East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery has taken a different approach to spring practice this year. Better personnel, staff additions and a new scheme on defense are other factors that should help the Pirates improve.
The Pirates won Montgomery’s debut last season, 52-7, over Western Carolina and topped N.C. State 33-30 the following week.
ECU ended a five-game losing streak with a 41-3 homecoming win over Connecticut before dropping its last four games.
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The Pirates went 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference. After a season-ending 37-10 loss at Temple, Montgomery vowed that ECU would not go through such a disappointing season again.
The approach in spring has been designed to accentuate improvement.
“It’s been a great spring for us,” Montgomery said. “If you talk to our coaches, they’ll probably say it’s been one of the more physical springs that they’ve ever been a part of.
“I felt like we needed to play more football and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do this spring. We had a great emphasis in the first six practices on fundamentals. Since then, we’ve concentrated on trying to put our best product on the field with all 11 against 11 whether it was special teams or offense or defense.
“We’ve seen some guys make some serious moves. [Senior receiver] Jimmy Williams has probably had the best spring of any spring I’ve been a part of to this time. I just think he’s worked his butt off and done the things that we’ve asked him to do. He has really started becoming the type of leader that this team can rely on all over the place. . . . Gardner Minshew has had a great spring and it helps when you have all those weapons that he has. Our offensive line has continued to grow. Our backfield is a backfield that has had a lot of upward movement by everybody. Jason Nichols, having him on the staff, has been very, very helpful to our running back position. They respect him. They’re working their butt off for him every day.
“Everybody has made huge strides. . . . Keith Gaither has stepped in there and really done a good job with those receivers, bringing those guys that were second teamers into the fold and being first teamers and playing a lot more so we’ve seen a lot of development in that room as well.
“Defensively, Coach [Kenwick] Thompson (defensive coordinator) has really done a good job of getting to what I really wanted to get to before but a lack of defensive linemen kind of hurt us from doing it. Speaking of defensive linemen and getting to four-down scheme, I couldn’t be prouder of Robert Prunty right now and the way he has developed the defensive line. They’re playing really well right now, at a high level. The biggest reason I think they’re playing well — they have so many bodies. The other part of it is that they’ve got more bodies coming to them. They’ve got three more huge bodies coming to them here in a few months. We’re really, really excited about our defensive front.
“At the linebacker position, Aaron Ramseur has jumped off the screen. He’s been the guy. We knew he was going to flash. We didn’t know how good he would be but he’s done a great job for us. . . . We redshirted him last year. A lot of us thought that we should play him last year but we knew that he wasn’t quite ready. We knew that he would be a special teams monster. We’ve been really, really happy with him. He’s created a lot of big plays. He’s had touchdowns on defense. We’re excited about his development but he still has a long way to go. . . . Jordan (Williams) has just been solid all around, getting guys lined up. We’ve also had a huge boost from Joe Carter and Cannon Gibbs, those guys coming in and working with our linebackers have been great. Ray Tillman has done a good job of understanding our scheme. This scheme that we’re changing to probably benefits Ray Tillman more than any other player on our defense.
“In the secondary, Tim Irvin has had a fantastic spring, along with Bobby Fulp. Those two guys in the back end, settling everything down. We’ve got an eraser and we’ve got a tackler. It’s good to see those guys back there together. Our defensive secondary is not only an older group but I feel like they’re a little bit more talented than maybe they have been with guys getting more experience on the football field.”
Spring emphasis has changed
The ECU coaches have a better grasp of personnel and their capabilities this year compared to a year ago.
“Last spring, we were coaching culture so hard,” Montgomery said. “We really feel if you change the culture, you change the game so we coach culture so hard. It was all the time. We spent so much time coaching our culture and trying to get it implemented, getting guys to understand what we want and how we wanted it. They were learning so much of culture that I think we had to sprinkle in football as hard as we could with all the culture being coached. The biggest difference is we’re getting to coach football, teach football. Our kids already understand the scheme and they understand what we want so we’re getting a lot more time to be able to spend on just football.
“And then, our personnel. We know where to put guys. You don’t really know coming out of spring. I don’t think you know how to really use your players until you come out of the second or third football game of the year. That’s barring injuries. You still know how to use them but other guys get hurt, you have to use them a certain way. . . . We feel really good about our personnel. Offensively, I think what we’re seeing on offense is we’re doing a great job right now of just communicating without saying a word. That’s when you start taking the next steps in your program, especially on offense. Our quarterback now, and our receivers and our running backs, even our offensive line, the nonverbal communication that we have has kind of grown to a point of where it took us a lot longer at other places that I’ve been at to get to where we are.
“I think there’s a certain hunger that goes with being 3-9 and everybody feels that, not just the coaches or just the players or the administration. There’s a great amount of stress that goes with being 3-9. Our kids, they stayed calm and they really have done a great job this spring.”
No comment on Sirk
Although former starting Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk has announced his intentions to join the Pirates as a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility, Montgomery said he could not comment on the situation. Sirk has not signed with ECU and is not presently enrolled. So mum’s the word from Montgomery in accordance with NCAA regulations.
Montgomery said it does appear there will be quarterback competition in preseason camp. Gardner Minshew, who completed 119 of 202 passes last season for 1,347 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions, has the quarterback job for the moment.
“Right now, we’ve been very honest with Gardner as it pertains to how he’s playing,” Montgomery said. “He’s doing really, really well. There will be competition, no question, at the quarterback position coming into the fall. He’s our starter at this point in time. He’s done a fantastic job. I’ll also be very honest. I think Reid (Herring, redshirt freshman) has done a good job but there is a gap between Gardner and Reid.
“Gardner has separated himself from Reid, even though Reid has played really well at times because Gardner has played at a high level. All of our receivers and our offensive line and our backs will tell you that they feel comfortable — really, really comfortable with not only Reid but with Gardner and they feel they can communicate with them in a manner that everybody understands. There was so much newness last year. There were guys that wanted to communicate on the field but they hadn’t quite gotten to the point of being able to do that. Reid and Gardner give us the ability to do that. We do think that the quarterback position will be one of our strong suits when we get to the fall. We feel really strongly about the quarterback position as it pertains to being productive this year.”
Depth on offensive line
Additions on the defensive line and the shift to a 4-2-5 scheme from a three-man front have gotten a lot of attention after the Pirates managed just eight sacks for the season.
The offensive line should have significantly more depth this season.
“There’s been several things that we’ve done,” Montgomery said. “Garrett McGhin has moved over to the center position. A huge boost there because we lost J.T. [Boyd]. So we’re getting a huge boost at one of the most prominent spots on the offensive front at the center position in a 6-foot-5, 300-pound guy that used to be a baseball player, who is tremendously athletic. We think that improves our football team.
“On the perimeter at tackle, we still have Messiah [Rice] and Brandon [Smith] back. We’re really impressed with Des Barmore and the way that he’s grown. He’s another big man that’s going to be playing guard for us. We have Cortez Herrin that will be able to play this year. We just got him in the fold last year. We’ve been really, really impressed the last few days with D’Ante Smith. We feel that if he’s healthy, he can potentially be a guy — I don’t like to talk about them too early — but he could potentially be a guy that could play this sport for a long, long, long, long time. … We have Justin Sandifer that can continue to be a swing. We also have Matthew Morgan (true freshman January enrollee), who has come in at the halfway point that’s been really, really helpful. Branden Pena has been a great back-up at center for us so far. I think come fall we’re going to be able to field three teams at the offensive line, which is unusual. A bright spot for our team is being able to go into the junior college ranks and evaluate the position and make sure that we get better but not over-sign. We’ve been able to bring in a good, young player from junior college (Dqmarcus Shaw) to help us as well.
“We can play some fresh guys. We also want to be able to play the best guys that can play the best at the time. What we do have enables some flexibility with our inside and outside guys — to be able to have four tackles and have four guards and have a couple or three centers. The biggest thing with that is now you’ve got competition. I don’t think we had any competition last year. With guys redshirting and guys not being available to play for one reason or another, I don’t think we had a tremendous amount of competition. Now, you can’t have a bad day. Everybody knows that. You can’t have a bad series even because there’s a guy looking over your shoulder. That’s not to say we’re going to snatch guys for giving up a sack. It just means that there is an emphasis on competition and people want to get on the field. That’s always great.”
Running backs abound
There is significant competition among a fleet of running backs.
“It’s so even,” Montgomery said. “We have two young players coming in (Trace Christian and Darius Pinnix) that we think are going to be great players.
“We’ve seen some great improvement from Derrell Scott. We’ve seen great improvement from Devin Anderson. We’ve seen great improvement from Hussein Howe. We’ve seen great improvement from Anthony Scott. It’s a really, really deep group. We’re going to be in camp and we’re going to have six backs on scholarship. That’s completely different than what we’ve been. . . .
“We’re going to have four quarterbacks on scholarship, likely by the time camp gets here. That group (running backs) is going to be a group driven by the freshest man carries the ball it looks like. Then the man that gets hot is going to continue to carry the football. I can’t necessarily say that we felt that way going into last camp. There’s still a long way to go. There’s still a lot of scrimmaging to get done. We will rely heavily on the person that can maintain possession of the football after every snap. We plan to make sure we put the best player on the field from that standpoint.
“These guys are competing. I think they that know they’re competing against each other. There’s a little bit of competitive nature and edge against each other right now. I think last year some people kind of fell in line with where they thought they were supposed to be. Now, everybody thinks they have the potential to be the one.”
There have been four additions/replacements on the coaching staff.
“The chemistry on offense has been great but it’s really, really good now,” Montgomery said. “I think by adding Jason (Nichols, running backs coach), who bleeds purple, and then adding Keith (Gaither, wide receivers coach), who is a North Carolinian, with Tony (Petersen, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) and Geep (Wade, offensive line coach) and Shannon (Moore, special teams coordinator and tight ends coach), their chemistry is just fantastic. I like it. They jumped in there. Keith and Jason did a great job. I didn’t know if they could at the time that we hired them but they learned the system so fast because they were over here all times of the night. . . . The offensive staff, they go to each other’s house and talk ball. You just get really, really close.
“Adding Robert Prunty on the defensive side as our associate head coach and defensive line coach just drew our team together defensively. I think it was great for Kenwick (Thompson, defensive coordinator, outside linebackers coach) but I also thought it was great for our young coaches, whether it be Brandon Lynch, who we brought in from Northern Iowa, who we brought in as assistant defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. They know what it’s like to all pull in one direction. All of them are pulling in one direction. We’ve competed well but the thing I’ve probably been most pleased with is the way the offense and defense have really, really come together. They spend a lot of time together and they’re working really hard together. When you first get here, you try to get your foot in the door and you’re just trying to make sure your product is right. Now they’re working so hard to make sure offensively we get to see exactly what we need to see and that defensively we get to see what we need to see.
“Tony and Kenwick working together. Robert Prunty just has this ability to draw everybody together even tighter than we were. They’re having fun. That’s something I can say about the additions to the new staff. A lot of humor in the new staff but a lot of hard coaching and the kids absolutely love them.”
Montgomery was asked what fans might see at the spring game April 22.
“I think they’ll notice our defensive line,” Montgomery said. “I think that will be something that they notice if everyone is healthy enough to be able to play. . . . On offense, I think they’ll see we can turn around and hand the ball off. Another thing they’re going to see, is they’re going to see us get under center. They’re going to see some newness with a fullback added to the mix and two tight ends added to the mix. There are some they’re going to notice. I hope what they notice is that we leave the game extremely healthy. I’ve seen a lot this spring and I know that we’re a better football team than we were last year — and not just over a two- or three- or four-game period. I think if we can maintain our health and we keep the depth that we have right now on both sides of the ball, we’re going to be a good team deep into November and December and whenever else we end up playing.”
ECU opens the season Sept.2 against James Madison, the champions of the Football Championship Subdivision in 2016. That will be the first of seven home games for the Pirates, who have an open date before starting AAC play at home against South Florida on Sept. 30.
“We’re really just concentrating on JMU,” Montgomery said. “That sounds like maybe a cliché but we know that we have to get ready first. . . . We’re going to be well prepared when we get to this year. Last year, there was a lot of guessing and thinking and wondering what was going to happen and who was going to be our animal. This year we’re adding people to the team versus losing people from the team. It’s been a different set of circumstances. As a head coach, I think it’s great that we don’t have any Thursday night games. . . . I think it’s great that we have so many games at home. I think it’s great that the people who have demanding environments to play, we’re only going to a few of those.
“All of the people that we see are formidable opponents. No question about that but we’re focused on the first game on the schedule. The national champions. We’re looking forward to that battle. Our guys, we’re not just hungry or thirsty. We’re prepared to be a lot better football team this year. It’s due to teammates. More teammates and better teammates will make you a better football team.”
Coach Connors’ influence
Physical transformations during an offseason of lifting and conditioning are not unusual at East Carolina. That process will continue.
“Coach C (Jeff Connors, assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning) and our team are as close this year as I’ve heard them ever be,” Montgomery said. “I think it’s because of the willingness from our players and our staff and Coach C to be the absolute best. Our kids aren’t fighting it by any means. It’s been the best spring of lifting and running that we could possibly have. With a lot of people there’s been a lot of growth. Some body types have changed a whole lot from last year to this year.”