East Carolina begins its preseason camp on Thursday, which means that after a long offseason that seemed even longer because of last year’s 3-9 disappointment, it’s finally time to stop talking and start playing football again.
Although the Pirates have a multitude of questions to answer between now and their Sept. 3 opener against James Madison, here are five things in particular to watch as coach Scottie Montgomery and his team return to the field in preparation for the new season:
1. Thomas Sirk’s health and mobility
Montgomery has stated throughout the summer that semi-incumbent Gardner Minshew will enter camp as ECU’s No. 1 quarterback, but it only figures to be a matter of time before graduate transfer Thomas Sirk begins taking snaps with the first team.
The mere fact that Sirk is in camp suggests that Montgomery isn’t convinced Minshew, who made two starts while throwing for 1,347 yards and eight touchdowns last year, is the right man for the job or that youngsters Reid Herring and Kingsley Ifedi are ready to lead yet.
Coaches simply don’t bring in one-year rent-a-quarterbacks to sit on the bench, especially those that played for them and enjoyed success at their previous school and are already familiar with the offensive scheme and terminology — as is the case with Sirk and Montgomery, who won eight games and went to a bowl together at Duke in 2015.
Sirk is a good enough passer, but his greatest strength is as a runner. He was Duke’s leading ground gainer two seasons ago and was one of only eight quarterbacks nationally to rush for more than 800 yards. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he’s like a fullback when he’s carrying the ball.
The big question surrounding Sirk and his ability to help the Pirates is how long his twice-surgically repaired left Achilles tendon will hold out. And even if it remains structurally sound, how will the injuries affect his mobility and the confidence he has to go 100 percent without hurting himself again?
2. Offensive line rotation
It really doesn’t matter who starts at quarterback if he has to spend as much time running for his life as he does looking downfield for an open receiver. That’s been a problem for the past two season, but especially last year when Philip Nelson and Minshew were sacked a combined 31 times and were hit on countless other occasions.
Subpar line play can also be at least partially blamed for the Pirates’ inability to generate an effective running game in 2016.
Because upgrading the blocking up front is such a high priority, the competition among those vying for playing time both as starters and backups is perhaps the most important and most interesting of any position battle over the next month.
Three starters return, though junior Garrett McGhin, who started 11 games at guard last season, will be playing a new position after being moved to center this spring. Junior Messiah Rice is back at left tackle while senior Brandon Smith is the incumbent at right tackle.
The other two starting spots are up for grabs.
Cortez Herrin, a 6-3, 321-pound sophomore who saw action in one game as a reserve last season, came out of spring practice atop the depth chart at right guard. Redshirt freshman Sean Bailey and sophomore D’Ante Smith are in the mix for the other guard spot while the need to improve both the quality and depth of the line should afford opportunities for others to show what they can do, including senior Justin Sandifer, the most experienced returnee, junior Des Barmore, junior Brandon Pena, sophomore Dalton Montgomery and redshirt freshman Jack Doyle.
3. Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson
Wide receiver was already going to be a strength for the Pirates this season, even with the loss of all-time FBS receptions leader Zay Jones. But it could become one of the best and deepest in the country, not just the American Athletic Conference, if both Brown and Grayson return to form after missing last season.
Grayson is a proven deep threat who can be an effective complement to Jimmy Williams if he’s completely recovered from a back injury that sidelined him a year ago.
Brown, who has caught 55 passes in his 16 career games over two seasons before an academic issue forced him out of action, could be an even bigger asset. Not only is Brown capable of making big plays downfield, as he did with a 75-yard touchdown catch in last year’s spring game, but his 6-2, 210-pound size and reliable hands make him a natural target in possession and goal line situations — areas in which the Pirates struggled in 2016.
4. Kicking game
The Pirates will have to replace both specialists, with is a good thing in the case of placekicker Davis Plowman, who was anything but the picture of consistency. Also departed is the much more reliable punter Worth Gregory.
Sophomore Jake Verity was originally slated to handle both jobs, but in an effort to ease the pressure and allow him to concentrate on the placekicking duties, Montgomery brought in graduate transfer punter Austin Barnes from Eastern Michigan. Barnes was a Ray Guy Award semifinalist last season.
There doesn’t figure to be much competition for either job, though kickoff specialist Caleb Pratt could potentially get a shot at trying field goals and extra points. The evolution of ECU’s kicking game will have a major impact on the success of this year’s team.
5. New scheme, new faces
Something clearly had to change after the Pirates allowed an average of 36.1 points and 453 yards per game last season and Montgomery decided to make a drastic one.
He and defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson scrapped the 3-4 scheme they used in their first season in Greenville and replaced it with a 4-2-5 they believe will be a better fit for their personnel. They’ve also restocked the talent pool with a number of transfers and JUCOs who are expected to step in and make major contributions right away.
While the transition began in spring ball — giving holdovers such as linebacker-turned-defensive end Yiannis Bowden, linebacker Jordan Williams and safety Tim Irvin an opportunity to get a head start with the new defense — there’s still plenty left to learn and not a lot of time to do it. The situation is only complicated by the fact that end Gaelin Elmore (Minnesota), safety Korrin Wiggins (Clemson) and junior college transfer tackle Tyree Owens, among others, will be all starting from scratch.
It’s a situation Montgomery — and a lot of others — will be keeping a close eye on now that the time for talking is finally over and it’s almost time for the Pirates to get back onto the field.