Now 28 days out from the opener at home against North Carolina A&T on Sept. 1, the ECU Football team hit the fields at the Cliff Moore Practice Facility on Saturday morning for the second workout of the fall camp.
The day held all the typical elements of camp, but it also had a necessary diversion for all the coaches and some of the players — Media Day. Head Coach Scottie Montgomery addressed those gathered and took some questions, followed by breakout sessions with coaches and players.
Montgomery certainly was upbeat as he enters his third season in charge. A lot of the work that has been done the last two seasons is beginning to show on the field. He said ECU has more speed, considerably more depth, and is doing a good job of recruiting and then developing the players it brings in.
“We’re not an acquisitional program, we’re a developmental program,” he said. “We go and get three-star recruits and try to turn those three- and four-stars into five stars. We’ve done a great job of recruiting speed and length, and most of that speed and length came in in January.”
The defense, which gave up 50 or more points six times a year ago, is under a new coordinator in David Blackwell, and it drew first praise from Montgomery. He wants the Pirates to do a better job in the pass rush, putting less pressure on the corners. One of the reasons to moving up spring practice this year was to put in the new defensive scheme, along with tweaking the offense.
One player in particular has caught Montgomery’s attention.
“(Defensive end Kendall Futrell) has started camp and is dominating like he did in the offseason,” he said. “As (strength and condition coach Jeff Connors) would say, he was the freak of the offseason, not only in the weight room but in learning what we’re asking him to do in our defensive scheme. Our defensive scheme is putting him into position where he can be very successful, and that has directly turned into our corners being more effective on the perimeter. It’s not enough anymore to get (pass breakups) or to let guys complete passes on us. Now our biggest goal, with guys like Colby GoreMichael Witherspoon and Corey Seargent, is to go get the football. We have to create more turnovers on defense. We’ll do that by being aggressive up front, and in the secondary we’ve got to catch the football.”
Thus far in camp, better team speed has been very evident. Better depth also is key, especially on the defensive line.
“A couple of years back, I talked about how far we had to go to get our numbers back right,” Montgomery said. “I made some critical decisions in removing some people from the program, and some of them removed themselves, so we had some spots that we had to fill.
“Well, every year we just kind of added two or three solid players that are developmental players, and now all of a sudden they’re sophomores and juniors and we’re stacked at those positions, especially on the defensive line. Right now, we’re running three deep in practice, and some people still aren’t getting preps.”
Offensively, Montgomery is most pleased with the play at quarterback. It’s a young group, and the competition among the top three is making each better. Sophomore Reid Herring is leading the way, followed by true freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi.
“There is no question that throughout the offseason, throughout every phase of what we asked them to do, each one of them has taken a major step,” Montgomery said.
Herring redshirted two years ago, and last year was third on the depth chart, completing the only pass he threw all season for a 20-yard touchdown to Trevon Brown in a win over Cincinnati. He now finds himself in a much different situation, but is taking it all in stride.
“I just have to focus on my reps and getting better every day and every rep,” Herring said. “I’ve got great dudes behind me, so that’s always pushing me to get better and do things better. It’s been fun competing with those guys, but I’ve got to be concerned with myself first and doing what I need to do.”
Ahlers turned in perhaps the most impressive play of the morning practice. The left-hander was flushed out of the pocket toward the right sideline, and as the defense closed in on him, he spotted running back Anthony Scott leaking up the sideline and pitched it to him over the closing defenders. Scott went about 50 yards down the sideline untouched for a score.
“We had a good defensive play that was kind of trumped in that situation by a great offensive play,” Montgomery said.
The goal is to get an average of four yards per play from the running game, keeping defenses honest so the Pirates can best utilize a deep receiving corps led by Brown. Montgomery is impressed with an offensive line led by John Spellacy at center, Garrett McGhin at right tackle and Cortez Herrin at left guard.
It’s all part of his goal to get back to more of what he called a “tradition in Pirate football,” one that includes a more potent attack.
“We’ve got to have exciting offense,” Montgomery said. “That is something that we are known for here, along with a defense that runs to the football. We are in charge of that, and we’re going to have to do a great job of getting it done.”
Among the media in attendance were Brian Bailey of WNCT-9 and Ronnie Woodward of The Daily Reflector in Greenville. Bailey is an old hand at this, having joined WNCT in October 1984 soon after graduating from Old Dominion. Woodward has been part of The Reflector’s ECU coverage for some time, but now is in the primary beat writer role.
“The neat thing about today is these coaches, these moments, where you get to eat lunch with a coach and get to talk to some of the players,” Woodward said. “I think hopefully from the media side that they see us differently. We usually see them after practice when they’re all sweaty and they want to go shower or go on to something else. This is a relaxed environment.”
Bailey’s time in Greenville dates to the end of the Ed Emory era. He’s seen quite a change.
“We used to come to media day and you wouldn’t see the interviews until maybe two or three days later, but now it’s instant,” he said. “Guys are doing Facebook Live or they’re doing interviews and putting them online right afterward. Media day has changed like society has changed. It’s a different animal. When I got here I was the young guy and everybody was old and experienced; now I’m the old and experienced guy.”
Don Mahoney, hired in January to take over the offensive line, has been through plenty of media days in his career, but this was his first at ECU. Though he never has coached in the American Athletic Conference before, he has coached for schools currently in the American in Cincinnati and Tulane.
“Whenever I left here after a game, I’d say, ‘This is a big-time environment,'” he said. “When I was at Tulane, there were two places every year that I’d concern myself with when I saw the schedule: Are we at ECU and are we at Southern Miss? Those were the two that had personalities where, when you went there, you knew football was important.”
Building on what he often has termed “a productive football offseason,” Montgomery has an extra bounce in his step. It’s early in camp, and having that extra bounce can be expected, but he knows the challenge is to keep it going.
“This team is prepared already,” he said. “Now we have to get ready to play A&T.”