As East Carolina looks to improve on a 3-9 finish in 2017 that included a 2-6 record in the American Athletic Conference, there isn’t significant optimism regarding the Pirates outside the program.
ECU was picked to finish sixth and last in the AAC East Division in the league’s preseason media poll. Athlon Sports’ College Football magazine projects the Pirates to go 2-10 overall in 2018 and 1-7 in conference play.
The most obvious concerns relate to a defense that yielded an average of 45.0 points per game last year — last in the Football Bowl Subdivision — and inexperience at quarterback.
ECU has addressed issues on defense by hiring alumnus David Blackwell as coordinator. There are two new coaches on that side of the ball (Rod Wright, defensive line and Daric Riley, safeties) in addition to Blackwell, who will work with linebackers. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen has expressed confidence in the emerging talents of Reid Herring among the Pirate quarterbacks.
Coach Scottie Montgomery, entering his third season at the helm, believes there is more depth across the board as players developed during his tenure comprise the personnel. Montgomery hired former Tennessee staffer Don Mahoney as offensive line coach with the aim of bolstering a ground game that produced 3.3 yards per rush last season. Montgomery has a modest goal of raising that number to 4.0.
Kirk Doll is back on staff as special teams coordinator. The program has won with Doll around, dating back to a Southern Conference championship in 1972 when Doll was a defensive tackle. The Pirates earned three bowl berths from 2012 to 2015 when Doll was serving as special teams guru and running backs coach.
Off the field, Montgomery believes better nutrition and recovery programs will close the gap between ECU and its AAC peers. The players like improvements in the locker room and team areas. Perhaps happy Pirates will make Pirate Nation happy as well.
Former ECU athletic director Dave Hart in a role as special advisor in athletics tends to generate confidence in the trickle down effects of his leadership.
The fact is everybody has issues as the season approaches. Preseason No. 1 and defending playoff champion Alabama has just three starters back on defense. The perception, of course, is that the Tide has more than adequate means to replace its losses.
Everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses. How well teams play to their strengths and minimize their areas in question is a key.
Here is a look at some issues that teams the Pirates face this season will be dealing with as well as some perspective on the matchups:
North Carolina A&T (Sept. 1, Greenville)
The Aggies were unbeaten last season and return some experienced talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Former ECU assistant Rod Broadway has retired as coach and Sam Washington was promoted from defensive coordinator. Montgomery is a prime example of the potential pitfalls in that transition from coordinator to head coach.
ECU will line up against A&T with a full awareness of the dangers of facing a Football Championship Subdivision power to start the season after a 34-14 loss to James Madison to kick off 2017.
The 6 p.m. start will mark the first time these programs have met on the gridiron.
North Carolina (Sept. 8, Greenville)
The Tar Heels have taken a personnel hit with the suspensions of players including quarterback Chazz Surratt for selling shoes in violation of NCAA regulations. UNC also is looking for atonement from a 3-9 season. There seems to be some disenchantment with coach Larry Fedora in Chapel Hill with speculation already developing about his potential replacement.
This will be a huge matchup for the Pirates, who prevailed 70-41 when the Heels last came to town in 2014. It’s hard to see the Montgomery era lasting much longer if ECU World doesn’t see what it wants when it turns out for this one.
Virginia Tech (Sept. 15, Blacksburg)
Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster won’t have several high-level performers from a unit that shut out the Pirates for the last three quarters in a 64-17 win last year in Greenville. Multiple standouts opted for an early exit to the NFL.
Virginia Tech opens the season at Florida State on Labor Day (Sept. 3) and hosts William & Mary the following Saturday, which will give the Pirates some interesting film to break down.
South Florida (Sept. 22, Tampa)
The Bulls lost ECU nemesis Quinton Flowers at quarterback from a 10-2 team. USF was No. 8 in rushing nationally last season, but also must deal with the departure of running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice. That trio accounted for 269 rushing yards in the Bulls’ 61-31 win in Greenville last year.
The Bulls also lost their top receiver, Marquez Scantling.
Flowers threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns without a pick at ECU as a senior as the Bulls pulled away from a 31-24 lead at the half last season.
USF hosts Georgia Tech and plays Illinois in Chicago in the weeks leading up to the AAC opener with the Pirates.
Old Dominion (Sept. 29, Greenville)
The Monarchs play Virginia Tech at home the week before coming to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Eight starters are back on offense and seven return on defense so there is some optimism emanating from Norfolk.
Could ODU be guarding against a letdown as it ventures in to meet the Pirates?
ECU is sandwiched between the Hokies and a Conference USA trip to meet Florida Atlantic, coached by Lane Kiffin, on the Monarchs’ slate.
Temple (Oct. 6, Philadelphia)
A trip to Boston College precedes the visit from ECU, which could possibly leave Temple tenderized. The Owls also go to Maryland on Sept. 15.
Temple was 3-5 in Geoff Collins’ first season as coach before closing with wins in four of its last five.
Quarterback Frank Nutile returns at quarterback, which means the momentum from last season may be maintained.
Marcus Crandell was quarterbacking the Pirates the last time ECU topped the Owls (32-22, Greenville, 1995). Temple has owned the East Division series since the Pirates joined the AAC in 2014.
Houston (Oct.13, Greenville)
The Cougars are coming off their lowest point production per game (28.3) since 2005 and have brought former Baylor aide Kendal Briles aboard as offensive coordinator.
Houston had enough weapons last year to overwhelm the Pirates, 52-27, on a warm November afternoon in the Lone Star State although there are just four returning starters on offense. Those include quarterback D’Eriq King, who threw for 330 yards with three TDs and no picks against ECU.
Central Florida (Oct. 20, Greenville)
Scott Frost guided the Knights to a 13-0 record before heading back to Nebraska. Josh Heupel takes over with quarterback McKenzie Milton returning for his junior season.
Inspiring linebacker Shaquem Griffin is gone but proven recruiter Randy Shannon is the new defensive coordinator.
UCF will be dealing with being the preseason pick to win the AAC. Only one team in the last five years has validated the media poll, Cincinnati, which earned a share of the league crown in 2014.
Memphis (Nov. 3, Greenville)
The Tigers ran a track meet on the Pirates last year with a 70-13 conquest at the Liberty Bowl. Quarterback Riley Ferguson threw just 13 times but had 299 yards and three TDs. His absence has created some doubt that Memphis can match its 10-3 mark.
The Tigers will be coming off a game at Missouri before traveling to ECU after a bye week. The Pirates also will have an open date before their third straight game at home.
Tulane (Nov. 10, New Orleans)
Nine starters are back on offense but the defense has just three starters returning.
The experience on offense includes quarterback Jonathan Banks. Running back Dontrelle Hilliard is gone after a 1,000-plus yard rushing season, but there appear to be capable replacements.
Banks scrambled for the winning score in overtime in a 31-24 victory last year in Greenville.
Connecticut (Nov. 17, Greenville)
The Huskies have just five returning starters on offense and only two on defense from a group that went 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the AAC.
UConn ended the season on a five-game losing streak and must open 2018 against UCF (Aug. 30, at home).
Cincinnati (Nov. 23, Cincinnati)
Among the five returning starters on offense is quarterback Hayden Moore, who passed for 2,562 yards and 20 touchdowns.
The Pirates beat the Bearcats 48-20 last year on Senior Day although Cincinnati was without running back Gerrid Doaks.
The Bearcats are the only AAC team with their leading passer, rusher and receiver (Khalil Lewis) back from 2017.
Second-year coach Luke Fickell brought in a solid recruiting class, but its impact isn’t expected to be a major factor immediately.
ECU and the Bearcats will have their turkey before matching up the day after Thanksgiving. Cincinnati visits UCF prior to the short week.