East Carolina had its first preseason practice on Thursday with the Pirates bent on improvement after going 3-9 in 2016 and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference.
The performance last season was a step back after ECU was 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the AAC before Ruffin McNeill’s termination.
The offseason focus has been on getting better with the Pirates looking deeper and more talented going into a challenging stretch of nonconference contests.
A quarterback competition between Gardner Minshew and Duke transfer Thomas Sirk will unfold before the opener at home against James Madison on Sept. 2 at 6 p.m. The new 4-2-5 defensive alignment will be unveiled against the Dukes, winners of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season.
Special teams coordinator Shannon Moore will be heavily involved in ECU’s designs on getting back to a bowl. The Pirates averaged just 1.8 yards on punt returns last year while opponents impacted field position with an average of 11.3 yards per punt return, just one area that needs to make a big swing in ECU’s favor.
“We didn’t play across the board as well as I would have wanted, Coach Mo (Scottie Montgomery) would have wanted, our program would have wanted,” Moore said. “I think we finished the year strong. We got better each week and we saw progress, which is what we wanted to do. We continued that progress through spring ball. . . . There were just some things in each little unit, whether it was a coverage unit or a return unit, from a protection standpoint or any of those cases that we didn’t do as well as we wanted to.
“We created a little bit more depth as the year went on and in spring ball. Our guys retained what we wanted them to do. We did some little adjustments here and there with some things, cleaned some things up and showed some good things through spring ball also.”
Austin Barnes arrives
Austin Barnes, who averaged 43.5 yards per punt at Eastern Michigan last year, has been added to the roster as a graduate transfer. The Pirates averaged 41.5 yards per punt last year.
There is ample experience on the punting unit.
“When you look at last year, we’ve really got a lot of guys coming back off that unit,” Moore said. “Our front line guys are back and our snapper, Anthony Ratliff, who was our starter last year, is back. That’s a huge component. He didn’t have any bad snaps last year, which is a huge positive. When you look at our depth chart from our first and our second unit, it’s really a lot of guys that were on it last year. We were able to just clean things up with our footwork and those kind of deals. Just from a personnel standpoint, I feel good with where we’re at with the amount of guys that we have coming back.
“We are going to change out some personnel because maybe some guys got moved to a starting spot on offense or defense and those kind of deals or we feel real good about a guy in spring ball. As Coach Mo says, we’re always going to put our best 11 guys out there every single unit, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams. We do have a lot of depth coming back. Having our snapper back always puts you at a little bit of ease.
Jake Verity and Caleb Pratt will compete for the placekicking duties.
“Those guys competed every day in the spring,” Moore said. “They each got the same amount of reps, whether it was with the one unit or the two unit. . . . That’s going to be a competition that continues. One thing that we do at the start of practice, we kick field goals against the defense. We split them up into two groups so they’ll always get the same amount of reps every single day. It’s going to be a great competition. I’m excited to see how it plays out.
“I would say coming out of spring Jake would have been a little ahead. . . . He would probably be listed at No. 1 but we will rotate those guys every single day, too — who goes with the ones, who goes with the twos, but starting [today], Jake will be the first one who will go with the ones.”
Pratt will start preseason camp as the leader to do kickoffs.
“Those two are going to battle in that spot also,” Moore said. “That’s going to be an open competition. . . . Obviously, Caleb has been the guy the last two years but Jake is going to have just as fair a shot also to be our kickoff guy, too. Those two are going to be in a lot of battles all throughout camp so it’s going to be exciting to see.
“Jake is going to be a busy guy because he’s going to compete for the punt job also. We knew he had the talent and we didn’t really have him do any of that last year. We kind of let him focus on the field goal part just because of Worth [Gregory] and we felt very, very comfortable with Worth, obviously, but in the spring I thought Jake showed some really good things. He surprised me a little bit with some of his hang time and some of his distances. I knew it was there but I didn’t get a chance to see it until spring. I was very upbeat with how he looked.
“The biggest thing we wanted him to work with was he had a little bit of a jab step at the start that we wanted to focus on and get rid of through spring ball and the summer just to make his operation time just a little bit faster, which he was able to do.”
Moore has had experience coaching eight-man teams in indoor football in Wyoming and nine-man high school teams in South Dakota.
“I was a head high school coach for three years right out of college (Black Hills State, 2000),” Moore said. “Then I went back to grad school and I went and did the arena league. I actually started the arena league just as an internship (Wyoming Cavalry) for grad school.
“The head coach ended up leaving about two weeks after I got there and the ownership group promoted me to head coach and I didn’t know anything about it.
” . . . The arena league was a little bit more like Canadian. You could send guys in motion running at the line of scrimmage and things like that. There were certain rules to blitzes. From a defensive standpoint, you really couldn’t do very much. With eight guys and rushing four every time, there’s only so many little things you can do. From an offensive standpoint, you really didn’t have to game plan very much. It was more just about personnel, which is what we do also. We try to put our guys in the best position, personnel-wise. From an offensive standpoint, maybe our best receiver and try to match him up against an outside backer or maybe a safety. That’s kind of what we did in arena league also. . . . Who’s their worst DB and who’s our worst receiver and we made sure we got them matched up 95 percent of the time. We’d live or die by that matchup right there in those games.
“There’s definitely some matchups that you always try to find, like we do in the 11-man game. Probably the biggest difference was defensively, you couldn’t do very much. There were a couple of little things you could do and so the game plan was a little bit easier. … What we tried to do at Wyoming, we always tried to recruit the fastest DBs we could because we just wanted to play man to man the whole time — not worry about any matchups — just put the four best DBs on the field that we could.”
Moore also coaches tight ends. That group will be more involved in ECU’s efforts to establish a power running game in 2017.
“That’s kind of been the biggest thing that we’ve looked at is getting our guys a little bit more involved in the box than split out wide,” Moore said. “We did that a little bit last year, not a lot, but we did do that. That was something that we looked to emphasize in the spring and over the summer, too. We’ve put a little more package stuff in where those guys are in the box, a little bit more involved in the run game which will kind of open us up to play action passes where we have opportunities to catch passes with some three-step stuff.
“But our biggest thing that I preach with my guys about is we want to be the most-physical, best blockers we can be. That’s where it will start for us on the football field. The guys that can do that the best are going to be the guys that play. We need physical guys that can block and help our offense open up for play action passes and things like that.”
The Pirates will have more options in terms of personnel to return punts and kickoffs this year.
“We’ve got about four or five guys that we’re going to look very, very hard at in the punt return game,” Moore said. “Tim [Irvin] would be one of those guys. I think, ball in his hands, he can do some special things. Obviously, we want to make sure we minimize the hits he takes with what he’s going to be doing on defense.
“But right now, just in our punt return, we’ve got more depth already right now than what we had last year. Last year, with Trevon Brown being out, Davon Grayson being out, Quay Johnson was really the only one on our team that had caught a punt in a game. Now we’ve got more depth with maybe a Tim Irvin, maybe a Blake Proehl, maybe a Mydreon Vines, Jimmy Williams is a possibility back there. Our depth that we’ve been able to create through recruiting and just getting some guys back has made us feel a little bit more comfortable back there. We’re not just hinging on one guy. It gives us a little bit of competition, too, which makes everybody better.”
Brown was not out for the first day of practice but even so, numbers are better.
“We’re definitely a lot deeper back there and we’ll have some young guys who will try out for us but we’ll definitely have a group of about four or five that we really want to hone in on and see just who’s our best and who do we feel most comfortable with giving us a chance to win,” Moore said.
The Pirates averaged 18.5 yards per kickoff return last year.
“There will be a couple of new guys back there also,” Moore said. “Like Hussein Howe. He started back there for us last year and he was kind of our backside returner. He’s not a punt returner for us. He does something different for us in our punt return scheme. We’ll be a little bit deeper, just because we need to have some more guys back there. You’re going to have a two returner look back there so we’ll be a little bit deeper back there. We also want to make sure when we’re back there, too, that we have guys that are good enough with the ball in their hands that can give us a good return but they can’t be hesitant to block someone either — whether it’s a contain guy coming from the backside, maybe it’s someone that leaks through, maybe they’re just leading up or a part of a double team. You’ve got to kind of still make sure that you’ve got a guy who’s willing to stick his face in there and block someone, too.”
Value of last year
Moore underscored the value of knowing personnel and understanding their capabilities.
“Probably for me and probably for our entire program, the thing that I’ve learned the last year is getting to know our players better — what do they do well, where can we put guys and things like that.” Moore said. “Having more depth has definitely helped us with that. We’ve got a core of about six or seven guys that are going to be a heavy part of all four of our special teams units. Being able to surround them and build around them with guys that we know they can do this, they can do that. That’s kind of been the biggest thing for me. When I look at our 105 guys that are going to come into camp, outside of our true freshmen and some of our transfers, we’ve got a better idea of who can do what. Who’s a guy who’s going to run down on kickoff and not get so caught up in who’s blocking and slow down a little bit. We’ve got to have 10 guys who are going to run down. Ten guys on punt return, where if we get a couple of different formations who can adjust and line up to that.
“That’s kind of been the biggest thing for me is we’ve got more depth but also we just know our team a little bit better, who can do what and who will be good in those spots.”
Special teams will have a core group of players.
“Joe Carter would be one of those guys,” Moore said. “Hussein Howe is another one of those guys. Austin Teague is another guy who played a lot of special teams for us last year. Ray Tillman is another guy who did that . . . and Chris Love. . . . We did a competition. We broke ourselves up into four teams last spring, drafted teams and did competition stuff every day. We ended up getting almost 2,000 reps of one-on-one competition. I took our four guys that had the most snaps and our highest production points. They were our captains that drafted. Those guys were Tre Hicks, Joe Carter, Hussein Howe and Austin Teague. Our next guy would have been Chris Love. Those five guys and Ray Tillman, who started on four units for us. Xavier Smith started on three units for us. Beau Huffman was another guy who started on two units for us. Those are guys that really played a significant amount of special teams and will do the same thing this year, too.”
JMU special teams
James Madison was productive on special teams in going 14-1 last season. The Dukes returned six punts for touchdowns and took one kickoff to the house.
“They’ve got a new special teams coordinator [Roy Tesh] so we also have to kind of be ready for everything,” Moore said. “Last year, they were very successful in the return game. . . . They were very, very dangerous in the return game. I know their punt returner [Rashard Davis] is gone but their back-up got some reps.
“I think the return game is definitely a strength for them. I also think their coverage units just play hard. They’re sound. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends that coached against them last year from the I-AA ranks (Football Championship Subdivision) that I know from North Dakota State and Youngstown. They say they’re very well-coached and they’re going to play hard. That’s going to be just like us also.”