GREENVILLE — Coaches are always adding new wrinkles to their game plan in an effort to keep the opposition off guard. But when times get tough, they inevitably return to the familiar things that have worked for them in the past.
Times don’t get much tougher than they were for East Carolina’s Scottie Montgomery last season.
That’s why, after leading his team to a disappointing 3-9 record in his first year as a head coach, Montgomery returned to his days as a successful Duke assistant by bringing in graduate transfer quarterback Thomas Sirk to help to right the Pirates’ ship.
“If I hadn’t worked with him before, he wouldn’t be here,” Montgomery said Saturday at ECU’s annual football media day, “because when we bring someone into our locker room at that position, that is critical.”
Montgomery and Sirk formed a winning combination during their two seasons with the Blue Devils.
In 2014, Sirk rushed for eight touchdowns and threw for three more while serving as his team’s short yardage and goal line quarterback. The following year, with Montgomery as his offensive coordinator, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Florida native took over the starting job and amassed the second highest offensive yardage total in school history.
Along the way he helped Duke to 17 wins, including a 2015 Pinstripe Bowl victory against Indiana in which he earned co-MVP honors.
Sirk’s career was sidetracked shortly after that game at Yankee Stadium when he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon during an offseason workout, then reaggravated the injury shortly before the opening game.
With his position having been taken by freshman Daniel Jones and his bachelor’s degree in political science already in hand, Sirk decided it best to leave Duke and play his final college season elsewhere.
The opportunity to be reunited with Montgomery wasn’t the only reason he decided to choose ECU, but it didn’t hurt. Neither did the fact that he was already familiar with the basic framework of the Pirates’ offense.
“It’s just pass concepts that I had to learn and new formations,” said Sirk, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because of his injuries. “Terminology changed, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on all summer. Thankfully I’ve had two months to prepare for that. I spent countless hours watching film from last year’s team, studying the playbook, meeting with the other quarterbacks and meeting with the offensive coordinator (Tony Petersen) to prepare myself.”
Now that all the advance work is done, Sirk has begun the process of winning the starting job.
He’s currently competing with junior Gardner Minshew, who started two games for the Pirates last season at Philip Nelson’s backup, along with two youngsters that have yet to take a college snap.
Although Montgomery said he won’t name his quarterback at least until the team’s second scrimmage, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Sirk will be on the field for the first snap when ECU opens its season against James Madison on Sept. 2.
Coaches don’t bring in one-year rent-a-quarterbacks, after all, just to sit on the bench — especially mature 24-year-olds already well-versed in their offense.
That is assuming they’re healthy. And Sirk says he is.
“It feels really good,” he said. “Right now I’m not having any problems. I’m doing zone reads and things of that nature now and I’m not having any issues with it.
“The biggest fear that you have coming into camp is ‘am I really ready?’ Going into last year’s camp I asked myself the same question. But last year I was preparing myself to get back on the field by a set date. This year I’ve had more time. I’ve listened to my body and focused on my health, and I’m going out there every day with the confidence that I’m ready to go.”
Even if Sirk doesn’t win the starting job, his strength as a runner and past as a short-yardage specialist can still make him him a valuable addition to a Pirates offense that ranked 121st out of 128 FBS teams in red zone efficiency last season.
“He changed us. He transitioned us in the red zone and in short yardage when we were in Durham,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t really see it coming, but we think he has the ability to help us out, not just in red zone efficiency, but in other situations as well.”