Tony Petersen hopes history will be repeating itself in 2017. The East Carolina offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is optimistic about the prospect for improvement from the football staff’s first season when the Pirates were 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference.
Petersen was part of a significant improvement at Louisiana Tech that manifested itself in 2014, the second year for that program under former ECU coach Skip Holtz.
“The first year at Louisiana Tech (2013) we won four games (4-8),” Petersen said. “We won nine (9-5) the next year. . . . We came into a situation where a team was loaded the year before. Our first year, the cupboard was kind of bare. We had lost a bunch of offensive linemen. We had lost receivers. They had lost linebackers. We didn’t have a quarterback coming back.
“We went into that first year, the best player we had was a kid named Kenneth Dixon. He was a running back, a really good player, but we didn’t have the quarterback or the receivers to be able to throw the ball and be able to keep people off him. We had some turnover issues, kind of similar to this last year here. We had some turnover issues down in the red zone, which is the same thing we had here. It ended up costing us some football games the first year I was there.
“The second year, we came back, we had a quarterback. We had a senior transfer come in. We hit on some wide receivers and we were one year in on our offensive line. Very similar to here. We came back and we took care of the football better. We put up more points that year because of it. We ended up having a nine-win season and beat Illinois in a bowl game.
“It was a big turnaround year. We left two games on the table, just doing some stuff like we did this last year on some turnovers. That year, we also lost to a 1-AA team and we lost to Old Dominion on the road. We were favored both of those games so it was a nine-win season that could have easily been 10 or 11.”
Basis for improvement
Petersen talked about the basis for optimism going forward at ECU.
“Starting at the quarterback position, I think we’re going to be much more stable there,” Petersen said. “We’re going to be better mentally. Not saying we played terrible there last year, we didn’t, and I was happy with both of those guys (Philip Nelson, Gardner Minshew), but Gardner has got a whole year into it. Thomas Sirk (former Duke quarterback) is coming into it as a senior transfer who has got a lot of experience and he’s picking up on it really quick. So I feel like I’ve got two experienced guys who are going to really be able to play well there — whoever wins the job, whoever is back-up, however it works out. I feel good at that position.”
Better personnel and depth characterizes the Pirates across the board.
“I think we’re going to be much better up front,” Petersen said. “We’ve got guys returning. We’ve got three starters returning there plus we’ve got some young guys that nobody has really seen yet that have been in the system now for a year that we feel really good about. So we feel better about our offensive line, which is going to help us.
“And then, moving to the running back position — same thing. We’re bringing back some guys who have played. We feel better about them. Then we’ve added a senior transfer there (Tyshon Dye from Clemson) that we feel really good about.
“The wide receiver position, we lost Zay (Jones), which is a huge loss, but I think overall it could be just as good if not a better overall group. We’ve got some great young kids coming in. We’ve got some people with a lot of playing experience at wide receiver. We feel really good about that position.
“I think we’re going to be better at tight end. We’re going to play some more formations where we’ve got some guys like [Stephen] Baggett in the game who are a little bit bigger where we can run the ball a little bit more times on early down and distance and also give us some play action opportunities for some deep balls.”
Sirk fitting in
Sirk has been meeting with Petersen on a weekly basis and also has been absorbing material in transition on his own. A spirit of cooperation also has developed among the quarterbacks.
“I get Thomas,” Petersen said. “I’ve got him for one meeting a week. He’s in there all the time watching [tape]. I’ve got stuff in there that he pulls up. The quarterbacks, they come in on their own and they do their thing. I’ve got the stuff there for them to look at and what to pay attention to.
“The other thing is him and Gardner get along really well. Gardner is helping him because it’s important. We’re a better football team when we have two veteran quarterbacks, no matter who ends up winning the job at the end of the day. Thomas is picking up on it. He’s doing a great job. He’s going to be full speed as far as his injury before we get to [preseason] camp. I’m real excited about it.”
Pending QB competition
Petersen talked about how the starting competition between Minshew and Sirk will be evaluated.
“The guy that takes care of the football and gets the ball into the end zone is the one that’s going to win the job,” Petersen said. “That’s really about as simple as it is. Both guys are going to be older. They understand the importance of taking care of the football. That’s one of our main deals this year offensively after last season. You take away six or seven of our turnovers on offense last year, which isn’t that many. A lot of those were inside the 5- and 10-yard line. We might have went from three to six wins just off those turnovers alone. So taking care of the football and getting the ball down there and putting in the end zone, and not settling for field goals or attempted field goals. I try and keep it pretty simple. That’s what I’m looking for. Whoever can do those two things the best is the one that’s going to be out there as the starter. I don’t know who that’s going to be.
“Gardner, right now in his mind, is the starter and he should think that way. In Thomas’s mind, we gave him an opportunity to come in and compete for a position and that’s what he’s going to do. He’s coming in to win that position. I like the idea of having two guys that I feel like I can win with and we’ll see what happens in camp. We’ll see what happens going forward once we get into the season.”
Petersen isn’t ruling out the possibility of some sort of tandem system at quarterback.
“Absolutely,” Petersen said. “I’m not sitting there saying we’re going to be a two-quarterback team but I can see a situation where either guy wins the job and the other one has still got some stuff where he’s always going to get in and have a number of snaps or things we’re going to do. We haven’t gotten to that point yet and I’m not really going to start thinking that way until it unfolds and see how it goes in camp, but I could easily see that happening.”
Run game potential
The Pirates averaged 3.9 yards per rush in 2016 and averaged 132.4 yards per game on the ground. Petersen looks for those numbers to increase.
“Better personnel and more depth, not only at the offensive line positions but the running back positions,” Petersen said. “That’s what happens when you progress from year one to year two to year three. You start adding your classes. You start getting the people in there that you want to be able to do what you want to do. And also be able to add in a tight end type of position in there a little bit more for some normal down and distance stuff. All of that is going to equate to being able to run the ball better. I look back at some of the cut-ups we had at Louisiana Tech and we blocked it OK but all of a sudden, you’re handing the ball off to Kenneth Dixon and you know what? You run the ball pretty well. When you look at the NFL and look at the teams that can run it, they’re good up front but they also have got some of the best running backs. I think our receivers are going to help that. Our receivers not only go block their butts off but they’re going to pull coverage off out of that box and help us get lighter boxes than what some people might get.
“I’m looking forward. I think we’re going to have a great year running the football. I love running the football. I love throwing the football, but most importantly I like moving it down the field and getting into the end zone. We’re excited about this year.”
Petersen’s base area in recruiting has changed but he still travels extensively to evaluate offensive prospects.
“We switched it up after last year,” Petersen said. “I had the Charlotte area. Now, as the coordinator, I’ve got the Pitt, Beaufort and Hyde county so I have about 10 schools as my area we call it. Then basically, I recruit offensively, not just quarterbacks but the whole offense. Like this spring, I don’t know how many days it was — 17 or 18 days — on the board in there, all the kids that we identified as players that we really liked in what we call our little backyard area, not just the state but within that four- to five-hour drive. I was all over the state of North Carolina. I spent two-and-a-half to three days in the state of Virginia and I spent two-and-a-half days in that north Florida area.
“I went around to everybody’s area and saw all kinds of offensive kids. I think it really helped that Coach Mo (Scottie Montgomery) decided to do that this year and switched it up. It made a huge difference for us moving even faster, getting better evaluations and more evaluations, especially on the kids that area close in North Carolina. Coach Mo is big on North Carolina and I’m big on it. I love having a great in-state area like we do here. We’re always going to sign and try to get the North Carolina kids before anybody else.”
The plan was to redshirt Minshew last season but he had to play when Nelson went down. That has given the returning quarterback some valuable experience that he wouldn’t have had if he had been held out in 2016.
“That’s huge for him,” Petersen said. “I know what he would have liked. I know what we would have liked. He’s got two more years left now to play and he got to play half the season there (2016). Still, for a quarterback nowadays, that’s still a lot of good football. I’m glad he got that experience last year. That’s going to help him. I thought from basically getting thrown in there and just getting here for camp last year, I thought Gardner did a great job last year.
“He’s going to be so much better this year. He’s so calm in there. He gets it. He understands the little things, taking care of the football, placing the ball, making decisions — all the things you want from him right there. He’s constantly in here in the office trying to get better, working on his arm, on his body in the weight room, running. He’s just one of those guys, self-motivated. He’s going to get it done. The great thing is you’ve got two guys that are just like that. Him and Sirk are identical. Really, all of my quarterbacks, all four of them are constantly trying to get better. They’re doing the right things. Those are the kind of kids you need in that room.”
True freshman Kingsley Ifedi arrived in January and has been impressive with his run-throw skills.
“I recruited the Charlotte area last year so Kingsley was one of my recruits and he’s a quarterback,” Petersen said. “Anytime we’re going to recruit a quarterback, no matter where he’s at, basically, I’m going to take that recruiting over.
“Kingsley has got a lot of potential, a lot of upside, we think. We’re real excited about him, but he’s very raw. He’s still learning the system, learning how to play the position in college so he’s maybe a bit little farther away than anybody else but he might have the best upside there, too. He’s athletic, a great kid, works his tail off and we’re super excited about him. He’s just young and still learning.”
Reid Herring spent last season learning the system and throws as well as anyone in the program.
“Right now, Reid is probably in that position where he’s that third guy,” Petersen said. “I told Reid, ‘You got a lot more snaps than a normal freshman would get in spring ball this year because it was him and Gardner, basically. We had Kingsley, who just came in from high school, who didn’t know much about what was going on yet. Reid got a whole lot of snaps in the spring, which was great for him. Typically, there would have been a couple of guys ahead of him and he wouldn’t have gotten those snaps. So those are invaluable for him. . . . Reid has probably the best arm out of everybody, pure release and snap on the ball. He makes good decisions. I love watching him play. He’s got good height at 6-3. Reid’s got one of those bodies. He’s just skinny (175 pounds). He just hasn’t put the weight on that he needs for college football yet but he’s getting better and better there every day. He’s got four more years left. He redshirted last year so we’re super excited about him. He’s very talented. Anybody that has watched him out there throwing and running around, you can see he’s got the arm talent, the athletic ability and the speed. We’ve just got to put some pounds on him and he needs to keep getting more experience but he’s going to be a good player.”
As students of the game are quick to point out, quarterbacks don’t have time to throw and running backs can’t run if the offensive line isn’t doing its job.
Garrett McGhin has moved from left guard to center. Starting tackles Messiah Rice and Brandon Smith are back.
“That’s probably the biggest thing we did that we’re really excited about,” Petersen said. “We had a similar issue when I was at Louisiana Tech that first year. Moving into that second year, wanted to make sure we had a true center that was ready to go and handle it. We moved Garrett over there and he’s done a great job. He gives us so much length at center. He’s athletic and he’s long. I’ve never had a center that tall. We’re excited about him.
“We’ve got our tackles back. We’re excited about that. We’ve got a bunch of young kids coming in. Just with the returners we’ve got, moving Garrett to center and the kids we’ve got coming in, we’re really excited about the possibilities of where we could be with our lineup coming this fall. It’s probably one of the positions we needed to improve on the most and one of the ones that I’m excited to see how they do this year.”
Difference a year can make
There are reasons that programs show improvement like Louisiana Tech did from 2013 to 2014.
“Everywhere I’ve been that second year it seems like you make the most improvement,” Petersen said. “Sometimes it’s in wins and losses. Sometimes it maybe always isn’t but you always make that big improvement as far as understanding the system. Everybody just gets everything more. Everything is more comfortable. We’ve done this. They understand this. They understand all the little nuances that go with all these plays and situations. That’s always that year I look forward to any time I’ve went somewhere is that second year and I’m looking forward to it this year. I think we can have a huge jump out there on the field offensively. The biggest things we’ve got to do is take care of the football and make the plays when they’re there to be made. We’ve got to be able to run the ball better than we did last year. I thought we threw the ball well last year. We’ve just got to take care of it and when we get in the red zone — put some more time into it and make sure that we’re better at — when we get down there, we’ve got to make sure we put it in the end zone.
“Looking back at some of our red zone issues last year, the No. 1 problem, sometimes it wasn’t that we weren’t able to get it in there. We were turning the football over, which was killing us.”
“That ball security, that second year coming out there and understanding the offense, where all the people are at and especially having a couple of quarterbacks that I feel like we can win with both those kids.”
Case in point, 2016 South Carolina game
The loss at South Carolina in 2016 showed how costly turnovers can be. ECU surrendered possession three times inside the Gamecocks’ 10-yard line.
The Pirates led 519-312 in total yardage and had 34 first downs to 13 for South Carolina.
“It’s so frustrating when you lose a game (20-15) and you’re right in it but you could have won it by 21,” Petersen said. “When you look back at it and the position on the field, I think we had three of them inside the 10, two of them inside the five. I mean it’s just so frustrating because we moved the ball so well up and down the field and got ourselves in position to score a whole bunch of points that day and didn’t. At the end of the day, we’ve got to get that done. We’ve got to get that fixed. You’ve got to take care of the football because you can’t allow the other team to take advantage of that. Basically, you’re giving a game away when you start turning the ball over like that.”
The 2017 season is an opportunity for redemption from the factors that limited success last year and the frustration that resulted.
“We’re excited,” Petersen said. “We can’t wait.”