For the third straight year, East Carolina will open its football season at home against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent when the Pirates take on North Carolina A&T on Saturday at 6 p.m.
It’s likely that the outcome will fall within the range of a 52-7 triumph over Western Carolina in Scottie Montgomery’s debut as ECU coach in 2016 and the bitter disappointment of a 34-14 loss to James Madison last year.
Montgomery has been a student at the school of hard knocks during his tenure with the Pirates, compiling an overall record of 6-18.
“There’s a maturation process in anything that you do, but I think one of the biggest things you understand a little bit more about being a head coach is that it’s not all centered around what you’re doing on the field and what you’re doing on the classroom to get the guys ready to prepare,” Montgomery said. “I think one of the biggest areas that I’ve grown in is understanding that you’ve got to have all of the things in place for the student-athlete for them to become successful. I think you have to challenge every situation to make sure that the student-athlete comes out on top.
“We did that when we got here. We just had to be strategic in the way that we went about getting things done. I think the biggest part of the process, the older and older you get as a head coach, you just have a better realization that whatever you can do to improve the student-athlete’s ability to go out and perform in the classroom and on the field, you have to do it. It starts there. It ends there. It’s centered around that. You just have to find creative ways to make their life better, to make their ability to go practice at a better time. You have to find everything that you can do for the student-athlete away from the game.
“More so, in my first year I was so connected to everything scheme, everything recruiting, everything getting it fixed, this part, this part. I really had to focus a lot more on the student-athlete. I think that’s why we made our biggest gains.”
Not looking back
The struggles last season included the dismissal of Kenwick Thompson as defensive coordinator after a 56-20 loss at West Virginia. Robert Prunty hardly got things turned around as ECU allowed 45.1 points per game last season, the highest number in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Montgomery declined to comment on Thompson’s hire.
“We’re not going to go back in time and talk about Kenwick or any of the guys that were on the former staff,” Montgomery said. “I think I’m doing a disservice to those guys. I think everybody that worked here at that point in time did everything that they could possibly do to be successful. In the long run, it didn’t work out.”
So what is different and better about new defensive coordinator David Blackwell, an ECU alumnus who was charged with revamping the troubled unit?
“I think, defensively, I had a chance to go and really evaluate every single coordinator that we were looking at,” Montgomery said. “The perfect fit, looking at a called game, the best fit for our guys and using the guys the way that I wanted them used, the speed that I wanted on the field and the transition from one type of base defense to a more speedy, quicker, blitzing defense that stressed every part of an offense was David Blackwell.
“We had some great conversations leading up to the hire, of course, but at the end of the day I just felt like there was a great match between he and I off of a few things — off of what I saw on tape, off of what I had the ability to listen to other coaches who had worked with him, then off of my direct experiences with him. Quickly, we were able to get people on the field that I thought should be on the field and put them in position to make plays based on his defensive scheme.
“There are a few things that we’ve changed, of course, since he’s come in from Jacksonville State, but we’ve been consistent in some of the things that he’s brought in that I was really in love with. I think he also has just a great understanding of our players and how hard it is to be a student-athlete and some of the demands that call on you as we give them the best chance and opportunities to be successful. That starts with great base defense. It starts with a feeling of new and a feeling of fresh. I think he’s done exactly what we’ve asked him to do.”
Pirates have wheels
Montgomery likes the speed of the 2018 defense and it is impressive.
“I asked for a monthly report on our weight room situation,” said the ECU coach. “Who’s doing the best? Where’s our weight numbers — not just the lifting part of it, but the size, speed, strength, all of that was encompassed in his report to me.
“The one huge factor that I saw this year that really had my eyes wide open and I felt it, leaving out of spring and even in some of the summer things we were able to do, is our overall defensive team speed. We are right now, outside of our two inside techniques at tackle, our overall average of team speed for our starters is right around 4.57 (seconds, 40 yards). That is extremely fast. That’s including the defensive ends. That’s including our linebackers. Of course, throwing our corners and our safeties in there. That is what we wanted to do. We wanted to increase our team speed to compete in a conference that’s built around speed. That was very evident.
“In practice, you saw guys, not only chasing the ball, but running down some of our offensive players. So we did increase our overall defensive team speed. That’s what gives me a lot of faith in what we’re doing. It’s not just the scheme in what we’re doing, but our guys are better. We have guys who haven’t played a lot but we have guys are better players than they were a year ago and we’re excited about them.”
A&T has played a game
The Aggies were 12-0 last year and opened the 2018 season with a 20-17 win at Jacksonville State.
“We know there are going to be some changes from week one to week two,” Montgomery said. “There will probably be some personnel changes from week one to week two. We did have a chance to see them play. We haven’t been on tape yet. There’s a lot of things that we have to overcome that they’ve already overcame.
“What we see is still the same culture of how hard they play. Some of the penalties, I’m not saying that they were the wrong calls . . . but if I was A&T, I would probably be pretty upset with some of the penalties that were called against them. But overall what you see is tremendous talent on the offensive side of the ball at the quarterback position, receiver position, running back position. They lost a lot up front in their offensive line, but I can tell the guys that were in there had a lot of experience, either playing a few games last year or just a ton of reps in practice so far. So that’s where they are.
“And then defensively, Coach [Sam Washington] is one of the best coaches in the entire country. He believes in stopping the run. What we were able to see is it’s still the same philosophy of making sure they do a good job of stopping the run and forcing some quarterbacks to make some tight throws into some great coverages and some press situations. So a lot of pressure from their defense.
“And then special teams, I thought that was their winning edge in the game. I just thought they won the special teams battle at the end of the day. You get a kickoff return for a touchdown in a game you only won by a field goal, it’s got to make you feel really good as a head coach on how offense, defense and special teams jelled together.”
Coaches, ECU culture
In addition to Blackwell, special teams coordinator Kirk Doll and running backs coach Jason Nichols played at ECU.
The trio has first hand knowledge of the Pirates’ football tradition.
“What I call on those guys for is we’ve got to go back to the traditions of the past,” Montgomery said. “I really wanted to go back into our history and use those guys as history buffs, if you will, for those things that you just can’t pick up a book and read. That’s exactly what they’ve been able to deliver away from the coaching part of it. We’re going to a lot of those traditions in the stadium this year, bringing back a lot of those traditions, allowing our coaching staff and former players to bring back some of those traditions.
“In our meeting room, some of the things we’ve done, we’ve really tried to educate our players this year a lot more on the history of the great players that have played here. We also want them to know that if any former player wants to come back and hang out, it’s wide open to them.
“I think those things and crossing some of those hurdles of getting some players back from the ’80s, the ’90s, the 2000s, they’ve been very, very beneficial.
“Also, there is this sense of pride. I’ve been on a team where I was an assistant coach, coaching at my alma mater. There’s just this sense of pride that goes with the work that you put in every single day. It’s really, really tough when you’re not successful and you have to go around and be around your teammates that you went to school with. There’s a sense of pride that you really want to get it fixed. The only thing that is truly important is EC. At the end of the day, it’s what is important to all of us — that Pirate Nation and Pirate fans understand that we have really worked on our culture. On Saturday, I want them to see that, a lot like our press box and our South side renovation that you’ll see some major, major improvements. We’re not quite completely finished but we’ve seen some major, major improvements.
“It starts with our former players that are on the staff. They know where we were. They looked at it with eyes wide open and really have seen us grow and grow and grow. They have been able to tell the story from what’s really going on inside the building.”
Towering over the south stands at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is the framework of a major renovation. Obviously, the Pirates are a work in progress, too.
“This whole project has been great,” Montgomery said. “We’re really, really going to love the fact that our fans get an opportunity to go and enjoy it on the level that a lot of other places are enjoying it, especially since we have the best fans. It’s very critically important that we realize that is something that is taking place now and it’s for our fans. It’s a thank you.
“But for me, the majority of the time, I’m in the Ward Building. What we’ve seen happen in the Ward Building for our players has had a huge, huge impact. When they run out, they’ll get a chance to see what’s going on in the stadium, but what we’ve been able to do — the building inside of Ward and it’s a completed process in Ward right now.
“That gave us, of course, the visibility for our players. When you come into a new program, there’s a couple of things, because I’ve had it happen to me as a player, you look for as a student-athlete. You need to see some visible change. When you don’t have visible change, you kind of feel like things are just the same with some new people in new places. But when you see visible change, it grabs your attention. It changes the atmosphere. It makes you have a sense of pride on what you have now. You understand where you were. There’s been movement from where you were to where you are now. We’re really, really happy about the visible change that’s happening on our campus, especially the South side renovation project but, mostly for us, it’s what’s happened inside our football building.”
Success on Saturday night
Montgomery cited factors that can produce a successful start to the 2018 season.
“What we’ve got to do defensively, we’ve got to be gap sound,” Montgomery said. “We’ve done a good job of being gap sound all camp. We’ve got to run to the football. I want to see our defensive front really pick up the pressure early in this football game and try to get Lamar (Raynard) off the spot a little bit and make him make some throws on the move. And then we’ve got to cover down the field. We’ve got to be able to make plays on the ball. We’ve done a better job of catching the ball in camp at our corner position. We’ve got to be able to do that. We’ve known that we’re going to have to see some back shoulder throws, some balls down the field, some really great timing routes that are going to be thrown. So we’re going to have to play well on the back end.
“Offensively, we want to see our quarterback go out and execute. We’ve got to see execution from the quarterback position. We’d love to see our receivers and running backs come out with no mental errors. Up front, we want to be dominant. We know that they’re going to add another man to the box, but dominating isn’t always in the run game. It can be in the pass game. It can be in the protection game. We want to make sure that they’re dominant coming out of this game.
“We’re looking for our special teams unit to provide a boost. We’ve got some star power right now back at returner. Trevon Brown has been in the best shape he’s been in coming into any camp. We got him back at our kickoff returner. At our punt returner, Colby Gore, we’ve added speed and quickness at that position. We’ve added some star power at some places that really gives us a chance to be successful. That’s what we want to see.”