Scottie Montgomery’s debut season as head coach of the East Carolina football team didn’t go as planned.
After starting the 2016 campaign with back-to-back wins, including a 33-30 victory over in-state rival N.C. State in Greenville, the Pirates followed with five straight losses and claimed only one more victory the rest of the way en route to a posting a 3-9 record.
Looking to move past the program’s worst season in 12 years, Montgomery gave some thoughts on the 2017 season at the American Athletic Conference media days in Newport, R.I. on Tuesday.
“We have to take care of the football on offense. The No. 1 thing that disappointed me last year was the way we didn’t take care of the football,” said Montgomery, whose team was picked to finish fifth in the AAC East this season.
”. … On the flip side of that, we have to generate some pass rush.”
The Pirates return 12 of 22 starters with six on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
The biggest culprit for a sinking 2016 campaign was a defense that couldn’t stop anyone. The Pirates gave up 40 or more points in five of its losses, including 66 points to Navy. ECU finished last in the nation in quarterback sacks and last in turnovers forced with eight in each category.
Enter new defensive line coach Robert Prunty, new secondary coach Brandon Lynch, and a lot of new faces on the depth chart.
“I think the first thing we had to do, and that we tried to approach as quickly as we could, is creating depth on both sides of the ball,” Montgomery said.
Senior linebacker Jordan Williams, a Fayetteville native and former standout at Jack Britt, represented the Pirates’ defense at AAC media days. He returns as the team’s leader in tackles, racking up 77 tackles last season.
The addition of Minnesota graduate transfer Gaelin Elmore should provide some punch to the pass rush. Elmore has tallied 7.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons.
As for the offense, which will have to replace wide receiver Zay Jones, who rewrote the record books last season and is now a member of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, the spotlight rests on the quarterback battle.
Junior quarterback Gardner Minshew and Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk are expected to compete for the starting job. Playing in seven games last season for the Pirates, Minshew finished with 1,347 passing yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions with a 58.9 completion percentage.
“I’m excited about it. I haven’t been this excited in a long time about the quarterback position,” Montgomery said. “We’re really looking forward to it. … When Aug. 3 comes around we’re going to let them compete.”
But at the moment, he has a starter in mind.
“Right now, Gardner is our starter. … We’ll just see who gels with this football team.”
Even with the departure of Jones, the Pirates will have plenty of veteran receiving options in seniors Jimmy Williams, who represented the Pirates’ offense in Newport, Quay Johnson and Davon Grayson. Williams hauled in 45 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
ECU will begin the 2017 season on Sept. 2 at home against James Madison.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.