Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 12 East Carolina.
The best part of last year’s ECU football program, easily, was its ballsy marching band exposing the cry babies in Greenville—I make that observation both as someone who agrees with what they did and as someone who was forced to begrudgingly watch more than a quarter of ECU football last fall. Given how things have gone so far in 2017, I won’t feel any better about the one quarter I watch this season.
The 2016 season marked the first Pirates campaign of the post-Ruffin McNeill era; it neither provided any semblance of promise or any more solid reasoning as to why ECU decided to part ways with McNeill in December 2015. At least for those with a stake in the North Carolina college football scene, McNeill’s firing was a shock. It baffled the press, the fans, and the school’s greatest players.
Here you had a program that was fresh off a fairly successful run under Skip Holtz—the Pirates averaged 7.6 wins during those five season, including a pair of nine-win seasons—and found a coach that, for the most part, seemed to have the program chugging along at a similar pace. After a bumpy first couple years of sub-.500 ball, McNeill led the Pirates to 26 wins over the next three seasons, with a 10-win 2013 campaign sandwiched in there. But then, after a 5-7 finish in 2015—one that was no doubt disappointing but also not exactly deflating given how many one-possession losses ECU posted—McNeill was out. Just like that, the stable program that had seemingly found a sweet spot of eight-win seasons was again searching for a coach, though it was hard to figure out just what the hell the Pirates’ administration wanted. At the time, the prevailing thought was that ECU—believing it possessed the resources, recruiting foundation, and fanbase necessary to propel it to the top of the Group of Five—would only dump McNeill if it thought it could hook a big fish. Instead, the Pirates sought to play the Next Big Thing guessing game.
The administration chose youth and possibility, snatching up the then-37-year-old Scottie Montgomery, who left his post as Duke’s offensive coordinator to take over the vacancy. Teamed quarterback guru head coach David Cutcliffe at Duke, Montgomery was the Blue Devils’ main play-caller, becoming an integral part of the program getting its collective shit together and becoming a bowl team and ACC Coastal contender. A former Blue Devils receiver himself, Montgomery helped Jamison Crowder become the ACC’s all-time receptions leader and an NFL talent, and led the offense to its 48-point explosion in its 2013 bowl loss to Johnny Football and Texas A&M.
These were all great things Montgomery had a hand in accomplishing, and judging a coach on his first-ever season as head coach is largely unfair. That being said, I’m not sure he could’ve had a worse welcoming season—the Pirates dropped to 3-9 by season’s end, the conclusion of an injury-plagued campaign that left a gaping void in place of a defense and an offense that leaned all the way on its star receiver, so much so that the current iteration of the Pirates offense is actually thinking seriously about running the ball.
Part of that desire to move away from a prolific passing attack comes from Montgomery being honest with himself about the available pieces he has to play with. Ever since Shane Carden graduated with his name stamped on the front of the ECU record book in 2014, the Pirates have turned to transfers and first-year starters with no success. While we’re just one week into the season, this year’s crew doesn’t appear to be turning things around. Although Gardner Minshew was named the starter during the preseason, he has since been usurped by transfer Thomas Sirk. After Minshew struggled against James Madison, he got yanked for Sirk, who filled in and went 21-of-35 for 210 yards and two picks; he also added a paltry seven rushing yards on four attempts. That’s ... a bad line, but it beats the 38.9 completion percentage Minshew posted, so Sirk will now be the guy moving forward.
Lining up behind him, Tennessee-transfer Derrell Scott appears to be the team’s starting running back; considering he was able to lead the Pirates with 45 yards and a score on 12 carries, it’s a safe bet that the backs making up the reserves—Hussein Howe, Devin Anderson, and Tyshon Dye—are presently reserves for a reason. Out wide, ECU lost the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader, Zay Jones, to the NFL this offseason, meaning it will need the remaining bunch to replace 158 receptions and 1,746 yards of offensive production. The wideouts tasked with this are Jimmy Williams, Davon Grayson, and Deondre Farrier—Williams won’t make up for the receptions, but he’s an entertaining deep threat that, in an offense that will again be playing catchup, should hear his number called more often.
The reason a home-run hitter like Williams is so crucial to this offense is because, well, the defense is ass. Last season, seven of their 12 opponents topped 35 points and ECU finished last in Division I in both sacks and turnovers. This sparked Montgomery to issue a major overhaul, both in personnel and the basic defensive approach. In addition to a scheme change to a four-man front—ECU now runs out of a 4-2-5 base—Montgomery also went out and hired new defensive line and secondary coaches and snagged some big-school transfers in hopes of fielding a unit that can at least keep it under 50.
Nickelback Korrin Wiggins, a Clemson transfer, now starts at the same position for the Pirates; corner Tim Irvin, an Auburn transfer, racked up eight tackles against James Madison; and defensive lineman Gaelin Elmore, a Minnesota transfer, shores up one of the defensive end spots. Wiggins finished with five tackles while Elmore started but didn’t post any tackles or sacks against the Dukes. While not a transfer, Tyree Owens, who joined the team after initially signing with West Virginia, is another defensive line starter worth keeping tabs on. The defense’s only known entity is middle linebacker Jordan Matthews, who is back after leading the team with 77 tackles a season ago; he’s well on his way to a second team-leading season, having registered 14 tackles in the season opener.
Thomas Sirk isn’t anything to write home about, but given this roster, he is something to blog about.
Montgomery brought Sirk with him from Duke, where the sixth-year transfer commanded the offense during the 2015 season. I spent a season covering Sirk as a backup and another covering him as a starter—he’s fine. I can’t say I ever expected him to be a team’s Guy To Know or anything, but here we are. His mobility makes him useful, especially in an offense that boasts as many hulking veteran linemen as ECU does this year, and he has the arm to fit throws into tight windows over the middle from everywhere 20 yards in. He’s not a guy that you want to depend on airing it out for a victory—he rocks a career completion percentage of 59.2—but he’s a hard-nosed player that can push his team up the field and then punish defenses in the red zone with his legs. Again, he’s just in Greenville for a season and his competition isn’t all that stiff, but if he can regain his 2015 form, the Pirates might be alright.
Absolutely not. The best ECU can hope for is for UConn’s season-opening win against Holy Cross to end up being an aberration and for the Huskies to out-race them to the bottom of the barrel. The Pirates’ hopes of winning the AAC East are nonexistent thanks to South Florida playing in the same division as them, and unless UCF, the back-to-back No. 1 team in the nation, reverts to its 2015 version, breaching the top-three also seems to be a long shot. I think given its talent and schedule ECU should aim for progress—say, five or six wins—but be fully away that 4-8 might just be its ceiling for the time being.
Scottie Montgomery is fairly fresh to the coaching game and has thus far avoided any of the dick-ish behavior that’s plagued the D25's previous entries. His coaching methods, at least at the individual level, have certainly paid dividends for a plethora of otherwise average Duke receivers that still managed to find spots on NFL practice squads this preseason, as well as for Crowder, who now finds himself a starter for Washington. I’m not stupid enough to believe any coach can’t post a facade for a student reporter, but Montgomery seems to check out.
Sept. 2: James Madison
Sept. 9: @ West Virginia
Sept. 16: Virginia Tech
Sept. 30: South Florida
Oct. 7: Temple
Oct. 14: @ UCF
Oct. 21: BYU
Oct. 28: @ Houston
Nov. 4: @ UConn
Nov. 11: Tulane
Nov. 18: Cincinnati
Nov. 25: @ Memphis