East Carolina will open the 2018 season at home against North Carolina A&T, on Sept. 1, at 6 p.m., but the Aggies will not be playing their first game when they travel to Greenville.
A&T, coming off a 12-0 season on the Football Championship Subdivision level that included a 21-14 win over Grambling in the Celebration Bowl, will get their follow-up campaign underway in Montgomery, AL, in the FCS Kickoff Game on ESPN against Jacksonville State on Aug. 25.
A&T was the only unbeaten team in its subdivision last year but did not participate in the FCS playoffs. The Aggies finished No. 6 in the FCS Coaches Poll. The Gamecocks (10-2) were No. 10 in the final poll.
The matchup in Montgomery certainly will be an intriguing one for new ECU defensive coordinator David Blackwell. He presented a formidable unit in the same post at Jacksonville State for the last four years. His first game back at his alma mater will be against A&T.
Who gets the upper hand from the staggered schedule is certainly an issue for debate. The Pirates will have a fresh scout while the Aggies will benefit from that generally-acknowledged week one to week two improvement bump, the one that occurs as programs move past opening-game jitters and iron out kinks exposed in the initial outing.
The caliber of A&T’s opponent likely will keep the Aggies from being too basic in their opener and ECU will get an idea of the tweaks that have been made as former defensive coordinator Sam Washington has taken over following the retirement of ex-ECU assistant Rod Broadway after the perfect season.
A&T is expected to return quarterback Lamar Raynard, who completed 186 of 285 passes for 2,707 yards with 26 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2017. Running back Marquell Cartwright had 224 carries for 1,112 yards and 13 scores as a junior. Elijah Bell was one of Raynard’s top targets as a sophomore with 54 catches for 858 yards with 11 TDs.
Linebacker Jeremy Taylor is gone after recording a team-high 65 tackles (46 solo, 19 assists) with a team-high five interceptions.
Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery said the process of preparations for the Aggies began in the offseason. ECU lost its first game last year, 34-14, to James Madison, the 2016 FCS champion. Montgomery felt that setback established an unwanted tone as the Pirates went on to go 3-9 overall and 2-6 in the American Athletic Conference.
Getting off on the right foot for the Pirates in 2018 is more about ECU than its adversary.
Some glaring deficiencies must be resolved if the Pirates are to keep Montgomery from following former athletic director Jeff Compher to the exit.
Montgomery is a master at generating optimism and bringing Blackwell aboard was a step toward bolstering a defense that allowed 45.0 points and 541.7 yards per game last year.
Montgomery insists that playing with personnel his staff has recruited will have an impact. Kendall Futrell and Alex Turner project as leaders on the defensive front. Youthful linebackers Aaron Ramseur and Bruce Bivens are being groomed as leaders. Senior Corey Seargent will be among those counted on in the secondary. ECU should have more depth across the board.
On offense, the quarterback corps is inexperienced with just one college pass between Reid Herring, heralded true freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi. Gardner Minshew, who ended 2017 as the starter, has moved on to Washington State.
Herring’s one toss as a redshirt freshman last year went to Trevon Brown for a touchdown. He appears to have sound judgment and a good arm. Brown had 60 catches for 1,069 yards with seven TDs as a junior.
Anthony Scott figures to return to a running back corps that will include Hussein Howe (419 yards in 2017), hard-running Darrius Pinnix and spring game hero Trace Christian. Keyshawn Canady provides an element of speed after converting from corner to running back.
The Pirates have promised to use their tight ends more for power and have confidence in Anthony Watley in that role. New offensive line coach Don Mahoney is working with an experienced group that includes Garrett McGhin, D’Ante Smith and sophomore center John Spellacy, who started as a true freshman.
Jake Verity and Caleb Pratt are contending for the kicker and punter jobs under new special teams coordinator Kirk Doll, an ECU alumnus who served previously under former Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill.
There are five new coaches on staff, including defensive line coach Rodrique Wright and safeties coach Daric Riley. Their effectiveness will play a part in determining if ECU gets back to a bowl after a three-season absence.
Before the Pirates think about the postseason, their focus will be on taking care of business on Labor Day weekend and making an essential first step toward bowl eligibility.
Week two, when ECU hosts North Carolina, already has the attention of Pirate Nation and that makes week one success all the more vital. The Pirates don’t need to be dealing with negative momentum as they take on the Tar Heels, three-game winners themselves a year ago.
The schedule has the potential for a nice build if ECU could take a 2-0 record into its first road game at Virginia Tech on Sept. 15. The AAC opener is the following Saturday, Sept. 22, at South Florida.
Some big names and big games await, but, hopefully, the Pirates have learned the value of beating an FCS foe to get things going.