The offenses of East Carolina and Duke were not terribly different last fall. While the East Carolina Pirates fell to 5-7 and missed on a bowl berth, the Duke Blue Devils were able to run the ball on a regular basis and ended the season in a bowl game.
At first glance, the ability to run the ball effectively in an "Air Raid" offense seems low on the priority list. When throwing the ball over 55% of the time, all you need is a run game that can keep the defense somewhat honest. The problem with East Carolina's run game in 2015 was the fact that it was one of the least effective run games in the FBS.
Outside of a few very impressive games by James Summers at quarterback, ECU was among the nation's worst in several different rushing categories. Summers started quickly with 169 and 85 yards in his first two games (Virginia Tech, SMU). After those performances, his production steadily fell to the point of playing wide receiver instead of quarterback in the season finale versus Cincinnati.
2015 starter Chris Hairston only had two 100+ yard games on the season (Towson, UCF). Backup Anthony Scott ended the season with 207 yards on 49 carries. Shawn Furlow and Marquez Grayson had very limited duty, but did show some signs of explosiveness.
Just how bad was the rushing attack from ECU last fall? This chart should give you all the information you need.
How does that compare to the Duke rushing attack under Scottie Montgomery?
The biggest number to stand out in a comparison is stuff rate. Duke was stuffed on 13.9% of all rushing plays, good for #3 nationally. East Carolina was stuffed on 25.0% of all rushing plays, good for #120. What that tells you is that the run game for Duke can continually gain yards, especially on explosive rushes to keep the pressure off of the pass game to play mistake free football.
It did not hurt that quarterback Thomas Sirk was very mobile and led the team with just over 800 yards on the ground. Several running backs on the roster were able to be interchanged, allowing four players to end the season with 400+ yards on the ground.
With Summers heading to wide receiver and Blake Kemp leaving the program, the health of quarterback Kurt Benkert is more important than ever. Before his knee injury, Benkert was a mobile quarterback with a strong arm. He could pass with the best of anyone, but his ability to work in a similar role as Sirk at Duke set him apart. Neither quarterback last fall had both skill sets like Benkert, so a healthy Benkert makes ECU much more scary.
Where do the running backs work into Montgomery's ideas on offense?
It all comes down to how willing this group is to focus on the team, rather than individual statistics. If it works anything like Duke's offense in 2015, every one of the five returning running backs will get a chance to carry the ball moving forward. Unless one player gets the hot hand, expect substitutions in the backfield on nearly every play.
Take a look at the running backs on ECU's roster, including incoming freshmen, and one thing becomes clear. Nearly every running back has the same size. Outside of Marquez Grayson (6-1), none of the running backs are over six feet tall.
While it would be ideal to have at least one power back, the Pirates have a handful of running backs that are fast and can break any carry for a score. If you had to put any backs into the power category, Grayson and Devin Anderson could fit the bill.
So, that leaves a trio of Anthony Scott, Derrell Scott, and Shawn Furlow. Anthony Scott had a chance to stand out in 2015, but struggled with worse numbers than as a freshman. He will benefit from a new coaching staff. Tennessee transfer Derrell Scott impressed in spring drills last season, but had to sit out the season due to transfer rules. He should be near the top of the two-deep this spring.
Shawn Furlow struggled a bit as a freshman on limited carries. He has an ability to break long runs, but also has the habit of losing yards while trying to make a play. Has 15 lost yards on only 25 carries last season.
Finally, a couple of incoming freshmen round out the running backs group.
Johnnie Glaspie is a North Carolina native that has track speed, reportedly timed at 4.40 in the 40. He is a three-star recruit with over 3,300 yards rushing for his career. With so many young running backs on the roster, a redshirt season in 2016 would do him wonders.
The other running back signee is one of the best prep running backs to ever sign with ECU. The three-star recruit rushed for over 5,000 yards and 86 touchdowns during his high school career. He could easily move to the defensive side of the ball and fight for playing time immediately, but it seems like Montgomery wants him in the backfield.
However it works out on the depth chart, expect three to four running backs to get a significant number of carries for a much improved Pirates running game this fall.