while doing offseason conditioning work in February 2016. After rehabbing all spring and summer, he suffered the injury again just before the start of last season.
Besides ECU, he also visited South Carolina and Southern Mississippi. Because he has already earned his undergraduate degree from Duke, he is eligible to play for the Pirates immediately.
Sirk was given a medical hardship and awarded a sixth year by the NCAA, but because of the success attained by his replacement at Duke — freshman Daniel Jones — Sirk decided to go elsewhere to finish his career.
His medical history makes him a risk, but it’s a risk worth taking.
At his best and healthy, Sirk gives the Pirates a dual-threat talent with a pre-existing knowledge of the offense and a proven track record of playing and winning against top teams in difficult environments. He’s someone who could be an effective one-year stopgap while either Herring or Ifedi gets the added seasoning needed to take over in 2018.
It’s a role Minshew, a former junior college transfer who played seven games with one start in his first season at ECU last fall, could also be called upon to fill should Sirk fall victim to another injury or ineffectiveness.
Either way, it’s never a bad thing to have an insurance policy around for protection.
Whether Sirk is the insurance for an already named starter with limited experience or Minshew is the insurance for an injury-prone newcomer doesn’t really matter. Regardless of how the situation shakes out come fall, the Pirates are in a better place at quarterback now than they were when spring practice began a few weeks ago.