East Carolina football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Pirates, best players and season prediction.
Now that popular head coach Ruffin McNeill has been fired, the task of elevating East Carolina belongs to Scottie Montgomery, who’s at the pinnacle of his coaching career.
Pirate AD Jeff Compher grew tired of mediocrity and a lack of titles. And for all of the gasps and shock over McNeill’s ouster, his tenure was largely mediocre; Three losing seasons in six years, including going 5-7 in 2015. One bowl win. And an 8-8 league record since joining the American in 2014.
ECU is demanding championships, last delivered by Skip Holtz seven years ago, which places a fair amount of pressure on Montgomery and his assistants. Think Houston, when it fired Tony Levine following back-to-back winning seasons, and hired Tom Herman off the Ohio State staff.
The good news for the new regime is that it won’t have to rebuild from the ground floor up. There’s enough returning talent in Greenville, including an influx of Power Five transfers, for the Pirates to quickly get out of the red.
The most important transfer is QB Philip Nelson, who comes via Minnesota, with a brief and turbulent stop at Rutgers.
The senior quarterback hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since 2013, but he’s being counted on to lead an offense with an interesting array of skill position players. There are the running back imports, Derrell Scott from Tennessee and Jeffrey Coprich from Cal. There’s the return of three of last year’s top four pass-catchers. And then there’s James Summers, who’s so versatile the staff will need to invent unique ways to get the ball in his hands.
The defense has a foundation to be pretty good as well. Yes, ECU must replace two of last season’s top performers, linebackers Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton. But the line is big and strong, and the secondary is liable to stifle opposing quarterbacks with the combination of rising cornerbacks DaShaun Amos and Corey Seargent.
East Carolina boasts a long and proud history as a giant killer and a steady force within the off-Broadway conferences. But since Holtz left Greenville following the 2009 season, the Pirates have been unable to get to that next level by capturing some hardware. Compher made the bold move of canning a relatively successful coach in the hopes that it’ll ignite a sea change for the Pirates. The clock is already ticking for Montgomery, whose team is good enough to bowl in 2016, but will likely have to wait at least another year to snap the championship dry spell.
What You Need to Know About the East Carolina Offense
For the third year in a row, ECU will be working with a new coordinator. The days of Shane Carden, Justin Hardy and Lincoln Riley keep getting smaller in the rear view mirror. But there’s plenty of hope for the 2016 attack, which will be overseen by Tony Petersen.
This is the fifth different coordinator gig for Petersen, who’s aiming to coach up the quarterbacks and dominate at the line of scrimmage. His stable of QBs thinned following the voluntary departures of Blake Kemp and Kurt Benkert, leaving Minnesota import Philip Nelson as the undisputed leader for the job.
Nelson will play catch with a solid group of receivers that’s led by Isaiah Jones and includes up-and-comer Trevon Brown and do-everything weapon James Summers, who threw for five scores and ran for eight more in 2015. It’s behind—and to the left of—Nelson that the competition will be stiffest this summer.
The race to replace leading rusher Chris Hairston includes Anthony Scott and a pair of transfers, Derrell Scott (Tennessee) and Jeffrey Coprich (Cal). Meanwhile, the line will have a new look, with untested sophomores Messiah Rice and Garrett McGhin favored to start at left tackle and left guard, respectively.
Biggest Key To The East Carolina Offense
Full Nelson. After making stops at Minnesota and Rutgers, where he was booted following an assault arrest, well-travelled Philip Nelson is set to become Scottie Montgomery’s first quarterback in Greenville. Blake Kemp left ECU at the beginning of the year, but the big surprise came when Kurt Benkert, who was neck-and-neck with Nelson, announced in April that he was transferring to Virginia. Nelson, who played extensively for the Gophers in 2013, has one season to finish a rocky career on a positive note.
What You Need to Know About the East Carolina Defense
True, there were highs and lows, but the Pirates overachieved in 2015, allowing an average of only 20 points per game over the second half of the season. First-year coordinator Kenwick Thompson is being tasked with maintaining the trend, despite the losses of key players from each level.
Thompson will focus on a relatively conservative approach that looks to stuff the run and pressure the pocket without emptying the floodgates. ECU will also be adjusting to a 3-4 base alignment that’ll play to the strength of linemen Fred Presley, Demetri McGill and Demage Bailey.
The secondary flashes potential, too, now that FS Travon Simmons and corners DaShaun Amos and Corey Seargent return as the cornerstones. The most intriguing position this summer will be linebacker, which now requires eight Pirates on the two-deep.
Last year’s only all-stars, Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton, came from the second level, so there’s cautious optimism Jordan Williams, Yiannis Bowden, Ray Tillman and Dayon Pratt, among others, can help to pick up the slack.
Biggest Key To The East Carolina Defense
Meet and greet. Sure, a lot of teaching took place in March and April, but the offseason so far has been more about the staff getting to know the players … and the players getting to know the 3-4 base under new coordinator Kenwick Thompson. Thompson inherited important pieces up front, like DE Fred Presley and NT Demetri McGill. But success is going to hinge on a rebuilt corps of linebackers that will sorely miss the presence of all-stars Montese Overton and Zeek Bigger.
East Carolina Will Be Far Better If …
it generates more takeaways. The Pirates don’t manufacture next-level defenders. In fact, they’ve had just two former graduates of the D, Linval Joseph and C.J. Wilson n 2010, drafted this entire century. But ECU will attract quality athletes who are capable of flipping the field with turnovers and big plays. Unfortunately, the 2015 squad produced only eight fumble recoveries and eight picks, an underlying cause for its 1-4 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Best Offensive Player
Senior WR Isaiah Jones. First-year head coach Scottie Montgomery knows the wide receiver position. And he knows he inherited a good one in Jones, who brings 241 career receptions into his final season in Greenville. He’s a polished pass-catcher out of the slot, or “H” receiver, with the soft hands to help with the transition of new starting QB Philip Nelson into the lineup. Plus, the attention Jones gets allows the outside receivers more room to get open.
Best Defensive Player
Senior DE Fred Presley. Presley is the linemen East Carolina will count on to rush the passer this season. As the Pirates shift to a 3-4, the line is becoming and less agile than in the past, which means outside linebackers Yiannis Bowden, Dayon Pratt and Joe Allely will need charge hard off the edge. Among the linemen, though, the hard-working Presley is an exception, with the quickness to make plays behind the line and the strength to hold up in run defense.
Key Players to a Successful Season
Junior RB Anthony Scott and sophomore Derrell Scott. Under new coordinator Tony Petersen, the Pirates are committed to the kind of balance that keeps defenses, well, off balance. But while ECU boasts a quality set of receivers and a veteran quarterback, the backs are unproven. Leading rusher Chris Hairston graduated and Virginia Tech transfer Chris Mangus was dismissed last year. Petersen is counting on a collaboration of Anthony Scott, a 2015 backup, and Derrell Scott, a ballyhooed former Tennessee Vol, to do a little bit of everything out of the backfield.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Pirates get back to bowl games and winning seasons, even if that means a 7-6 finish. In the nine years prior to 2015, East Carolina finished below .500 just one time, 2011. This program has a long and proud history of consistency and of defeating Power Five opponents. And it’s determined to avoid back-to-back losing seasons, despite a rigorous September schedule that includes a visit from NC State and trips to South Carolina and Virginia Tech.
Sept. 10 vs. NC State. East Carolina has carved out a successful track record against the instate Wolfpack, winning the 2013 meeting, 42-28, as well as the previous matchup in 2010. If the Pirates can make it three in a row over an ACC rival, it’ll qualify as a signature win for the new coaching staff. And any upset over a Power Five opponent in September is going to make reaching six wins and qualifying for the postseason abundantly easier more possible in November.
2015 Fun Stats
– Yards per catch: East Carolina 10.5 – Opponents 13.3
– Rushing yards per game: East Carolina 133.3 – Opponents 174.5
– Sacks: East Carolina 25 – Opponents 29