GREENVILLE — Like a fleet of super heroes, graduate transfers have arrived at East Carolina.
In addition to a shipload of winning experience, the new Pirates have helped generate much-needed optimism after a 3-9 season in 2016.
“When you get a graduate transfer, the first thing you get is completion, meaning somebody who has attention to detail to complete their college degree,” said second-year ECU coach Scottie Montgomery. “They’re mature. You also need to be looking for guys as graduate transfers that have a certain level of humility.
“All of the guys that we have here, I had a chance to speak with, sit down with most of them, spend time with most of them — a lot of time — and find out if they were a fit from a humility standpoint. Also, you want guys who feel like it’s their last chance. You want guys that are very, very hungry.”
Montgomery said booming punts from Austin Barnes, a grad transfer from Eastern Michigan, were a highlight in practice Saturday morning before players and coaches gathered at the Murphy Center for media day.
“Best practice I’ve seen in the six years I’ve been here,” offered Brian Overton, director of player development.
That’s an encouraging statement for a program looking for a total transformation from the struggles that produced a 1-7 record in the American Athletic Conference last year.
Korrin Wiggins, younger brother of former Pirate receiver Reese Wiggins, came from Clemson and will join Tim Irvin, nephew of NFL hall of famer Michael Irvin, in the defensive backs room.
First-year secondary coach Brandon Lynch is anticipating a significant impact from the experienced newcomers. Irvin started in Auburn’s nickel package as a true freshman in 2015. Unlike the grad transfers, Irvin had to sit out a season to meet NCAA regulations.
“They both have a championship attitude and intensity about themselves,” Lynch said. “Guys rally behind them. We said that we really want to tackle well in space, play top down on routes and really have great effort. Those are two players that really embody what we’re trying to get accomplished.”
Wiggins acknowledged the adjustment factor after playing 1,007 career snaps at Clemson. Wiggins was in for 194 snaps during the Tigers’ national championship season in 2016.
“I’m new, pretty much just trying to get in with the coaches here and lead my segment group because I do have that experience and I’m an older guy,” Wiggins said. “Just making sure the mentality is right here and we’ve all got that same, common goal. Last year was last year. This is a new team, a new journey.”
Wiggins said playing closer to his family was the deciding factor in picking ECU over Maryland, Michigan and Oregon for his final college season. He was a Shrine Bowl selection at Hillside High School in Durham.
Wiggins said ECU’s talent was comparable to Clemson’s.
“Talent is everywhere,” Wiggins said. “Some guys get overlooked in this recruiting game. I don’t consider this a lower school. . . . I don’t feel like there’s a talent difference.”
The ECU staff tried not to overlook anyone that could pressure opposing quarterbacks, which would obviously help the secondary with its coverage responsibilities. The Pirates had just eight sacks last season.
Gaelin Elmore, a defensive end and graduate transfer from Minnesota, chose the Pirates over offers from Houston, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas Tech and West Virginia. He had 9.5 career tackles for loss and was a Big Ten All-Academic selection.
“What helped the decision, to be honest, was the fact that there were other graduate transfers coming here,” Elmore said. “Being a grad transfer is a weird situation. It’s really the free agency of college football. To not know anyone who has really experienced that and to not know what to expect coming into it, to come in with like-minded guys who wanted to achieve the same things I wanted to achieve, who have the same goals that I have, really helps.
“When I visited, I visited with Tyshon Dye and we became good friends. We talked throughout the whole process. That was a factor on top of the opportunity to do something special here. A lot of us had opportunities to go to a bigger school where we might have been overlooked a little bit more. The impact we would have had might have been taken for granted a little bit. Here, we can help do something with a bunch of guys who are hungry, with a staff that’s hungry, with a fan base that’s hungry, something that people will remember for a very long time.”
Dye, a running back from Clemson, was the target of a recruiting push from Miami. He dealt with a back injury at Clemson that limited his career numbers to 76 carries for 351 yards with five touchdowns.
The Pirates are looking to run the ball more effectively after getting 3.9 yards per rush last season.
“I felt like it was a great opportunity,” said Dye of his move to ECU. “I wanted to try to prove to the coaches that I still can play, that I can help and contribute with the other graduate transfers. I feel like we can help the team a lot, maybe help an area or make an area even better.
“Coach Mo is a great guy and I’m glad he gave us the opportunity to come here and play for him.”
Montgomery’s former role as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Duke no doubt influenced the graduate transfer choice of former Blue Devils quarterback, Thomas Sirk, who has spent the summer learning the Pirates’ offense. Sirk will compete for playing time with Gardner Minshew, who the Pirates had hoped to redshirt last year.
Sirk guided Duke to a win in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2015, the first postseason victory for the Blue Devils since 1961.
“Experience is a huge thing when it comes to playing quarterback,” Sirk said. “That’s what I have, having started a full season. I didn’t want to come in and say my experience is going to override anything. I wanted to come in and I wanted to learn this offense. From me, you’ll get a guy who’s going to go out there and compete hard every play. I’m going to battle and try to win every football game.
“For me, winning is most important. It’s not about me. It’s about the team and it’s about winning.”
The Pirates have a demanding schedule that starts Sept. 2 with James Madison, the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision winners. That’s followed by a trip to West Virginia and a home game against Virginia Tech. ECU will have an open date before hosting nationally-ranked South Florida in the Pirates’ AAC opener.
“We’re starting off with James Madison, a team that’s coming in here with a lot of confidence,” Sirk said. “They’re coming off a championship and we have to prepare for them. We can’t overlook them to week two. We have to take each week as it goes. . . . We have great opponents that we have to prepare for. We have to know coming into each game that we did everything we could to be ready for when we step on to the field.”
Assimilating five graduate transfers of the caliber of those seeking to improve ECU is one reason Montgomery has talked about the value of team chemistry.
The Pirate coach believes grad transfers will be an element of future success.
“We’re going to continue to try to attack graduate transfers,” Montgomery said. “We’re not going to win every year like we won this year. This is unbelievable. The way these coaches recruited this year — I’ve never been around it. We always tried to get one maybe, but to be able to hit the way we hit this year is really a testament to our coaching staff. Those guys did a good job.”