Montgomery stresses execution as ECU begins spring practice

Although there are plenty of position battles to monitor and develop, the Pirates primary emphasis this spring will be on the small details that snowballed into big problems for them a year ago

Derik Hamilton—USA Today Sports
Nov 26

Spring is the traditional time of rebirth, renewal and growth, so it’s only appropriate that the first day of the new season Monday also happened to be the first day of East Carolina’s spring football practice.All three of those themes will be front and center over the next few weeks as coach Scottie Montgomery puts the disappointment of last year’s 3-9 record behind and begins preparations for his second season with the Pirates.Rebirth is represented by the four new members that have joined the coaching staff and changes that are being made to the team’s defensive scheme. Renewal is the renewed emphasis on execution while the growth comes from the experience Montgomery hopes he gained during his first season of leading a program.”It’s such a new fresh start,” Montgomery said at a press conference Monday. “We are going to approach every day this spring as a game. We have 15 opportunities to go out and compete and we are going to go out and compete at a high level.”Although there are plenty of position battles to monitor and develop between now and ECU’s annual Purple-Gold scrimmage on April 22, including quarterback and both kicking specialists, the primary emphasis of the spring will be on the small details that snowballed into big problems for the Pirates a year ago.At the top of the list is turnovers.ECU ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams with a minus-16 turnover margin in 2016. It lost 12 fumbles and was intercepted 12 times, many of which came on tipped balls Montgomery blamed on a lack of “awareness and vision.”In an effort to help correct the problem — whether it be through ball security, a better understanding of where defenders are coming from or simply better concentration — the Pirates’ coach plans to make each of this spring’s 15 practices more like a game.”Last year’s objective for the spring was discipline and conditioning. We made huge strides in that which was very evident through our penalty reduction. That’s our foundation,” Montgomery said. “This spring our focus in all three phases will be directly reflected to execution. I am expecting our coaches to create situations through drill work that will improve our ability to execute the smallest of details.”To that end, Montgomery and defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson have simplified the way their defense communicates in an effort to help cut down on the big plays that haunted the Pirates in virtually every game they played last season.The coaches have also adjusted ECU’s base scheme to replace a linebacker with a fifth defensive back, one with the versatility to be a factor against both the pass and run.”Athleticism is the first thing that you can start with,” Montgomery said of why the change was made. “But I also think it’s going to give us the ability to communicate a little bit better as a defense.”I think when you have one guy in that role, whether it’s in the run game or the pass game, there’s not a whole lot of multiple teaching to different people. That guy’s going in to learn both roles, not just one role. And if we’re ever in a situation where we need nickel, we’re not having to reteach it.”A prime candidate to fill that position is Auburn transfer Tim Irvin, the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. He would join a unit that returns seven starters, including top tackler Jordan Williams and cornerbacks Corey Seargent and Colby Gore, along with safeties Travon Simmons and Bobby Fulp.Offensively, the Pirates bring back six starters, but must replace both Zay Jones — the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver — and quarterback Philip Nelson.Even without Jones, ECU appears to be well-stocked at receiver with the return of Jimmy Williams, Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson. Williams was granted a sixth year of eligibility because of an injury suffered as a freshman, Brown missed last season for academic reasons and Grayson was held out in 2016 because of injury.The quarterback situation is more complicated.Although Montgomery stressed Monday that junior college transfer Gardner Minshew currently has the job after starting the final two games last season, he’ll be pushed significantly by redshirt freshman Reid Herring and highly touted early arriving freshman Kingsley Ifedi.”Gardner is our starter. If somebody takes that job from him, it’ll be just that.” Montgomery said. “Every job is always open, but this is his job. You’re constantly trying to get better and it comes to a point in time where I’m not playing any games. Guys will have the opportunity, I think we have talent at that position, to give it some competition. But right now it’s Gardner.”