GREENVILLE — With more than half of his playbook yet to be installed and several key players not in uniform, new East Carolina defensive coordinator David Blackwell wasn’t about to make any rash judgments based on Saturday’s Purple-Gold spring scrimmage.
But he did see at least one thing that portends well for the season ahead, as the Pirates look to rebound from consecutive 3-9 records under coach Scottie Montgomery.
“It takes zero talent to play your ass off,” Blackwell said after the Gold team beat the Purple 21-14 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. “If we can develop a hard edge and a mindset … that’s something our guys have done a nice job of. I think we’ll continue to grow and the best is yet to come. We’re making progress.”
The most visible sign of that progress came on the Gold team’s second possession of the game, when junior cornerback Devon Sutton put a crushing hit on tight end Anthony Whatley just after he caught the ball for a short gain. The impact caused a fumble that was picked up by linebacker Cole Nigro and returned for a 30-yard Purple touchdown.
It was the kind of pivotal play ECU’s defense has had trouble making over the past two seasons, a 24-game stretch in which the Pirates have forced just 19 turnovers.
“That was a big hit,” Montgomery said of Sutton’s hit, which sent Whatley to the sidelines for the rest of the day. “I hadn’t seen many of those since I’ve been here. I think we tackled better today than we have in a long time, especially in the open field.
“But that was a big hit on the scoop and score. I’m positive I haven’t seen a scoop and score like that. It did give some juice to the defense.”
ECU’s defense can use as much “juice” as it can get after a 2017 season in which it ranked dead last among the nation’s FBS programs in scoring defense and total defense, allowing averages of 45.0 points and 541.7 yards per game.
In an effort to improve those woeful numbers, not to mention his job security, Montgomery hired Blackwell as the third defensive coordinator of his short tenure.
An ECU graduate who was a member of the school’s 1992 Peach Bowl championship team, Blackwell has been the co-defensive coordinator at Jacksonville State for the past four seasons..
During that time, his Gamecocks ranked first nationally among FCS programs in defensive completion percentage (50.2), second in pass efficiency defense (105.5) and rushing yards allowed per carry (3.0), third in total defense (284.1 yards per game) and yards per pass attempt (5.93), sixth in rushing defense (104.4 yards per game), eighth in scoring defense (18.8 points per game) and ninth in sacks (133).
Jacksonville State was 43-8 record with four straight Ohio Valley Conference championships during Blackwell’s time there, including a 10-2 record and a trip to the FCS playoffs in 2017.
While Blackwell is reserving judgment on his new defense until he gets the entire package installed and it begins playing games that counts, his players — especially the veterans that have suffered through the past two seasons — are impressed with what they’ve seen thus far.
“Every day we’re coming to work and working hard, high energy. It’s just a great atmosphere to be around,” said sophomore defensive tackle Raequan Purvis, who led the Purple team with six tackles and was named by his coaches the Most Valuable Defensive Player in spring practice. “We’re flying around to the ball, having fun. That’s the main thing.”
There was more of an emphasis on execution offensively, where three untested quarterbacks are still in the early stages of a competition to take the first snap in ECU’s 2018 opener against NC A&T on Sept. 1.
Sophomore Reid Herring, the only player on the roster to have thrown a pass in an actual game, established himself as the frontrunner for the starting job by going 12 of 20 for 191 yards while leading the Gold team to three touchdowns — all on runs by redshirt freshman Trace Christian — in Saturday’s spring game.
But prized freshman Holton Ahlers served notice that he might be ready to play from Day 1 after going 12 of 20 for 205 yards with the Purple squad while earning the award for being the best newcomer over the 15 practices this spring.
Redshirt sophomore Kingsley Ifedi also played well, completing 4 of 6 passes for 90 yards while also rushing for a touchdown.
“I’m really happy with the quarterback position,” Montgomery said. “That’s a position that can always either make you or break you and finally, we’re at a point where it can make us this year.”