NEWPORT, RI — It’s easy to understand why East Carolina was picked sixth and last in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference in the league’s preseason poll, which was released Tuesday in conjunction with the AAC’s football media day.
The Pirates had the fewest points (41) of any team in the 2018 projections, including Tulsa (44), which was cast into the West Division cellar.
The media did their balloting with ECU coming off a second straight 3-9 season. The Pirates were 2-6 in the AAC in 2017 with wins over Cincinnati and Connecticut, which were picked fourth and fifth respectively in the East.
The Pirates were 129th and last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense last season, yielding 541.7 yards per game. ECU was also last in scoring defense, allowing 45.0 points per contest.
Those who did the voting also were looking at an offensive unit that features a quarterbacking corps of sophomore Reid Herring, true freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi that has thrown just one collegiate pass combined.
I had the Pirates fourth in the division in the ballot that I submitted, ahead of Cincinnati and Connecticut. ECU won 41-38 at UConn in a rescheduled game on Sunday, Sept. 24, after leading, 41-21, and downed the Bearcats, 48-20, on Senior Day.
My preseason football ballot in the East had Central Florida first, followed by South Florida, Temple, ECU, Cincinnati and UConn. The Knights are coming off a 12-0 campaign with quarterback McKenzie Milton returning.
I had Houston winning the West with Memphis second. I picked Navy third with Tulsa, Tulane and Southern Methodist rounding out the division.
I picked UCF to win the championship.
The league poll had UCF, USF, Temple, Cincinnati, Connecticut and ECU in descending order in the East. Memphis was followed by Houston, Navy, SMU, Tulane and Tulsa in the West.
The overall panel also voted UCF to win the league championship game.
Trevon Brown was among the ECU contingent at media day. He had 60 catches for 1,069 yards with seven touchdowns as a junior.
“Our mindset is unbelievable right now,” Brown said. “Everyone is writing us off. They’ve got us last in our conference. We’re ready to get on the field and show the world, show everyone that we came here to play.”
The Pirates have occasionally out-performed projections in the AAC. ECU joined the league for the 2014 season and was picked fourth among 11 teams. The Pirates went 8-4 overall and 5-3 to finish in a tie for fourth with Houston.
The AAC went to two divisions in 2015. ECU was picked fourth in the East. The Pirates were 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the league to come in fifth in the division. That was the year that UCF went 0-12 with George O’Leary resigning as coach during the season.
The Knights have shown how quickly things can turn around.
Noteworthy regarding the poll is that in four of its five years, the preseason favorite has fallen short of winning the league title. The lone exception was in 2014 when Cincinnati was picked to win. The Bearcats, UCF and Memphis each went 7-1 in the AAC and shared the league title. South Florida was picked to win last season and sustained a pair of conference setbacks.
In 2016, ECU was tabbed for fifth. The Pirates (3-9, 1-7) actually were tied for fourth in Scottie Montgomery’s first season. ECU shared fourth with Cincinnati and UConn in 2017 after being fifth in the preseason media poll.
Montgomery responded to the defensive deficiencies last year by revamping the unit’s coaching staff. ECU alumnus David Blackwell was brought aboard as defensive coordinator after serving impressively in that capacity at Jacksonville State of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Blackwell also will coach linebackers. There are new assistants with the defensive line (Rodrique Wright) and safeties (Daric Riley). The focus of former secondary coach Brandon Lynch has been narrowed to the cornerbacks.
Montgomery also hired former Tennessee aide Don Mahoney as offensive line coach. The Pirates averaged 107.7 yards on the ground in 2017, which was 118th among 129 teams in the FBS, so there is plenty of room for improvement.
“He’s brought in a whole bunch of energy to this unit,” said senior right tackle Garrett McGhin of Mahoney. “He’s emphasized the run game. Everybody knows we haven’t been able to run the ball very well but he just came in with a mindset to just take over, take over games, take over personnel and just dominate at the line of scrimmage. Do the little things that other people aren’t willing to do.”
McGhin has become more streamlined, shedding about 25 pounds to improve his mobility.
“I’m very enthused about what this group (offensive line) can show people,” McGhin said.
The stable of running backs has depth and experience as well as some promising emerging talent such as Trace Christian. The run game has the potential to take some pressure off the youthful group of quarterbacks. Brown said there is sufficient depth among the receivers to keep defenses from keying on him.
Montgomery said improvements off the field in nutrition and recovery treatment will enhance the program. Jeff Connors has been applying his expertise in offseason strength and conditioning.
Alumnus Kirk Doll returned to the ECU staff as special teams coordinator as the NCAA permitted the hiring of a 10th assistant. Shannon Moore’s responsibilities will be tight ends exclusively.
The program may have bottomed out with the basement forecast in this year’s AAC preseason poll. The 30 voters may have put the proverbial chip on the shoulder of Pirate Nation.
The response begins Saturday, Sept. 1, at 6 p.m. with the season opener at home against North Carolina A&T.
The weaknesses of 2017 are obvious. The changes and potential improvements may have the Pirates operating under the radar going into 2018 with something to prove on their minds, a motivating chip on their shoulders and a return to past glory in their hearts.