Ruffin McNeill was a popular, likable football coach who went 42-34 in six seasons and took East Carolina to four bowl games. However, likability and popularity do not win football games and after a 5-7 season in 2015, McNeill was fired. ECU athletic director Jeff Compher promptly hired Scottie Montgomery away from a recently successful Duke program to ensure that the Pirates compete for championships.
With Montgomery, Compher and East Carolina gets a former Duke receiver who spent three years as the wide receivers coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers before returning to his alma mater where he was head coach David Cutcliffe’s right-hand man, associate head coach and offensive coordinator. With Montgomery in the charge of the offense, the Blue Devils, not known as a football power, went 8-5, 9-4 and 10-4 in the ACC. Compher is hoping for similar results in Greenville.
— ECU Football (@ECUPiratesFB) February 2, 2016
There is plenty of talent in the Pirates program, including several Power 5 conference transfers. On offense, East Carolina will play with more tempo and, Montgomery hopes, become more physical. They will have the running backs to do so. Derell Scott is a transfer from Tennessee. Jeffrey Coprich comes from Cal. Junior Anthony Scott is an explosive 5-9, 189-pounder with 4.3 speed. Whoever takes over primary ball-carrying duties will run behind an offensive line anchored by All-AAC right guard J.T. Boyd. He returns along with behemoth (6-8, 325) right tackle Brandon Smith to help the Pirates build a more physical offensive line.
Montgomery and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen had what seemed like a wealth of quarterback talent until Blake Kemp left the program and Kurt Benkert, who was scheduled to be the starter for the 2015 season before a knee injury, transferred to Virginia. That leaves former Minnesota and Rutgers quarterback Philip Nelson. Now a senior, Nelson started the final seven games of his freshman season at Minnesota in 2012. He started nine more as a sophomore helping the Gophers finish 8-5 in the Big Ten. He transferred to Rutgers where he never took a snap and then entered the Pirates program last fall.
Nelson, who hasn’t taken a snap in a game since 2013, was the star of the spring Purple-and-Gold scrimmage completing 13-of-24 passes for 231 yards and leading his unit on three scoring drives. He possesses great speed (4.58) for a quarterback and gives Montgomery and Petersen plenty of options in their spread offense.
The top three wide receivers return including All-AAC Isaiah Jones who finished 2015 with 98 receptions for 1,099 yards and five touchdowns. The 6-1, 197-pound senior is one of the most underrated receivers in the nation. James Summers, a 6-3, 218-pound senior, also returns. Summers is the Pirates returning rushing leader (446 yds., 8 TDs) and passing (60-of-94, 683 yds., 5 TDs) leader. He had to step in at quarterback last year due to personnel shortages. Summers will focus this year on playing receiver while occasionally lining up in the backfield.
Defensively, the Pirates and new defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson will adjust to a 3-4 scheme that plays to the strengths of East Carolina’s personnel. The Pirates toughened up over the second half of the 2015 season allowing just 20 points per game over the final six games. Defensive end Fred Presley (6-3, 291) is a very athletic and active defender who can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Junior linebacker Jordan Williams returns as the team’s leading tackler (81) and DaShaun Amos and Corey Seargent may be the conference’s best cornerback duo.
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Free safety Travon Simmons is a returning starter and 6-5 Yiannis Bowden is an emerging star at the strongside outside linebacker position. What Thompson needs from his defense are more takeaways. Last season the Pirates produced just eight fumble recoveries and eight interceptions.
With 75 percent of the lettermen returning, Montgomery inherits a team that is capable of competing for championships. How soon that can happen remains to be seen. The Pirates must navigate a very difficult AAC East Division schedule that includes resurgent programs in Temple and South Florida. Cincinnati is consistently good; UConn went to a bowl last year, and Central Florida has a new head coach in former Nebraska QB Scott Frost.
The Pirates also face a daunting nonconference schedule. After opening the season against FCS Western Carolina, ECU gets N.C. State, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech back-to-back-to-back. One plus is that the Pirates face N.C. State at home and they have beaten the Wolfpack in their past two meetings. ECU must also travel to South Florida, Cincinnati and Temple, the final game of the season.
East Carolina has been to eight bowl games in the past 10 seasons and there is enough talent to do so in 2016. While the expectations are high, a winning season, even if it is only 7-5, is very likely in Montgomery’s first season guiding the Pirates.