Pirates optimistic as camp opens

ECU coach Scottie Montgomery wants to return to a bowl game after finishing 3-9 in each of his first two seasons

Scottie Montgomery addresses the crowd at ECU's preseason football media day in Greenville on Saturday (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

GREENVILLE — This might be a make-or-break season for Scottie Montgomery at East Carolina. But if the third-year football coach or anyone else associated with his struggling program are feeling the pressure, you’d never know it from the upbeat attitude they projected at their annual preseason media day Saturday.

“We’ve all had a zoom focus on one thing, the football program,” Montgomery said. “It hasn’t been about me this offseason going into the job. It hasn’t been about our players growing or doing this. It hasn’t been about our coaches. It’s about the program.

“A lot of things that have happened have drawn us closer together, but we’re better now because we play better when we’re on the field. That’s the most important thing. We’re really playing better than we have in the past, and we’re really looking forward to getting the season started.”

The Pirates are coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons, including a 2017 campaign in which their defense ranked dead last among FBS schools in points and yardage allowed.

And yet, they have several reasons to believe that things might be changing for the better, not the least of which are the upgrades to their locker room and training facilities that greeted them upon their return to campus last week.

There’s a new defensive scheme, brought in by aggressive new coordinator David Blackwell — himself a former ECU player — and an influx of new talent to go along with him. There’s also more depth in the program than at any time since it joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014, with 105 players dressed out for the opening day of practice Friday.

While it’s still early in camp, both coaches and players alike agree that the Pirates are off to a strong start as they aim toward their season opener against NC A&T on Sept. 1.

“It’s been really awesome to come back with the juice that we have,” said Montgomery, singling out senior wide receiver Trevon Brown, junior guard Cortez Herrin and junior defensive end Kendall Futrell as they early standouts in camp.

“It’s been good,” added redshirt sophomore quarterback Reid Herring, who for at least the time being is the projected starter. “We’ve got the guys out there working, everybody’s having fun. We’ve got a lot of energy. We look good. There’s still a lot to improve on, but it’s felt good to be back out there.”

Aside from the obvious goal of winning enough games to return to the postseason — the bar Montgomery set for his team after a season-ending 70-13 drubbing at the hands of Memphis last November — the former Duke and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver is determined to restore some of the ECU traditions that have been lost in recent years.

Among them are an entertaining wide-open offense with a playbook full of trick plays and an athletic defense constantly running to the ball.

In order to make the latter happen, Montgomery brought in Blackwell from Jacksonville State — where he built the Gamecocks’ defense into the best among FCS programs. He then moved the start of spring practice up to February to give the Pirates more time to learn the new system and get stronger in the weight room.

It’s a strategy that, as far as Montgomery is concerned, has paid off in the “most productive football offseason” of his short tenure.

“Our coaches did a better job this year than in previous years of making sure that when we rolled into camp, it would be just like an extended year,” he said. “Going back to January, we wanted to start spring ball early to get our defensive scheme and tweaked offensive scheme and our special teams unit ready to go. So we really had about eight months of straight football, which is a really good thing. Our kids have really responded to it.”