Even before Temple hung a 37-10 defeat on East Carolina to finish the Pirates’ 2016 season at 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference, ECU coach Scottie Montgomery was making plans to get the program turned around.
A new season is at hand as the Pirates host James Madison at 6 p.m. Saturday. Personnel upgrades through recruiting, staff changes and schematic adjustments are all part of the new package to be unveiled in the season opener.
Montgomery was excited to put the product on display as he responded to questions on Wednesday.
“You have to make some tough, hard decisions,” Montgomery said. “The first person that you have to criticize is yourself. You’ve got to be OK with that and I was OK with that, but you don’t second guess where the program stands and where it needs to go by compromising your belief system. I didn’t do that. We’re never going to do that.
“What we did need to do was we needed to become better on the football field. So the first place we started was with me. The next place was we go through each room and each position group, whether it be special teams or offensive unit and defensive unit. You have to find the reasons why we weren’t as successful as we needed to be last year.
“One thing that I knew before the Temple game was that we needed to add depth to the team. I had a jump start on that. I felt like when I evaluated our talent defensively that we were a team that was much more aligned to have four defensive linemen on the field versus four linebackers on the field. I also felt we did a good job in recruiting in the secondary. We had Tim Irvin here. We would hopefully be able to go out and add another number in the secondary to where we could get five guys that could really help us in space. Defensively, that’s where we started.
“Offensively, it killed me that we didn’t have a true running back in our backfield. What we had was athleticism and we had speed. That was where we struggled taking care of the football. I had to understand that was all a part of the process of trying to score touchdowns. We needed to put backs on the field so I wanted to adjust what we did and be able to add some real backs. We brought guys in and we talked about how they could get better. Derrell [Scott] was one of the first guys I brought in. I thought that he could be a guy that would really transition our football team. We didn’t really know about Tyshon [Dye]. We didn’t know that we were going to have a chance to get him then.
“Derrell and I talked for about 20 minutes. When he left, I told him everything that I needed to tell him. We hugged and he went to work. I had to go on the road recruiting. When I came back, he’d already made some huge gains. In February, he had already made some huge, huge gains. I knew that we were on the right track.
“Also on offense, I felt like our red zone efficiency was down. I had to look at who we were going to the ball with and why our red zone efficiency was down. Once again, that was because of turnovers. We had to really look in the mirror first.
“Special teams was one of those situations where it was just unacceptable the way that we played. I was real critical of everything that we did in special teams and then I had to be critical of who we put out there because that’s up to us. We did have some injuries, there’s no question about it, but there’s no excuse for not having our best players out there as much as we can. That’s another depth issue that we feel like we addressed.
“We just went together to work recruiting, put together the best staff and the best environment. The atmosphere is what we had to change in the building to create the culture that we wanted. That’s exactly what we’ve been able to do. Our kids are much more mature than they were last year. They had gone through a huge transition. Now, you hear them talk and it sounds like we’ve been together forever. That’s part of the process.”
Gardner Minshew made two starts at quarterback for the Pirates last year and won the preseason camp competition with Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk.
“It was really close,” Montgomery said. “There were a couple of areas that Gardner exceeded in. . . . Defensively and offensively, I had all the guys kind of grade and give me their thoughts. At the end of the day, I was going to make a decision off of what I thought.
“I also wanted to be inclusive of everybody. Let’s talk about it and let’s every day grade each level of performance. What we realized after day six was that we had two major Power Five quarterbacks. Then we were all pretty pleased. . . . They talked to me everyday. Like, Coach, I mean these guys are good. We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do. At the end of the day, we made it off of some detailed things that we put together and it was very close.”
Minshew was learning on the fly as a sophomore.
“He went from like driving an automatic to driving a stick shift,” Montgomery said. “It was like you were getting ready to leave and go on a trip and you just have to get in a car and learn on the run. You’ll learn but it just takes a little bit longer to learn if you’re just thrown out there on a highway versus if you’re thrown out there on a back road or a dirt road like I kind of grew up learning how to drive.
“What he had to do was learn on a highway. The offseason gave him the ability to go back out there on some of those dirt roads and learn all the little things that you can do — the friction point, being on a hill and being able to get it up the hill. All those things that you’re able to learn on the dirt road and when you grow up in the country that you don’t get a chance to learn, he’s gotten a chance to learn, which is really, really critical. Now he knows our system.
“Now we have two quarterbacks who can get it fixed at the line of scrimmage. Gardner really has a great understanding of what we want him to do out there on the field.”
Minshew led Northwest Mississippi Community College to a national championship before coming to ECU.
“With Gardner and his pedigree coming out, we knew that he was really, really talented,” Montgomery said. “Our players, as soon as he got here, were talking about how talented he was. The new guy, that’s what they called him at that point in time, but he hadn’t had any practice with them. He just basically showed up and tried to go to work in camp. He had been here a few weeks but he didn’t know anything so when we put him in the game, we were so limited in what we could do because he didn’t really get a whole lot of chance for install in spring. He got a summer camp install, which is a two-week install. But now, with everything he’s been able to learn, playing in junior college and coming in and getting a year under his belt here and actually playing a lot this year, we’re looking forward to him having a big, big year.”
James Madison returns Bryan Schor at quarterback and has added Marcus Marshall, a transfer from Georgia Tech, at running back. Former ECU assistant Donnie Kirkpatrick is the Dukes’ offensive coordinator.
“Big-time challenge,” Montgomery said. “They scored 47 points a game. Holding opponents to 21 points a game. . . . A really, really talented group and they’ve gotten better from last year. We know that we’re really challenged. Defensively, I’ve known Bob Trott a long time. He coached me when I was in college. We have a lot of familiarity with a lot of things that they do. What they’ve been able to do that has transitioned the program for the last four or five years when Everett [Withers] was the head football coach and now Coach [Mike Houston] is continuing it, they’re being very selective on who they bring in as transfers from Power Six schools. That’s part of it. You’ve got to have a certain amount of guys that come in who can play at a high level. But you’ve also got to have a lot of humility when they come into that situation because it’s different and some guys like to talk about where they’ve been and not where they’re going.
“Our challenge is they’re very talented and, offensively, as sound a group as you’ll see. Defensively, as sound a group as you’ll see, and special teams as well. We’ve got to go out and play the way that we’ve practiced and we’ve prepared. We’re a good football team. We’ve grown a lot. Our length on defense will cause people problems and our ability to be multiple on offense will cause people problems. We’re looking forward to this new football club that we put out there.”
Message to fans
The atmosphere at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium can decide games. Montgomery said the Pirates need a supportive boost.
“We’ve got seven home games this year,” Montgomery said. “This one is our first one, which makes it our most critical game for support. Our players want to see it and truly deserve it . . . because of how hard they’re working. The product is growing and getting better. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re going to a level of football that everyone is going to be proud of. They’re going to be talking about it for years and years and years to come. We’re going to have the type of product that people will be very sad if they miss.
“It’s OK for people to be a little bit down about last year because I don’t think if we were all feeling good about the way things were last year in this building and our football student-athletes, then we wouldn’t be able to transition the way that we’ve been able to transitioned this year.
“We need you. That’s the first thing that I would say. These kids enjoy playing in the best atmosphere in the conference every single week. We need you. They’re giving everything that they’ve got. We’re making sure they’re doing things the right way on and off the field. This is a football program. We’ve maybe had some good football teams in the past, but what we’re trying to do is make sure that we have the best football program in the conference.”
Last season’s value
As disappointing and frustrating as 2016 became for the Pirates, it did have some value going forward.
“Last season has some value in terms of motivation for this year,” Montgomery said. “It also has some value as far as information. If you do the research, the guys who have been very productive in this conference over the last three to four years, outside of maybe one team, have all had to start and flip and transition a program. If you go back and look at South Florida, Temple, even going back several years looking at what Memphis had to do and the way that they did it. There’s a process, if you go back and take a look at it and watch the way that we’re building this program and how that works.”
Memphis was 3-9 in 2013. Temple and USF were both 2-10 that season.
“There is a lot of value in it,” Montgomery said. ” . . . The emotion on this team is going to be so high on Saturday and every Saturday after that because they feel that they were better than they played last year. They felt like they had to put in the work that they didn’t put in last year and they feel like they’ve done that.”