Caulton Tudor

Anxious Pirates can't take fast start for granted

Posted August 4

With good reason, a sense or urgency marked the beginning of ECU’s preseason football camp Thursday in Greenville. For starters, a lot of anxiety is only to be expected for any team coming off a 3-9 season.

But the Pirates’ situation is more complicated than the 2016 overall record alone under then-rookie head coach Scottie Montgomery, who suffered through a long, dreadful learning curve in AAC play after a momentum-smashing non-league 54-17 loss at Virginia Tech in late September.

Over the final four games – AAC losses to Tulsa, Southern Methodist, Navy and Temple – Montgomery’s team surrendered a whopping 203 points to cap nightmarish season-long showings on defense and special teams.

The goal of almost all football teams is to improve as the schedule progresses. Montgomery’s first season was exactly the opposite, and then the team lost its only true standout player – wide-out Zay Jones – to graduation and eventually the NFL Buffalo Bills.

Citing what he sees as an upgraded overall talent level and extra off-season emphasis on fundamentals, Montgomery came across as excited and confident Thursday in interviews after the initial set of drills.

But barring something totally unexpected, the excitement and anticipation for the coaches, his players and ECU’s often unsinkable fan base will be tested quicker and more strenuously this season.

In fact, the Sept. 2 opener (6 p.m.) in Greenville against James Madison has the look of an classic ambush in the making. As FCS (old Division I-AA) teams go, the Dukes pack as much pop as the category can muster.

Mike Houston’s first coaching season at JMU was exactly opposite of Montgomery’s in 2016. The Dukes went 14-1, undefeated in eight Colonial Athletic games, won the FCS national championship going away and closed on a 12-game win streak. The lone loss was 56-28 at UNC on Sept. 17.

Much of that team returns, including preseason FCS all-American quarterback Bryan Schor and six more preseason all-CAA picks. Schor, a 6-2, 215-pound senior, last season, threw 29 touchdown passes against only six interceptions.

Win or lose in the opener, the Pirates then will be prohibitive underdogs at West Virginia on Sept. 9 (noon) and Sept. 16 back in Greenville against Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m.).

Montgomery and his team do get to open AAC play in Greenville on against South Florida (Sept. 30) and Temple (Oct. 7), but USF is the league preseason favorite and Temple has won three straight in the series.

Ideally, ECU needs to find a way to get out of September at 2-2 with wins over JMU and South Florida and hope for improvements on defense and special teams as the season extends. Although they were picked for fifth in the AAC East, the Pirates, given a 2-2 start, then could then go to midseason with bowl hopes and clearly defined goals to chase.

It should help some that of the 23 head coaching changes after 2016, five are at AAC schools, including Charlie Strong at South Florida, Randy Edsall (Connecticut), Geoff Collins (Temple), Major Applewhite (Houston) and Luke Fickell (Cincinnati). The Pirates will play all five and three in Greenville.

There are other issues surrounding ECU football, of course. Montgomery could opt for a two-quarterback system with Duke transfer Thomas Sirk and returnee Gardner Minshew and there’s decent reason to suspect the air show of the past several years will be scaled back by offensive coordinator Tony Petersen.

And in the stands, there’s still much questioning athletic director Jeff Compher’s decision to fire Ruffin McNeill and bring in Montgomery in the first place. It’s been a rough run of late in football, basketball and baseball. Very little has gone ECU’s way inside or outdoors. A September football wipeout is the last thing anyone in purple needs at this point.

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