GREENVILLE — Scrimmages such as East Carolina’s Purple-Gold game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday are difficult to evaluate. If the offense looks good, that raises concerns about the defense and vice-versa.
The spring display ended in a tie at 17, which indicates that the first unit offense, which went against the No. 1 defensive unit, is even with the second unit offense, which faced the second team defense, in terms of relative productivity.
Gardner Minshew quarterbacked the Purple or No. 1 offense. Reid Herring directed the Gold, the second unit offense.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the afternoon was that the Pirates made some effective adjustments during the session on Bagwell Field. There were areas that showed progress from last year, too.
The Gold had the first two scores for a 14-0 lead and the Purple had two early turnovers on an interception by Corey Seargent and a fumble recovery by Jalen Price.
“The one thing I wanted to see was the turnovers go away in the second half,” said ECU coach Scottie Montgomery. “Of course, they did.”
The Gold TDs came on a 2-yard pass from Herring to Malik Gray and a 27-yard run by Tennessee transfer Derrell Scott of Havelock.
Montgomery saw results from efforts to upgrade defensively from a unit that produced just eight sacks during the course of the 2016 season when the Pirates were 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference.
There were 12 tackles for loss and four sacks on Saturday. Defensive tackle Justin Brown, a junior from Ayden-Grifton, had three TFLs and a pair of sacks.
“Defensively, up front, for the first time since I’ve been here, I saw true pressure applied to the quarterback so that made me happy,” Montgomery said.
The Pirates have installed a 4-2-5 scheme defensively but also played some three-man front, which they utilized last year.
“In this league and in football today, you’ve got to be able to affect the quarterback,” said defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson. “Getting into a four-man front allows us to get more people at the quarterback.”
The schematic change has been facilitated by the addition of more down linemen. More defensive personnel will be arriving shortly.
“It’s about getting our best players on the field and putting them in positions to be successful,” Thompson said of the alignment tweaks. “We added six guys at semester that came in and have added to the defense. They’ve had to learn on the job. . . . We feel like here at the end (of spring), we could see some of that improvement. We have about six more players coming in the summer that we feel like can contribute also.”
The Purple came back to tie the score at 14 as Minshew found Jimmy Williams on a 36-yard strike and Quay Johnson for an 18-yard touchdown.
Johnson, who had seven catches for 105 yards, scored with 1:17 left in the half. Herring then drove the Gold for a 43-yard field goal by Jake Verity with four seconds showing.
Verity and Caleb Pratt did the placekicking. Pratt hit a tying 32-yard field goal with 2:06 left in the third quarter. Verity also punted, averaging 36.3 yards on six boots.
The two defensive units yielded just three points after the break in the Murphy Center.
The offenses totaled 607 yards on 99 snaps.
“We had a really good spring,” said offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. “Today, there was some good stuff. There was some disappointing stuff. We had two turnovers. We’ve talked about that a lot. We had multiple sacks out there early in the first half. We had a penalty that hurt us on a long touchdown and we just didn’t hit the big plays. We had some big opportunities, one-on-ones, and Gardner was a little off today. We just didn’t give the receivers a chance and that usually makes a difference.
“We had opportunities to score more. I would have liked to have gotten more points. . . . We made some mistakes and we didn’t take advantage of the plays we had out there. They were there to be taken. We just didn’t do it.”
Tahj Deans was one of Herring’s top targets with five catches for 98 yards. Williams had four receptions for 71 yards. Davon Grayson made five catches for 53 yards. Deondre Farrier’s four grabs accounted for 23 yards. Although record-setting Zay Jones has left the program, Montgomery is not concerned about the depth or talent in the receiver room.
Hussein Howe ran 10 times for 92 yards for the Gold. Derrell Scott had five carries for 51 yards for the Gold.
“We’ve got to be able to run the football,” Petersen said. “We’ve got to be able to control it at times. It hurt us last year.”
ECU averaged 132.4 yards rushing last season. James Summers, who averaged 72.4 yards per game on the ground, is gone. Opponents averaged 228.5 yards rushing in 2016.
“We’re going to be better,” Petersen said of the run game. “We’re better up front right now. We’ll be better when the fall comes also. We’ll be able to run the ball better. Quarterbacks are making good decisions in the running game and in our offense, we have to be able to do that.”
True freshman quarterback Kingsley Ifedi ran four times for 16 yards late in the scrimmage.
Minshew completed 21 of 36 for 265 yards with two TDs and one pick. Herring connected on 13 of 17 tosses for 138 yards with one score.
Just four penalties on the day would have to be taken as a positive sign.
“We’ve got some things to clean up in our passing game,” Montgomery said.
The program has progressed to the point where players have a better grasp of systems and can take execution to a higher level.
Personnel is deeper, better developed and generally more talented than during Montgomery’s first season.
Despite forecasts calling for the possibility of rain, the weather was exceptional. From appearances on Saturday, the Pirates may surpass expectations, too.
There’s work to do but time to do it and more resources to get it done.