Scottie Montgomery’s football background is on the offensive side of the ball, which is why it must have seemed unnatural to him last year when he was forced to play defense in advance of his first National Signing Day as East Carolina’s head coach. Having just been hired, the former NFL wide receiver and Duke offensive coordinator spent almost as much time trying to hang on to recruits committed to his predecessor Ruffin McNeill as going out looking for players of their own. That wasn’t the case this year. Now firmly established with the Pirates after a full season on the job — albeit one that produced an unsightly 3-9 record — Montgomery and his staff were finally able to play a little offense in their search for new talent. It’s an effort that produced a 24-man class the upbeat ECU coach described as “big-time.” “Our coaches did a great job at building relationships over the last year,” Montgomery said Wednesday at a press conference in Greenville. “That is the difference between this recruiting class and the last one. Last time through, we were trying to maintain the class that was already here and add a few pieces. This time we had a much better vision of what we had to do to make our team better.” The key to Montgomery’s “vision” centered around improving a pass rush that produced a paltry eight sacks over 12 games last season, a total that ranked dead last among the nation’s 128 FBS schools. In order to correct the situation the Pirates signed five defensive linemen, including two junior college transfers with a realistic chance of stepping in and contributing right away. One of them, 6-foot-4, 285-pound Tyree Owens, already has FBS experience having been through his redshirt year at West Virginia. In addition to all those linemen, Montgomery also added three linebackers, two of which have been rated as three-star prospects. “We brought in eight kids on the defensive front to address that part of our team whether it be the defensive line or the linebackers,” Montgomery said. “We think that five will help us immediately in the pass rush. We brought in a total of 11 guys on defense and that group was exactly what we wanted it to be. We want to keep getting longer and keep getting better at tackling in space.” Montgomery accomplished what he set out to do when it comes to the length part of the equation. Of the five new defensive linemen, High Point’s Ja-Quane Nelson is the runt of the litter — and he’s 6-foot-3, 280 pounds. The others are Owns and Taijh Alston of Vass at 6-4, and the duo of JUCO transfer Brandon Henderson and late pickup Keenan Solomon of Roxboro at 6-5. Not only was ECU successful at addressing its most immediate need, while at the same time picking up a three-star quarterback with the potential to play right away, some offensive line help and several highly-regarded wide receivers, it also did a good job of keeping homegrown talent within the borders of their home state. Exactly half of the Pirates’ 22 signees are from North Carolina. “When you talk about this class, you have to talk about the in-state progress we made,” Montgomery said. “We did a great job in-state for the second-straight year because of the relationships we had. We are going to continue to sign a lot of players from the state.” The best part of signing day for Montgomery and his staff was that there were no 11th-hour surprises. There were a few nervous moments, especially when three-star wide receiver Blake Proehl — whose father played for the Carolina Panthers and brother is at UNC — announced Monday that he’d gotten an offer from Virginia Tech. But once the fax machine in Montgomery’s office began to whir, everyone that was committed to the Pirates actually signed with them. “Thank goodness it was one of those days where we did not have any curveballs that we had to swing at,” Montgomery said.
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