With about five weeks left until the East Carolina University football team kicks off its 2018 season at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against North Carolina A&T on Sept. 1, the excitement (and angst) is growing for Pirate football to return once again.
ECU had a down 2017 season in which it finished 3-9 and ranked at or near the bottom in the American Athletic Conference in most offensive categories. Most positions underperformed. Let’s take a look at where ECU was at each position a year ago and what it could be this upcoming season, starting with the most talked-about position on the field: the quarterback.
With Gardner Minshew and Thomas Sirk splitting time at quarterback, ECU threw the ball more often than any other team in the AAC, often out of necessity due to being down big in games. This wasn’t a good thing for the Pirates. The team recorded the second lowest combined quarterback rating in the league but threw 53 more passes than Memphis, the second closest team in the conference who also had the second best combined quarterback rating.
Perhaps fortunately for ECU, it will have a new face at quarterback this season. With Sirk having graduated, Minshew was set up to be the starter as a veteran with young players learning behind him. However Minshew transferred to Washington State University, leaving Reid Herring as the frontrunner to be the starter. Herring could have a breakout season, but if not, there’s still freshman Holton Ahlers, who you can count on seeing on the field at some point this season. Either way, ECU has room for better play at quarterbac in 2018.
The running backs did not get nearly as much use in 2017. Again, this is due to the Pirates often being behind big in games. ECU finished last in the AAC in rush attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry last season. Its 107.7 yards per game was last in the conference and ranked near the bottom of the country.
The position wasn’t devoid of talent however, as Hussein Howe led the team with 419 rushing yards and was the featured back. Howe was 27th in the AAC in rushing attempts, but his 4.4 yards per carry ranked 17th in the conference.
A good thing for ECU is that it gets vritually all of their running backs from last season will return. Howe and Darius Pinnix, the two leading rushers from last season, are back after rushing for a combined 648 yards and five touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Trace Christian had a stellar performance at the Purple Gold Spring Game and follows as the third running back on the depth chart. If ECU’s running backs can step up and create a productive running game for ECU this season, it will help a lot, especially with easing a new quarterback into place.
The wide receiver position in 2017 for ECU was a deep one. After losing the FBS all-time receptions leader in Zay Jones, the group was led by Trevon Brown, who stepped up with a 1,069 receiving yard season on 60 catches. The group had three other receivers, Quay Johnson, Davon Grayson and Jimmy Williams, who all had more than 30 catches and went for more than 400 yards.
For the 2018 version of the ECU wide receiver corps, figuring out new depth will be the issue. Trevon Brown returns as the clear cut leader of the group again this season, and possibly the next ECU receiver to play in the NFL. But after Johnson, Grayson and Williams all graduated. The question now becomes who will be the other key contributors out wide.
Don’t expect the receiving group to get too much relief from the tight ends, as it has been a little used group in the passing game since Bryce Williams graduated. After losing Stephen Baggett, Williams’ replacement, to graduation, ECU is left with a junior, Anthony Watley, listed at the top of the tight ends.
The offensive life wasn’t the biggest issue that ECU had in the 2017 season. ECU actually ranked toward the top of the country in terms of sacks allowed, allowing just 15 sacks. Only 13 schools had fewer sacks allowed than East Carolina.
The offensive line will be important to ECU this season, because more help from the line will surely be needed for both the passing and rushing attack to gel. ECU’s preseason offensive line, starting at left tackle and going to right tackle, is as follows: D’Ante Smith, Cortez Herrin, John Spellacy, Damarcus Shaw and Garrett McGhin. McGhin is expected to be the leader of the offensive line this upcoming season.
Overall, the offense has room for improvement but seems to have players who could potentially make the necessary improvements. Third-year Head Coach Scottie Montgomery and Offensive Coordinator Tony Peterson will have plenty of options to try out in what will be a crucial 2018 season for the Montgomery era.