GREENVILLE — As East Carolina players and coaches fielded questions at the annual media day in the Murphy Center on Saturday after two days of preseason practice, there was a general acknowledgement that the program has not performed up to traditional standards.
Before three straight losing seasons, ECU went to bowl games in eight of nine previous campaigns.
The Pirates have had back-to-back 3-9 records and are picked last in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division.
“We’re bringing that old ECU back,” said running back Darius Pinnix, who gained 229 yards on 74 carries as a true freshman in 2017. “Going to bowl games, winning bowl games, beating top teams in the nation. We’re going to get our swag back, because 3-9 — that’s not us.
“Coach Mo (Scottie Montgomery) is emphasizing that toward us. You’re going to see the first game how big of an impact we’re about to make.”
Pinnix and the Pirates will be looking to get off on the right foot against North Carolina A&T in the season opener at home on Saturday, Sept. 1 ,at 6 p.m. The Aggies are not a tune-up from the Football Championship Subdivision for a visit from North Carolina the following week. A&T is coming off an unbeaten season and deserves respect in its own right.
ECU stumbled out of the gate last year with a 34-14 loss at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to James Madison, the 2016 FCS champion.
Last season, the Pirates brought in a number of graduate transfers. Thomas Sirk, who came from Duke, made seven starts at quarterback, completing 132 of 238 passes for 1,655 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Gardner Minshew (174-304, 2,140 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs) would likely have been the starter this season but transferred to Washington State.
If this is to be a turnaround season, it will have to be done with some emerging personnel, including the group with Reid Herring, Holton Ahlers and Kingsley Ifedi at quarterback. While Herring has thrown the lone collegiate pass among the trio, Montgomery says the inexperience factor is offset by the quarterbacks’ talent and understanding of the system and terminology.
Herring’s only aerial went for a 20-yard touchdown to Trevon Brown in a 48-20 win over Cincinnati on Senior Day last year. The list of skill personnel with unquestionably proven ability pretty much starts and stops with Brown, who had 60 catches for 1,069 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. Brown had two scoring receptions of 95 yards in 2017, setting the school record for the longest touchdown pass play in school history at West Virginia and matching that against Cincinnati.
Montgomery says the program has made strides in terms of talent level and depth as well as nutrition and recovery procedures.
“We’re going to gain weight throughout the year this year, because of the things we’ve added,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to have to have some guys step up. . . . Then that oblong pigskin ball — every now and then it’s going to have to hit the ground and bounce right up to a guy or we’re going to have to have one finger on it and it rolls right back into our hands. You’ve got to have some good things go right.”
The Pirates didn’t invest wholesale in graduate transfers this past offseason, but have been developing players within the program.
Montgomery says the situation reminds him of the 2013 season at Duke when he was an assistant at his alma mater.
“We had graduated an experienced quarterback,” Montgomery said. “Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette had not played at all. Jamison Crowder had made plays and he was an established player, but we didn’t have any more established players at receiver. Our running backs were young. Our defense was really young. … There were a lot of things that we didn’t have, but we realized that we were talented. Very similar to this, this year.
“We’re going to need our young players to play like veterans and veterans to play with eagerness that some young players play with.”
The 2013 Duke team went 10-4 overall and 6-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference after going 6-7 overall and 3-5 in league play in 2012.
The AAC will be have an officiating alliance with the ACC starting this season that Montgomery indicated could allow more physical play and fewer flags.
“We’ll see what we see,” said the third-year ECU coach.
In 2017, Clemson transfer Korrin Wiggins was in on a team-high 96 tackles. Jordan Williams was second with involvement in 89 stops. Both completed eligibility and their departure coincides with a complete makeover on the defensive unit. Alumnus David Blackwell is on board as the third defensive coordinator in two years.
“The scheme has changed a lot,” said defensive back Tim Irvin, who talks to his uncle, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, on a regular basis.
Linebacker Cannon Gibbs was in on 50 tackles last year and said that Blackwell has the unit’s attention.
“He obviously played here back in the ’90s when they were a very successful program,” Gibbs said. “Ever since then, he’s been nothing but that [successful] as a coach. We know he is very intelligent from a coaching standpoint. We’re going to listen to what he says. . . . We believe in him. He’s our boss. We’re going to do what he tells us.
“Just his mentality. He’s really got us on the same page.”
New defensive coaches Rod Wright (line) and Daric Riley (safeties) join Blackwell, who will work with linebackers.
New offensive line coach Don Mahoney has retooled the front and the Pirates are looking for increased production from the ground game. That could take some pressure off the youthful quarterbacking corps and possibly keep the defense off the field for longer intervals.
Kirk Doll has returned as special teams coordinator. Punter John Young has transferred from West Virginia.
Doll said there is a lot of depth among the punt and kick returners. Jake Verity projects as the field goal kicker and Caleb Pratt returns to do kickoffs. Coverage teams likely will get a boost from more personnel as players can see action in four games under new regulations before losing redshirt status.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen possibly will be able to evaluate Ahlers in game situations with the additional allowances, but also sees increased numbers as keeping the Pirates fresher and healthier overall for the demands of conference play.
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Doll was a senior defensive tackle at ECU in 1972 when the Pirates won the Southern Conference. He was serving as special teams coordinator at ECU in 2013, the last season which produced a bowl winner for the Pirates.
“When you go look at the new facility and the locker room and all that, then you look at Scales Field House, that’s where we started out,” Doll said. “That weight room is no longer in existence. The program has obviously come a long ways.
“I’m proud to be an East Carolina Pirate. A great group of people, the Pirate Club, has provided all this for us. Recruiting is going to help us get back. … There are a lot of good things happening and we’re looking forward to it. … All I can tell you is those guys are excited about the opportunity to showcase themselves.
“East Carolina, the Pirate family, will be very proud of them.”