Despite tie, ECU shows progress in spring football game

In the eyes of coach Scottie Montgomery, execution was secondary to the improved grasp his players had on what they were doing compared to their first spring practice together a year ago

ECU photo/Rob Goldberg—ECU photo/Rob Goldberg
Derrell Scott hurdles a defender on the way to a 27-yard touchdown run in East Carolina's annual Purple-Gold spring football game Saturday

The one thing that can be said with any amount of certainty when it comes to college football spring games is that the home team is guaranteed to win.Except at East Carolina on Saturday, it didn’t.Using an offense versus defense format with the first and second teams facing one another, the Pirates played to a 17-17 tie in their annual Purple-Gold scrimmage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.It was a game that featured big plays and missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. But in the eyes of coach Scottie Montgomery, execution was secondary to the improved grasp his players had on what they were doing compared to their first spring practice together a year ago.”I really think that our team did just a completely different job of understanding our system throughout the spring,” Montgomery said, adding that his team still has a long way to go before being ready to open the 2017 season against defending FCS champion James Madison on Sept. 2. “The way that we go to class, the way that we work in the weight room, everything. I think the system is in place now and we’re headed in the right direction, definitely.”As optimistic as Montgomery is about the progress of his team, he’s less committal about the progress of the competition for its starting quarterback job.Semi-incumbent Gardner Minshew, who started last year’s season finale at Temple, had by far the best day Saturday of the three candidates currently in camp. He completed 21 of 36 passes for 265 and two touchdowns for the Purple team. But he was also intercepted once and admittedly missed several potential big plays on downfield throws.Redshirt freshman Reid Herring was 13 of 17 for 138 yards and a score, but he and his Gold team converted only two of seven third down situations.Early arriving freshman Kingsley Ifedi played sparingly, completing one of his two passes for just two yards while rushing four times for 16 yards.Minshew entered the spring as Montgomery’s designated starter. But with graduate transfer Thomas Sirk scheduled to arrive from Duke this summer with immediate eligibility, Minshew understands that his job is anything but secure.Although he said he wasn’t satisfied with his performance Saturday, he was proud of the way he and his team recovered from two early turnovers and a 14-0 deficit to tie the score on a 36-yard strike to Jimmy Williams and an 18-yard pass to Quay Johnson.”It was frustrating in the beginning, but we bounced back and started hitting a little bit,” he said. “We just missed a few too many big plays.””I started to settle in and started hitting my throws, just give it a chance with these great receivers that I have, putting the ball in their hands and their make good things happen.”Despite losing record-setting pass catcher Zay Jones to graduation, ECU’s depth and talent at wide receiver was on full display in the spring game with six players catching four or more balls. Johnson led the way with seven receptions for 105 yards.The most impressive offensive performances, however, came from a pair of running backs whose contributions could go a long way toward shoring up a ground game that was one of the Pirates’ biggest weaknesses while going 3-9 a year ago.Derrell Scott, a Havelock native who transferred from Tennessee but didn’t play a down from scrimmage in 2016, rushed for 51 yards on five carries before suffering what Montgomery called “a bad laceration on his hand.” His 27-yard touchdown run in the first half was one of the highlights of the scrimmage.Redshirt freshman Hussein Howe was also impressive, gaining 92 yards on 10 tries.”I challenged Derrell last December to come in at a little bit of a lower weight and to work on his flexibility,” Montgomery said. “This kid has done everything and that’s what ends up happening when you sacrifice.”I thought that was a great performance by him all around. There were some blitz pickups that we saw, there were some great runs that we saw as well as there were some great runs by Hussein Howe. There were some great runs by all our guys, but I really think (Scott) did a great job today.”He was one of several youngsters and newcomers that stood out Saturday.Wide receiver Tahj Deans caught five passes for 98 yards. Seldom-used junior Malik Gray caught a touchdown from Herring.Defensively, Montgomery singled out redshirt freshman Aaron Ramseur as a key to his new 4-2-5 scheme. The second-year coach also had high praise for early arriving freshman end Taijh Alston and the positive impact he could have on the Pirates’ pedestrian pass rush.”We’ve got a lot of young players that are trying to get on the field,” Montgomery said. “Come fall, with the people we have coming in and the people we will continue to recruit to come in, it will be competitive at every position.”