Tony Petersen is back for his third season as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina. The Pirates and Petersen are looking to improve on a pair of 3-9 seasons.
ECU needs dramatic improvement defensively under new coordinator David Blackwell and coach Scottie Montgomery said the goal is just to be one point better than the opposition. Petersen is looking at a quarterback competition that will provide the Pirates with a homegrown starter for the first time since Shane Carden in 2014.
Since then, ECU has relied on a succession of transfers — Blake Kemp, James Summers, Philip Nelson, Gardner Minshew and Thomas Sirk.
What the Pirates lack in experience among the trio that includes sophomore Reid Herring, true freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi, the coaches feel can be offset by familiarity with the system and better mobility.
There has been an emphasis on running the ball more effectively with former Tennessee assistant Don Mahoney directing the offensive line. The run game can take pressure off the passing attack and provide more rest for the defense.
“You’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Petersen said. “If you want to win games, you’ve got to be able to run the ball. I start with the quarterbacks because we’ve got three quarterbacks that can all run the ball. If the quarterback can run the ball, you’re really helping the running game because of the way they’ve got to play you on defense.”
Anthony Scott returns at running back. Scott missed 2017 after averaging 48.0 yards rushing in eight games in 2016.
“Anthony Scott helps,” Petersen said, “We’ve got a lot of depth at running back. Anthony gives you that dynamic playmaker, the guy that can hit the 60-yard play right there.
“Up front, that’s the toughest position to get good at. It’s taken us the longest and I’m not saying we’re there, but we’re a lot farther ahead than we were the first year and the second year. If those kids develop and we’ve got four kids coming back that all have a lot of snaps in our system last year. They just keep getting a little bit better every time we go out there. If they get a little bit better about getting a hat on a hat, the next thing you know you get a little bit more talent at running back, all of a sudden your quarterback starts to be able to run it instead of always being just passers. It starts changing our defensive play against you. Then you start getting some extended explosion plays. I’m looking forward to the run game.”
Herring has thrown the only collegiate pass among the quarterback contenders, a 20-yard touchdown to Trevon Brown in a 48-20 Senior Day win over Cincinnati last year. Ahlers had huge numbers in his high school career at D.H. Conley while Ifedi had similar run-throw success at Charlotte Vance.
“They’re all getting reps,” Petersen said. “Right now, it’s Reid, Holton and Kingsley probably, but Kingsley has pulled himself up a lot closer to Holton, just in the offseason. He’s had the biggest improvement. I’m not saying Holton hasn’t improved. From where Kingsley was in the spring until now, he’s improved the most. They’ve all improved. They’re all doing well. We’ve got three really good, young quarterbacks.”
Ifedi said Montgomery told him he wanted to see more from the redshirt freshman during a post-spring conference. Ifedi has sought to comply.
“A guy like Kingsley has been here and had a complete year in our offense,” Petersen said. “Holton came in and had a whole spring in our offense. We’re solid at the quarterback position. We’re talented there. We’ve got a lot of talent at the wide receiver position. We’ve got some kids back. We’ve got an exceptional player, Trevon Brown. Two young kids (Leroy Henley, Blake Proehl) that hurt their knees last year. They’re 100 percent. They’re having a great camp. Then the other guys, Tahj Deans, Deondre Farrier, Terrell Green out there. The freshman, (Juwan) Moody, in there. We’ve got a lot of depth and talent right there and guys that know what they’re doing. They really put in the work in the offseason.”
Petersen has seen quarterbacks step up despite limited experience.
“When I left [Louisiana Tech], there was a quarterback there named Ryan Higgins,” said the ECU OC. “Ryan had been with me for three years and had never been the guy. He had been in the system for three years and I knew he hadn’t played any games, but he ended up going out and being offensive player of the year. He had the best year of any of the quarterbacks there.
“I’m not saying that Reid [Herring] is going to be offensive player of the year, but he’s been in the system for two years. He’s watched guys have a lot of mistakes. He’s watched guys have some success. He’s taken a lot of snaps and he makes good decisions with the football. He can not only hurt you with his arm. He’s got exceptional arm talent. Reid can run. He makes people miss so he doesn’t take a lot of hits. He’s going to extend plays also.”
Herring hasn’t had to feed a big ego.
“Reid has been gradual, learning the offense,” Petersen said. “You know what he’s never been? All these quarterbacks want to come in and they’ve all been told how great they are because they were all heavily recruited in high school. They all expect to come in and play as freshmen. That’s just not reality I don’t think for that position. Reid has never been that way. He’s come in and never said a word. He’s talking a lot more, which I’m trying to get him to work on. He’s gradually learned and learned and learned. If he only got this many snaps as a freshman, he didn’t say anything. He took his snaps and he learned. He’s kept getting better and better and better. He’s very talented. He’s got a lot of God-given ability. He’s doing a great job. All three of them are.”
There is competition remaining before ECU opens the season at home against N.C. A&T on Saturday, Sept. 1, at 6 p.m.
“I’m not going to say we’re committed to [Herring], but he’s ahead of both guys,” Petersen said. “It’s pretty dramatic as far as understanding the offense and executing the offense. As far as seeing anything major, I think it would be hard for them to take it from him. But I’m excited about them because at the quarterback position, you’re a snap away from the next guy. Then you’re a snap away from the next guy. If you don’t have a two and a three ready to go and something happens at the quarterback position, you’re losing football games. I’m always trying to get three guys ready. You never know what might happen back there.”
Herring has grown physically since arriving from Millbrook.
“Reid came in at about 172 pounds,” Petersen said. “Go stand up next to Reid now. He still looks skinny, but you’re talking about a 6-3, 200-pound kid right now. When I had Rakeem Cato at Marshall, I started him at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds and he was one of the better players to ever play at that school. Reid’s plenty big enough. What Reid does, he’s very much like Cato used to be. He never takes that direct hit because he’s athletic and he’s fast. If somebody is coming free, he’s got that athletic ability to move and he’s never taken that big hit. Some of the quarterbacks we’ve had the last two years haven’t had that same athleticism. They took some hits and really some hard hits. He just doesn’t take them.”
New regulations will allow players to see action in up to four games before losing their potential to be redshirted. That could allow an extended evaluation of Ahlers and leave him with four years of eligibility. The Pirates will have a higher volume of players available for matchups with North Carolina (Sept. 8) and at Virginia Tech (Sept. 15).
“Right now, he’s in the back-up role,” Petersen said of the former Conley phenom. “That doesn’t mean that’s going to stay that way, but with that situation you can play him up to four games. Then you’ve got to make a decision whether you’re going to redshirt him or not. Same thing with anybody. Kingsley has already been redshirted, but like Coach Montgomery said, that second year we go boom, boom, boom, Power Fives right there. This will allow us to play more bodies in those games. You get through those, we play some young guys. You can sit them down and that helps us in those conference games. I think it’s a great rule.”
The first American Athletic Conference game is at South Florida on Sept. 22.
One program goal has been to show more diversity on offense, incorporating a tight end into the attack, but that depends on relative talent among the wide receivers.
“We’re going to play as much 11 personnel (one tight end) as we can with what we call a tight end, an H back, kind of a fullbackish kind of guy,” Petersen said. “The better player they are, the more we’ll play with them. That’s not our most talented position. We’ve got Anthony Watley. We’ve got Ben Norris. Both of them are young, getting better. We’ve got (Johnny) Bogle in. He’s having a great camp for a freshman. If our fourth wide receiver is much more talented than bringing a tight end in, then it’s tough, especially when you spread them out and you’ve got a quarterback who can distribute the ball. You can still run the ball out of 10 personnel (no tight end). The more talented they are, the more [the tight ends] will play. If that fourth wide receiver is a lot more talented than them, then we might be a little more 10 personnel.”
There is depth at running back.
“I think they’re all different,” Petersen said of the ball carriers. “We’ve probably got four guys right now. We’ve got Anthony Scott, we’ve got [Hussein] Howe, [Darius] Pinnix, we’ve got Trace Christian. And then, we brought in a freshman (Ty Thompson). You’ve got four guys right now who have played. We’re going to have to see how that goes in camp, . . . who’s making plays right there, who understands the offense the best. You don’t want to play with one running back. You want to play with two to three running backs, but we’ll see what happens. Maybe it comes down to a thing, who’s hot in games. We’re going to see how it shakes out at the running back position. There’s no definite order right there.”
Montgomery has said the Pirates may use more gadgetry on offense.
“I love trick plays,” Petersen said. “The last few years we’ve run some trick plays, . . . but we’ve been in situations where you get down by 21 points, even if you hit a trick play, nobody even remembers it. At Houston, the first play of the game was a trick play. I love trick plays. But if you don’t hit it, nobody remembers it. This year, we hit it, we explode right there.”
ECU has commitments from quarterbacks Alex Flinn of Asheville Reynolds and Bryan Gagg of Braden River (FL) for the upcoming signing class.
Petersen was asked what he looks for in prospective quarterbacks.
“The first thing, I want a kind of kid who’s going to be your leader, your winner,” Petersen said. “He’s got to be that kind of kid. I’ve got to have that. I don’t want to have to worry about that. As soon as I get to their ability, I’m looking for arm talent. Does he naturally throw the ball well enough? Does he naturally throw the ball accurate enough? You either have it or you don’t. High school coaches come ask me, ‘What drills do you have for my guy? He doesn’t throw it very well.’ I’m like, ‘Go get another one.’ I’m not dealing with that. I’m looking for that.
“Then I’m looking for — you’d love to have a guy who’s over six feet tall. You’d love to have a guy who can run and make people miss. There’s all those things right there, but I’m looking for a winner, a leader and I’ve got to have good enough arm talent. ”
A lot of hollering isn’t necessarily part of the Petersen quarterback profile. That’s not Herring’s style.
“He’s a quiet leader,” Petersen said. “The kids love him. He doesn’t talk as much as people I’ve had in the past. But he does it in a different way. He does it with how he plays. He’s the guy. He’s out there. … Holton is a little different out there, but he also carries himself. Shoot, he’s a freshman and he carries himself like he’s been out there and he’s the man. I tell them all, “When you’re in there, I don’t care who you are, which one you are, when you’re in there, you’re the man, you’re the quarterback. You’ve got to act that way.'”
The defense has made staff, scheme and personnel adjustments.
“Like Coach Montgomery said, ‘We’ve got to bet better on defense,'” Petersen said. “We’ve struggled on defense here the last two years. I’m not saying we’ve been great on offense. We’ve done OK.
“I’ve always looked at it — if we’ve got to score 55 points to win, we’ve got to score 55 points. … That’s what my job is. The defensive coordinator’s job is to hold them to one less than us. The head coach’s job is both sides right there. I love it when we have a great defense. I think we will be a lot better on defense and that will help us on offense. I’m looking forward to that, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to score one more point than them. I don’t worry about the other side. I hope we’re good on the other side. It makes it easier.”
East Carolina’s last winning team in 2014 featured current Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley as offensive coordinator.
“This school has been an offensive program, but I worked for Skip Holtz [at Louisiana Tech] and I know Greg Hudson (former ECU defensive coordinator),” Petersen said. “I know back when they were here, they line up in 4-3, cover four, and beat people. . . . They had some defensive linemen up there that are making a lot of money in the NFL. They were pretty good. But they’ve also been good on offense also. . . . We’ve had some good times on offense here. We’ve just killed ourselves at times and really should have scored a lot more points than we have the last couple of years. The plays have been there. We haven’t executed as well as we need to.”
The AAC is a very tough league in which to gain ground.
“I think it’s real good,” Petersen said. “It’s the best non-Power Five conference in the country in my opinion. It’s not even close. I think we had three teams in this conference last year that all had the ability to be the Jan. 1 bowl game player — Central Florida, South Florida and Memphis. Those were the three top non-Power Five schools in my opinion in the whole country and they’re all in our league. We’ve got to play them all. Top to bottom, it’s a good league. It’s a totally different league than what East Carolina used to be in.
“We’ve got to find a way to do it. We’ve got a great stadium. We’ve got great fans. We’re recruiting great kids. We’re building a program. Shoot, Central Florida was 0-12, then 6-6, then 12-0 in a three-year span. We’ve got to build that here and we feel like we’re heading in that direction. The American is better and that means you’ve got to play better. You’ve got to recruit better players. . . . It’s a great league. It’s not an easy league. You don’t sit there and say, ‘There’s four wins right there.’ That ain’t it. … Then East Carolina plays the toughest nonconference schedule in the country. It’s just what we do. That’s fine. I have no problem. All around, it’s tough. You’ve got to get ready to stroke it every week.”
The Pirates can’t afford to repeat the history that included a 34-14 loss to James Madison in the 2017 season opener.
“We played bad last year,” Petersen said. “We didn’t deserve to win that football game. We could have easily won that football game.
“I expect us to show up, execute better on both sides of the ball and in special teams and get out there and win this football game the first game. That’s what we expect to do. We did not play well enough, execution-wise, on offense, defense or special teams to beat James Madison last year, who was a very good I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) team. They won the national championship (2016) and played for it the next year. You play a team like that, you’ve got to show up and execute. We didn’t do that.”