The announcement of the addition of graduate transfers Thomas Sirk from Duke, Tyshon Dye from Clemson and Gaelin Elmore from Minnesota reinforces coach Scottie Montgomery’s contention that East Carolina won’t back away from anyone in recruiting.
South Carolina came after Sirk, a quarterback, even after he had tweeted his plans to join the Pirates. Miami of the ACC sought the services of Dye, a running back. It came down to ECU and Arizona for Elmore, a defensive end.
Several factors have enabled the Pirates to snatch some valuable talent from Power Five programs.
One is the addition of Robert Prunty as associate head coach and defensive line coach. Prunty was named Recruiter of the Year in the Big 12 Conference while at Texas Tech and earned similar accolades in the American Athletic Conference at Cincinnati.
Prunty likes to listen to recruits more than he talks to them and that has led some prominent prospective players to plan their futures as Pirates.
Another factor has been the success in breaking the NCAA career receptions record by Justin Hardy at ECU in 2015 and by Zay Jones of the Pirates last year.
“Now, we’re getting recruited by receivers,” Montgomery said. “That’s for sure. I’ve probably never seen a situation where receivers are recruiting us as hard as they are recruiting us. We’re recruiting them hard right back, there’s no question about it, but we’re getting calls and emails and text messages —.everything from receivers that want to play in the system. They also want to be coached in the system and want to play at a place where two players have consecutively been NCAA leaders.”
And, of course, recruiting provides a means of addressing some of the deficiencies that became apparent when the Pirates lost nine of the their last 10 games in 2016.
“That’s why I’ve worked so hard this offseason, of creating depth,” Montgomery said.
The Pirates coach indicated that more help may be on the way.
“We do probably have some more things that are going to happen here shortly,” Montgomery said. “We came out of spring feeling pretty good about our placekicking efforts and where Jake Verity is. We really, really liked him coming out of spring. Tremendous talent placekicking. He also did a good job punting but there’s probably a few more things we’d like to get done with adding some talent to the punting area so we’re not just relying 100 percent on Jake.
“Hopefullly, we can continue to grow there before the end of the summer . . . probably one of the last gaps that we have on the football team.
“If we don’t [bring a punter in], we’re comfortable with Jake being both our punter and kicker. I just would be really, really comfortable if we had someone else to come in and take some of the load off of him.”
Sirk has arrived
Last year, ECU had Minnesota/Rutgers transfer Philip Nelson at quarterback after Kurt Benkert transferred to Virginia. The hope was to redshirt junior college transfer Gardner Minshew.
Minshew was pressed into action when Nelson was dealing with concussions.
There is much more depth at quarterback now.
Sirk also was recruited by South Carolina and Southern Miss after tweeting his plans to transfer to ECU.
“He’s here now,” Montgomery said. “He’s in class here now. He’s working out with our team. We were able to withstand South Carolina and some other suitors. It was just about the previous relationships and the new relationship between him and his teammates and Tony Petersen (offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach). That was very important and critical to his recruitment.
“He’s been able to be with our team and work out.”
The Pirates have had some quality time with true freshman Kingsley Ifedi, who enrolled in January, a contrast to the arrival of Minshew last summer.
“I don’t like talking about freshmen,” said Montgomery, “but just starting with Kingsley (Ifedi) and his ability to come in and have a whole semester of being able to get work in whether it be with his coaches, with his players or film work. We didn’t even have that kind of time with some of the guys we had all the time — just thinking about where we were with Gardner. We’ve had more work with Kingsley now than we did with Gardner coming in so late last year. You’ve got Reid (Herring) who’s been in our system over a year now and has really, really been working exceptionally hard. He had a pretty good spring. He could have done better in some situations but a guy that knows our system, that can throw it, that the kids love.
“Gardner gives us stability at our top position. He is our starter as we speak. He’s a guy that knows the position, knows our system. . . . He knows his personnel really well. He grew so much in the spring by the things I let him do at the line of scrimmage. That’s something that we did not have the ability to do, fixing plays at the line of scrimmage, whether it be by front or by coverage. And now he has the ability to do that going into year two in the system.
“And then, Thomas. . . . Coming in right now, he’s kind of behind all those guys in knowing exactly who his personnel is. But all Thomas has to do now is come in and get our vernacular down pat. He’ll learn his team and his team will learn him. The relationship that he and Gardner already have of competing and helping each other is already showing to be helpful to Gardner and already shown to be helpful to Thomas. He has a long way to go but he knows our system. Our verbiage is something totally different but he knows our system.
“The depth at that position is the way that we wanted to build it. We want to keep that depth like it is now going forward. We’re going to try to do a good job of recruiting and bringing in a big-time quarterback again the following year and just continue to grow the quarterback position. It’s something that I’ve always been intrigued with and being a former quarterback coach you know how critical it is to have guys that can play at a high level, multiple guys that can play at a high level. I think we have that.”
Sirk’s arrival with one year of eligibility means there will be a quarterback derby in preseason camp.
“Right out of the gate, there is going to be great competition,” Montgomery said. “The competition is going to have to be driven by not just the ones, twos and threes but also how you perform in the one-on-one portion of the drills, the pass skill portion of the drills. Our quarterbacks, at least our top three quarterbacks, will be getting a great majority of the work with Kingsley getting some package stuff that we’re going to work on to continue to grow him. You’d probably like to see all those guys get about 33 percent of the reps early and then as we move forward, we’ll get to more of a probably a 40-40-20 mode. Then we’ll get closer to finding out who of those three guys will be competing one and two. If Gardner goes in and distinguishes himself early, then we’ll probably get to a 50-25-25 kind of a role really quickly or if somebody else just really blossoms that’s kind of the way we’ll move forward. Right now, we’re kind of open-minded with knowing that Gardner is definitely our starter right now, but we’ll have a competition at the position. I can’t wait to see it develop.
“We also have a lot of depth at receiver and a lot of depth at running back. We just created some depth at offensive line. All these guys are going to be getting big-time reps with big-time players so we’re easily able to identify who’s doing well. There will be some rotations between the ones and the twos. At the quarterback position, you really won’t have a great feel for who’s at this position and who’s at that position for at least a couple of weeks. Then we’ll settle down after we’ve had a couple of evaluations after scrimmages and I can see the completion percentages and how they’re getting the ball out of their hands and then definitely how they’re taking care of the football.”
Redshirt in doubt for Ifedi
The initial plan was to redshirt Ifedi, but Montgomery admits to some second thoughts on that.
“It’s a plan but we’ve got to have the ability to be adjustable in the plan,” Montgomery said. “What I saw in Kingsley in certain situations in spring ball is that physically he is well beyond what we thought he would be and he’s going to continue to learn the system. He made some big-time throws at times when he understood everything out there and he made some big-time runs at times, so he gives us the flexibility to do a lot in the offense. In a perfect world, you’d like to redshirt him. You’d like to continue to grow the program and the foundation of the program so he can get all those years out there on the field and knowing exactly what to do. He has some distinguishing characteristics that make it hard in some types of situational play not to think about him and him helping our football team. We would like to redshirt him. I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to happen though.”
Sirk, skill package
Montgomery knows Sirk’s skill set, having worked with him when he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Duke.
“What he does really good is he gets the ball out of his hands exceptionally quick,” Montgomery said. “I used to always be on him about getting the ball out in 2.6 [seconds] or lower and it’s O.K. to punt the ball. Those are the types of things that Thomas is going to bring. He’s going to hit the deep down the field balls. He’s got a great arm in the intermediate area. He makes it really hard for people to play two high safeties on him with his ability to carry the football. But if you do want to play one high on him and try to play man, he’s good enough with the football that he can pick you apart on some outbreaking routes and some routes in the intermediate area. He has a really good understanding of the game and how to manage football games. He did a good job with taking care of the football. He also is a great leader among his teammates.
“Those are some of the things that I think he does well but I think his best trait he just takes care of the football and he knows how to get it out of his hands. . . . Too many sacks occurred last year when we were holding on to it. That’s just not in hots and sight adjustments when they bring pressure. You’ve got to know where the umbrella is in the pocket and step up into the umbrella and get the ball out. He does a good job of that.”
Relationship with Sirk at Duke
Montgomery has shared some good times along with bad with Sirk.
“I’m the only kind of quarterback coach that he had as a playing quarterback,” Montgomery said. “I watched him come off of an injury into a season and play at a really high level of football. Our relationship, I’m very stern on our quarterbacks. I expect them to hold a certain level of confidence and be culture creators. That relationship is one of those ones that didn’t stop when we left the building.
“When I took the head coaching job at East Carolina when it was presented to me and I was so thankful, of course, he was really, really happy for me and came to me and hugged me. We spent a good amount of time together once the decision had been made. A few months later, he popped his Achilles and I got in my car. I drove up to Durham and I went to his apartment with his mother and his father and I hugged his neck. I spent about 15 minutes with him and I got back in the car and came back to Greenville and went right back to work. I know how hard he prepared. It would have been going into his senior year. I just knew what he was going through.
“Our relationship is a great relationship. It’s one built around the realness of life, understanding that sometimes you’re up. Sometimes you’re down. The one thing you can never do is quit. That kid has persevered through a lot. That’s where our relationship kind of started and where it is now. He’s heard me coach him for a couple of years at the quarterback position. He’s also been in the situation, where outside of the game, I’ve been there for him and he’s been there for me, so all in all it’s a really good relationship.”
Sirk was co-MVP of the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl as Duke topped Indiana 44-41 at Yankee Stadium. The Blue Devils had been decades without a bowl triumph.
“He was the first [Duke] quarterback to win a bowl game since 1961,” Montgomery said. “A lot of people don’t know — that year he did an unbelievable job. . . . It was his first year as a starting quarterback and really he was very mature. He led that team all the way to that bowl game. If it wasn’t for a call right there in the Miami game, that would have got us I believe to 7-1. No telling what would have happened moving forward in that season that year. I thought he did a fantastic job. He’s earned the right to be called one of the only guys in Duke history to win a bowl game and that’s exactly what he did. He made some big plays in that game.”
Dye had 109 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in 53 snaps over seven games during Clemson’s national championship season as a redshirt junior.
“He’s also here and he’s working out with the team,” Montgomery said. “We’re really, really happy to have him here. We’ve got great competition in the running back room. We think that he’ll be a definite shot of adrenaline and power and quickness added to the room that already has some good talent. . . . His biggest deal at Clemson, he had an injury a couple of years back and was able to fight his way back onto the field. He just wanted the opportunity to be the guy. We told him that he would definitely have that opportunity. We weren’t going to limit him to the amount of carries that he would or would not have. We’re going to give him a chance to go out and earn the position just like some of the great players that we have here already at the position. He knows of the battle that’s ahead of him and we look forward to it.
“He’s a unique combination of size and strength. He’s 220 pounds right now. He’s as quick as I’ve seen him. You see some of his workouts online, watch him go through the bags and run the football, some of his Clemson tape. You know that we’re getting a talented back. We’re looking forward to him. Great kid. Great family. His mother came up with him. His brother came up with him. Great family. Hard worker. I’ve got a lot of relationships down at Clemson whether it be with Coach [Dabo] Swinney, Danny Pearman (assistant head coach, special teams coordinator, tight ends coach) and guys that have moved on like Marion Hobby and Dan Brooks, on and on, all the guys down there who have helped us throughout the whole process, even Woody McCorvey. Talking to guys. All those are our guys and guys that have helped me grow up in the business so I trusted a lot of things that they had to say.”
Elmore started six games for the Golden Gophers last season and played in 13.
He recorded 16 tackles, including four for losses. He had 1.5 sacks and recovered three fumbles while earning academic All-Big Ten honors.
“We’re really excited to get Gaelin,” Montgomery said. “All these guys, we were really excited to get. We were in battles for all these guys. It was a really, really good job by Coach [Robert] Prunty. It came down to the end of being in the situation where we wanted to show these guys that it was going to be more about showing him what kind of human we could help him become and what type of player he could come in and be for us. We had some positions where we definitely needed to grow on our defensive front, whether it be sacking the quarterback or stopping the run, we wanted to get better there. He gives us that ability. What a fantastic player. Coach Brandon Lynch did a good job of identifying him and really, really working hard in the process of recruiting him. We’re excited to have him coming in and getting ready to play at a high level of football for us.”
The Pirates generated some favorable national publicity when outside linebacker Kiante Anderson became a scholarship player. Anderson played at South Central and Montgomery surprised his mother at her school when he let her know that he son had earned a full scholarship. The heartwarming story got some national play.
“I started watching Kiante early part of the season,” Montgomery said. “I was watching a kid who came in and did his job. He wasn’t on any list like missing class, being late to this or late to that. He wasn’t a scholarship athlete. As I started going through the game film, week three, week four, week five — he started actually playing. I was watching his progression. Sometimes I couldn’t believe he was a non-scholarship athlete. We kind of made it our mission this offseason to really watch who he was in the community, who he was at school. We have class checkers for just about every single class for our guys. It’s a very hard process. You have to go to school here. I’m 100 percent committed to these guys’ education. We have people checking and Kiante is in the first three rows of the classroom, doing everything I ask him to do. He’s always on time. He’s working his butt off in community service. He’s doing what we want him to do in the weight room, on the field, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
“I went to some of our coaches and told them, I think at this point in time the most deserving person is Kiante Anderson for a scholarship. All of them were elated because they thought that he should have been on scholarship. The process happened. We started talking to Brian Overton (director of player development) and Terrell Smith (assistant athletic director for football operations). We talked about some of the uniqueness of presenting it to Kiante. Brian Overton came up with, ‘He talks about his Mom every time I meet with him.’ I bring him in three or four times a year. We bring all our guys in and we have these meetings. He always starts his conversations talking about his Mom and what she meant to him. He never, ever asks us for a scholarship. So Brian said, ‘Maybe we should just give it to him and his Mom.’ Then it kind of grew to what if I go over to South Greenville and present it? Then it kind of came to me that we probably should do it around Mother’s Day. We decided to do it around Mother’s Day, tie Mother’s Day in with it. I thought it would be nice if she was the one who actually called and told him that he was on full scholarship. It started with Brian Overton and Terrell Smith and it grew to what it was.”
On the job experience
Montgomery has gotten some on-the-job experience in his head coaching assignment at ECU. He talked about what he had learned.
“Patience with your players, with everything you’re trying to build, but not with the process,” Montgomery said. “The process, you put it in place. The foundation has to go in place. Stay on task. That’s the biggest deal. When I got the job at East Carolina, I put together the best staff I possibly could put together at that point in time. Now I feel like we’ve put together the best staff for East Carolina because I know East Carolina. I know our kids.
“I think the hardest thing to do is understand every single personality in the structure of what you’re trying to do, your foundation and the pillars of your program. Then the roof of your program, which is love and loyalty, which is the protector of the program. As you move forward, you understand exactly what that has to do. The other thing I’ve learned is that every single soul on the football team — in the scholarship, out of the scholarship — is definitely so important. Depth wins games. If we had a three-game season last year, we would have been fantastic. There’s no question about it. Our top guys were good enough to beat anybody. The problem is you have to continue to have guys because once you get hit with injuries, those guys that come in have to play at a level as high or higher than the people that went out. Those are the things that I’ve kind of learned.
“That’s why I’ve worked so hard this offseason, of creating depth and we’re not done, and getting better at every position. I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve gotten better at every single position on our football team — from a depth standpoint and pushing the guys at the top level to go to a notch higher.”
Pirate Club message and response
Montgomery has been on the Pirate Club banquet circuit, interacting with the fan base.
He was asked about his message and the response from Pirate Nation.
“The response has been great,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been blessed at every stop that we’ve gone with nice crowds and just overwhelming understanding of who I am and what I believe in and what the program is about. With some of the announcements that we’ve been able to make lately, people understand that I’m not just giving it lip service but also the recruitment of certain people that we’re not just giving it lip service. The biggest deal that we want people to understand is that we want them to be proud of the guys that step out on the field in purple. That was my main goal last year. I knew there were some things we had to do and we needed to do and we did it — being able to announce that we had a record-high team GPA for the semester is also great news for our Pirate Club. Also, being able to announce, some people would call it the best recruiting class that we’ve ever had. All those things help and they understand last year all the things that were going on. … There’s always going to be things that happen throughout the offseason. You look at every team across the country, there are certain things that come — dismissals, this and that. But compared to last year with the transfers, how we stabilized the situation that needed to be stabilized.
“We’ve also grown the process. How our kids speak to them when we bring them. We also bring our kids out on these Armada processes. Just hearing Garrett McGhin and Jimmy Williams talk about where we were and now where we are today. It’s been great. The turnouts have been great. Pirate Club has pushed us to a level of where we’re going to be above the rest of these teams in this conference are here in a year just from a facilities standpoint. That will help our recruiting. If you help the recruiting that we have here, you can’t believe where we’re going to go unless you’ve been in a recruiting function or some of the guys that we’ve been able to beat.
“. . . I think our Pirate Nation really enjoys who we play and how we play, those teams so hard over the last few years. We’ve played some really, really good out of conference schedules and played at a high level.
“But also, I think it’s very important that people know that one of the most attractive things — and I’ve let people know in the Pirate Club and Pirate Nation — is our game day. That’s what every kid says in recruiting. We can’t believe how fun it is to play. … That’s what we’ve delivered to them, just continue to believe in what we’re doing and that you will be proud of the product. We’re growing. It may not be in sprinting like I would always like but we’re going in a solid way that we don’t ever spray paint a car. We’ve really done a good job of making sure that we look at every part, fix every part and put it together the right way. We’re making sure our program is built with some great structure.”
Zay attracting parents
Some coaches will tell you that recruiting parents is as important as recruiting players.
The perception of Zay Jones as a model student-athlete has drawn parents to the Pirates.
“Zay, who he is, has helped us,” Montgomery said. “Parents, now, are recruiting us because they know that’s the product that we’re turning out. We had a lot of help with that product. The previous staff did a good job with him but mainly his parents did a fantastic job with him. When we got him, we were able to just polish him in different ways on the field and everything else was completely all him. We’re really happy where he got drafted. I personally don’t think he got drafted high enough but time will tell that.”
Jones, the son of former ECU and Dallas Cowboy linebacker Robert Jones, was a second round choice of the Buffalo Bills in the recent draft.
“He’s just fantastic for this university,” Montgomery said. “If I was chancellor of the university, I would definitely be proud. I know Chancellor [Cecil] Staton is extremely proud of him and the person that he is. The university has benefitted from Zay Jones as much as our football program and athletic department.”
Former ECU receivers coach Phil McGeoghan is now receivers coach for the Bills. His relationship with Jones at ECU was influential in the draft.
“He better have gotten that deal drafted at that point in time,” Montgomery said of his former assistant. “If he wouldn’t have, I probably would have drove to Buffalo and had some words for him. No, he loves him. He pushed really hard for him. He and I were on text messages. I was on so many phone calls, whether it was during the draft or at the beginning. It was one of those situations, I was beginning to feel like I was the one who was about to get my name called.
“Phil was really, really helpful throughout the process. I think he correctly conveyed how great of a person and player Zay was. There was a lot of teams right in that area trying to move around at the bottom of the first round. It was a very hectic time for Zay and some of the teams. Then we get into the first part of the second round and Phil texted me when they put their card in but before it was announced, ‘We got him.’ It was so much joy. I knew Rick Dennison (Bills offensive coordinator). He coached us out in Denver, both Phil and I were out in Denver when Rick Dennison was a coach on our staff out there. I’m very comfortable with the place that he’s at because of the people. I was just on the phone with Rick Dennison a few weeks ahead of this. All in all, it worked out. He’s going to be in a really good situation.”
Jones was dealing with a knee injury soon after the draft.
“He’ll be back shortly,” Montgomery said. “I’m not at liberty to say anything else besides that but he’ll be back shortly. This is one of those times of the year when he’ll get a lot of time to get back and get working out with OTAs (organized team activities) and then even another big camp before the big camp. He’ll be fine.”
Special teams have special role
The Pirates have addressed depth, improved talent and filled some staff vacancies since going 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in 2016. The Pirates are moving forward with the intent of bringing everything together and improving.
“I think our coaches have dome a great job of coming together,” Montgomery said. “That’s the offensive and defensive staff. They’re spending so much time together now. We’ve even tweaked kind of the way we recruit, to put guys together from the offensive and defensive staff standpoint so when they go out and evaluate, they can evaluate together, but that’s also to grow relationships inside of the building. We compete and I want them to understand that we compete. That’s the first part of it.
“The second part is the relationships between our players and our coaches. Adding Robert Prunty as our associate head coach has really grown what was a good relationship to a very, very good to great relationship.”
Montgomery said Prunty and some of the other coaches have hosted team gatherings and meals.
“They spend a lot of great time together,” Montgomery said. “That’s part of it. . . .
“Another part of it is we’ve got to come into camp ready to play. We need all hands on deck. Right now, we’re doing a good job in the offseason. They’re self-practicing at a high level but we have got to come into camp ready to play, meaning our guys that are added to the team — they’ve got to use their offseason program not just to get ready physically but mentally to get ready to play football. I think that’s going to be done really well.
“The next part of it is, all of our guys have got to be committed 100 percent to play on special teams. All of them. And now, with all this depth, they can be. They don’t have to worry about playing 85 snaps on defense and getting tweaked on special teams or something like that. Those are the things that mean a lot to me. I think offensively and defensively, we’re going to be a lot better because of talent. But bringing it all the way together, I think special teams can grow our season as much as anything. We have to put better talent on the field on special teams. All of that has to come with checking your ego at the door. Not to say that we had that issue last year but I think that this year, with a lot better talent, a lot more players available. Coaches have built relationships for a longer time with these players.
“Those are the things that we have to do to change the win and loss column from last year.”