Spring football practice has begun for East Carolina and all eyes are on the quarterback competition between Reid Herring, Kingsley Ifedi and prized freshman Holton Ahlers.
That’s understandable, since quarterback is the most important position on the field.
But while it does matter how the three untested youngsters perform and grow over the course of 15 practices between last Monday and the annual Purple-Gold spring game on March 24, their battle is little more than a shiny object distracting attention from the real issue that will shape ECU’s 2018 season.
And most likely, determine coach Scottie Montgomery’s future with the Pirates.
It’s all about the defense, folks.
Regardless of who eventually takes the first snap from center on Sept. 1 against NC A&T — be it one of the three currently in camp, a graduate transfer or perhaps even incumbent Gardner Minshew should his family issues be resolved — ECU has little chance of improving from its 3-9 records of the past two years by allowing its opponents to score an average of 45 points per game.
Understanding that, Montgomery has made significant changes, starting with the hiring of new defensive coordinator David Blackwell.
A member of the Pirates’ 1992 Peach Bowl team with an impressive history of success at the FCS level, Blackwell is one of three new additions to the defensive staff, joining safeties coach Daric Riley and new line coach Rodrique Wright.
As much of a difference as coaching can make, it can’t solve all of ECU’s defensive issues.
Anyone who saw South Florida’s Quinton Flowers, Virginia Tech’s Cam Phillips or James Madison’s Cardon Johnson hold their own personal track meets at the Pirates’ expense last season knows that the team is in desperate need of more speed. And the only way that can be added is through recruiting.
But that doesn’t mean the roster is devoid of talent.
Seven starters are back on defense, including promising linebacker Aaron Ramseur, nickleback Devon Sutton (the top returning tackler with 68), end Kendall Futrell and cornerback Colby Gore, whose 18 career starts are the most of anyone on the team.
Help, especially in the secondary, could also be on the way with the arrival of seven early enrolling newcomers working with the defense during spring drills. They are backs Myles Berry, Nolan Johnson, Jaren Rainey, Warren Saba and Michael Witherspoon, linebacker Xavier Smith and lineman Chandler Medeiros.
The task of Blackwell and his new staff is to provide those players with a scheme that will put them in the best positions to make plays, then teach them to consistently execute in that system — something that always seemed to be a problem under previous coordinators Kenwick Thompson and Robert Prunty.
While it’s still far too early to judge the progress they’re making after only four spring practices, most of which have been spent installing a new system and learning basics such as knowing where to line up in particular packages, Montgomery said he’s already seen a difference in at least one important area.
“I say that we have always practiced right, now we’re starting to practice well,” Montgomery said. “With their energy and intensity, what we’re getting is guys to chase the ball like I’ve never seen.”
In addition to changing the makeup of his defensive staff, Montgomery is also trying a different approach to the structure of his spring workouts by breaking up individual and positional drills with three full periods of team-on-team simulated scrimmage action.
So far, the offense and defense appear to be fairly even.
“I think right now we have a good give and take on our football team,” Blackwell said after Wednesday’s second workout. “That usually is a good sign.”
As for the quarterback situation, Herring appears to have the early lead on Ahlers and Ifedi based on the number and quality of reported first team reps they’ve been getting. But that’s to be expected considering that the redshirt sophomore from Raleigh has been in the program the longest of the three.
That QB competition has just begun and figures to carry over into the fall before it’s finally decided. As intriguing as the battle promises to be, it won’t really matter who emerges as the starter unless the Pirates’ defense improves enough to give him a realistic shot at winning games.