Montgomery sticking with upperclassmen on bittersweet ECU Senior Day

Nineteen upperclassmen will be making their final appearance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when ECU takes on American Athletic Conference rival Navy in a game rescheduled from Oct. 13 because of Hurricane Matthew

James Guillory—USA Today Sports
Scottie Montgomery led the Pirates to a disappointing 3-9 record in his first season as a head coach in 2016

Senior Day is always a bittersweet occasion no matter where you go. At East Carolina on Saturday, the celebration promises to be more bitter than sweet as the Pirates play out the string on a season guaranteed to end with more losses than wins and no bowl invitation. Nineteen upperclassmen will be making their final appearance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when ECU takes on American Athletic Conference rival Navy in a game rescheduled from Oct. 13 because of Hurricane Matthew. It’s a group first-year coach Scottie Montgomery has vowed to stick with until the bitter end despite the temptation to begin replacing it with younger players in preparation for the future. “People ask me are we going to go on to the next page and play new people? (But) for these seniors I’m never going to turn the page,” Montgomery said last Saturday in the aftermath of a 55-31 loss to SMU. “They’ve been here every morning, every evening, done everything we’ve asked them to do. We’ll play some more people, but we’re definitely going to do right by the people that have done right for this program.” The most prominent of those players is wide receiver Zay Jones, who goes into Saturday’s game needing only eight catches to surpass former teammate Justin Hardy as the career FBS receptions leader. Hardy, who now plays for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, will be in attendance.Jones leads the nation with an average of 13.9 catches per game with two more games remaining. ECU will complete its season next Saturday at Temple. Although Jones has grabbed much of the attention, he is only one of many seniors still playing prominent roles for the Pirates (4-7, 1-5 AAC). Among the others are four-year starting offensive lineman J.T. Boyd, all-purpose back James Summers and top tacklers Terrell Richardson, DaShaun Amos, Dayon Pratt and Demetri McGill. “As we move forward, we have to continue to understand that there are certain players that we have on this team that are playing exceptional football,” Montgomery said earlier this week. “I don’t want their success to get lost and marred in some of the problems that we’ve had until this point. “It’s unpleasant to be where we are, very uncomfortable, but we are laying the foundation and there are no shortcuts to excellence.” As committed to his seniors as Montgomery might be, there’s at least one that appears in danger of being phased out in favor of a younger replacement. Quarterback Philip Nelson has struggled of late and was replaced by junior college transfer Gardner Minshew in each of the past two games. At Tulsa on Nov. 5, Montgomery said the move was related to Nelson’s injured shoulder. Last week, the coach described his decision as performance related after Nelson was intercepted on consecutive possessions. While Montgomery has yet to name a starter for Saturday’s home finale, he’s given strong indications that he’s leaning toward Gardner. Because they do, Boyd said there’s little chance of them just going through the motions and playing out the string the rest of the way. “The season’s not over,” Boyd said. “We might not be bowl eligible anymore, but we can still get two more victories and that’s what we’re going to try to do. “With the new coaching staff we’re trying to build the program how they want it. We can’t just lay down. We’ve got to fight so that when the new guys come in, all the freshmen that are seeing us, will see us keep pushing.” “It’s kind of hard to tell right now,” Montgomery said. “We don’t know completely where the quarterback situation will be until we get to actually see more of a body of work.” Despite the bleak outlook and the very real possibility of ECU’s worst season since going 2-9 in 2004, the seniors that will be honored Saturday have taken it upon themselves to set an example for their younger teammates by continuing to give their best effort over these final two games. “The season’s not over,” center Boyd said. “We might not be bowl eligible anymore, but we can still get two more victories and that’s what we’re going to try to do. “With the new coaching staff we’re trying to build the program how they want it. We can’t just lay down. We’ve got to fight so that when the new guys come in, all the freshmen that are seeing us, will see us keep pushing.”