Fixing not-so-special special teams a top priority for Pirates

Over the past two games, the Pirates have given up an 80-yard kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown, had two field goals and a punt blocked while botching another punt for a big loss of yardage

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
East Carolina Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery talks into his headset in the fourth quarter of the college football game against North Carolina State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville

GREENVILLE — East Carolina’s special teams haven’t been very special for the past two weeks and Scottie Montgomery isn’t wasting time in addressing the problem.The first-year Pirates coach has promised major changes, along with a renewed emphasis in practice this week, in hopes of shoring up issues with the kicking game heading into Saturday’s American Athletic Conference opener against Central Florida.”We made a lot of transition in personnel,” Montgomery said Tuesday. “We’re doing what we have to do. We’ll see a lot more people on it. We’ve got a long way to go as far as the season is concerned and we know we have to get those guys out there.”ECU’s special teams breakdowns have been especially frustrating to Montgomery and position coach Shannon Moore because they haven’t been limited to one particular area.Over the past two games — at South Carolina and Virginia Tech — the Pirates have given up an 80-yard kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown, had two field goals and a punt blocked while botching another punt for a major loss of yardage.The miscues probably didn’t factor into the outcome of last week’s 54-17 drubbing in Blacksburg, but they played a major role the previous Saturday in what was a much more winnable 20-15 setback to the Gamecocks.Moore that he and Montgomery have put a high priority in identifying the problems and correcting them as quickly as possible, before they cost ECU any more than they already have.”We just preach to our guys that we’ve got to play fast and trust our keys, but the biggest thing is just seeing our target and finishing,” Moore said. “In our Friday night meeting before the game, we talked about fast starts and special teams things, and just kind of the importance of it. We got it on kickoffs and punt hadn’t been an issue. Then all of a sudden, punt was an issue.”You feel like you’ve got one thing corrected because you emphasized it hard, (then something else goes wrong). We’ve moved some guys around. We’ve just got to keep plugging away.”The most visible move is likely to happen on field goals and extra points, an area in which incumbent kicker Davis Plowman has struggled all season.Plowman, a senior who was put on scholarship during preseason camp, has missed a field goal in each game thus far. He also missed an extra point in the win against NC State on Sept. 10. After having his 26-yarder blocked in the first half against Virginia Tech, he was replaced by true freshman Jake Verity.Although Verity stated his case for winning the job by make both his extra points and a 27-yard field goal in the second half, Moore stopped short of naming him as the Pirates’ new kicker before Saturday’s game.”He goes in, he hits his field goal, he hits two PATs right out of the gate, so you feel confident about it and he shows a little confidence,” Moore said of Verity. “But even if we’re four weeks down the road, him, Davis, (kickoff specialist Caleb Pratt), Worth (Gregory), those guys are still going to compete in practice because that’s how you’ve got to make it for them to be as game-ready as you’ve got to be.”Like Plowman, punter Gregory has been a disappointment through the first four games. Not only is he averaging just 39.8 yards per kick, but even on the one hit well, things turned out badly when the Hokies’ Greg Stroman returned his 62-yarder all the way back for the game’s first touchdown.That was only the start of Plowman’s troubles Saturday. He also had a punt blocked, then got tackled before he was able to get another kick off after what both he and Moore termed a miscommunication from the sideline.”We had two different calls coming from the sideline, said Gregory, a senior named to the Ray Guy Award preseason watch list each of the past three years. “It was my fault for not getting the correct one. That was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever been a part of, honestly.”With everything, blocks and touchdown returns, it’s never one person. It’s on us as a unit. We had multiple things go wrong in that game, including some of our punt protections, but at the end of the day it’s always on me for not getting it off.”According to Montgomery, though, there wasn’t much Gregory could have done on the block.”They pushed through in some one-on-one situations and made the block from the interior without jumping,” the ECU coach said. “We have to address that from a kicking standpoint and we also have to address it from a protection standpoint. We’ve already started to address both of those.”The biggest adjustment has been replacing some of the younger players that have been manning the punt and kick teams with more experienced veterans, even though they might also play major roles on either offense or defense.”At the beginning of the year, what you want to do is get those young guys out there as much as they can and you hope that they develop enough so when you get to your conference schedule, they’re ready to go,” Montgomery said. “It’s hard because you want to get those young guys as many reps. You’re going to need them. At this point in time, we’ve got to put our best foot forward. We’re going to try and play as many guys as we can, but understand we have problems in certain situations with depth.”