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The new East Carolina football gets a 2nd chance to make a 1st impression

The Pirates’ sudden revamp didn’t go quite as poorly as it looked.

NCAA Football: Navy at East Carolina
Jimmy Williams
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published April 20 and has since been updated.

By most accounts, Tim Brewster is a pretty good guy. He’s charismatic, and he’s doing an obviously nice job as an assistant at Florida State. I feel bad for making him the equivalent of a worst-case scenario.

But when you spend years talking about Glen Mason Territory — the situation in which a coach has established a decent level of success at a school and is doing too well to be obviously fired but hasn’t raised the bar in a while — you also infer that if a team fires its own Glen Mason, it could end up with its own Brewster and set the program back a ways.

East Carolina, watching the rest of the AAC hire young, exciting coaches and build momentum because of it, fired its Glen Mason after the 2015 season. Ruffin McNeill won 26 games from 2012-14 and needed four one-possession losses to finish an unlucky 5-7 in 2015. It was only the second time in 10 years that the Pirates had missed the postseason, but ECU fired McNeill all the same and brought in 37-year old Duke assistant Scottie Montgomery. And went 3-9.

East Carolina stayed about the same on offense but plummeted defensively on its way from 73rd in S&P+ to 100th. It was the first time in the S&P+ era (2005-present) that the Pirates ranked in triple digits.

And after an early upset of NC State and a near-upset of South Carolina, their last eight losses were all by at least 12 points; the last four were all by at least 21. ECU was straight awful at the end of 2016.

So, Brewsterfication in full effect then, huh? In the attempt to keep up with the Joneses, ECU just set its program back a decade, right? Possibly. But possibly not. McNeill probably wouldn’t have done much better with the level of injury and attrition that Montgomery dealt with in 2016.

  • Quarterback Philip Nelson dealt with minor injuries most of the season and missed the final two games with shoulder issues.
  • Two key receivers (Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson, who combined for 74 catches in 2015) missed the entire season.
  • Only one of the top eight defensive linemen played in all 12 games.
  • Only two of the top seven linebackers played in all 12 games.
  • Only four of the top nine defensive backs played in all 12 games.
  • Seven different offensive linemen started at least two games.
  • Hell, the damn kickoffs guy missed four games.

This would at least partially explain why ECU was so awful at the end of the year, right?

In theory, 2017 gives Montgomery a second chance to make a first impression. And he’s bringing some backup. A couple of SEC transfers are eligible, Duke quarterback transfer Thomas Sirk just came aboard, Brown and Grayson are back, and Montgomery signed a few JUCOs this winter for good measure. He also asked defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson to change up his scheme a bit.

Emergency depth measures can pay off. Changes in tactics can make all the difference. The reaction to the McNeill firing was generally negative and led many outside of Greenville to assume the worst about the move. I wasn’t without suspicion myself.

There's a process here. Most of the time, I think of firing/not firing in this regard. You get fired when you have earned it. You start out with a mulligan year, and if you sustain success (like, say, winning 26 games in three years), maybe you earn a second. McNeill spent one in 2015, and if his Pirates didn't rebound as expected in 2016, maybe he'd end up in some trouble at the end of the year.

When somebody brings as much class as McNeill, I like to think that earns him a longer hook. McNeill was going to keep ECU bowling in most years. But if you see Glen Mason Territory coming, and you see other members of your conference getting their acts together very quickly, is there a point to waiting around?

Montgomery brought in a staff of mostly hungry assistants and now tries to prove his athletic director right.

2016 confirmed the suspicions, but it may not have confirmed that Montgomery won’t eventually work out. It does make the coming season awfully important, though.


2016 in review

2016 ECU statistical profile.

ECU’s 2016 season was a slow-motion collapse: three games of progress, five games of faltering, four games of abject awfulness.

  • First 3 games (2-1): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (~top 50) | Avg. yards per play: ECU 6.9, Opp 6.3 (plus-0.6)
  • Next 5 games (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 37% (~top 80) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, ECU 5.4 (minus-0.8)
  • Last 4 games (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 19% (~top 105) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.8, ECU 5.6 (minus-1.2)

The offense faltered first, then the defense, never particularly strong, crumpled late. By the end of the season, ECU had a below-average offense and wretched defense and lost to its last four AAC opponents by an average score of 51-24.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew took over for Nelson and played relatively well, and receiver Zay Jones went from high-volume possession guy (first eight games: 114 catches for just 1,094 yards) to dangerous downfield threat (next three games: 37 catches for 591 yards).

Jones is gone, and Minshew now has to hold off Sirk for the starting job. Still, the offense should at least be decent. It’s the defense that bears the burden of proof.


Offense

ECU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Montgomery knew what he was getting when he brought Tony Petersen to town to run his offense. As fate and irony would have it, Petersen was Glen Mason’s offensive co-coordinator when he was dismissed at Minnesota, then reinvented himself with stints at Marshall and Louisiana Tech. His Tech offense was devastating — pass-happy (as he likes it), vertical, and made even more dangerous with a mobile quarterback.

Petersen’s offense showed promise early in 2016 but screwed up the little details. The Pirates averaged 5.7 yards per play against South Carolina but managed to blow four scoring chances inside the SC 10 with three turnovers and a missed field goal. They averaged 6.4 yards per play against Virginia Tech but suffered a drastic field position disadvantage because of special teams and blew three more scoring opportunities.

For the season, ECU had the fourth-worst field position margin in the country and ranked 90th in points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40). That negated ECU’s strengths, which were mostly based around line stats — the PIrates ranked 27th in opportunity rate (carries gaining at least five yards), 34th in Adj. Line Yards, and 22nd in Adj. Sack Rate.

Of the seven linemen who started games last year, four are back, including two-year starting tackle Brandon Smith. This is a big group — the four main returnees average 6’6, 317 pounds, and four other potential members of the two-deep weigh at least 310 — and if Sirk is completely recovered from the Achilles injury (a huge “if”; Achilles injuries are rough), he would offer a mobile threat that Minshew does not. That threat could make ECU’s run game more dangerous.

NCAA Football: New Era Pinstripe Bowl- Indiana vs Duke
Thomas Sirk
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Navy at East Carolina
Gardner Minshew
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

At least, it will be more dangerous if the Pirates have a running back. James Summers is gone, and he was a decent amount more effective than either of his backups, Anthony Scott or Devin Anderson. Scott was involved pretty heavily in the passing game, but if four-star Tennessee transfer Derrell Scott or sophomore and former star recruit Hussein Howe were to break through, that would probably not be a bad thing. [Update: Former four-star and Clemson backup Tyshon Dye has also joined as a grad transfer.]

Of course, why are we even talking about the run game? ECU is a passing team. The Pirates threw the ball 54 percent of the time on standard downs and 78 percent on passing downs, both among the 10th most frequent rates in the country.

Minshew’s 2016 passing stats and Sirk’s 2015 stats are nearly identical — both completed 59 percent of their passes with about a 2 percent interception rate. Sirk took fewer sacks, but Minshew averaged a bit more per completion (with help from Zay Jones, who’s not around anymore). Maybe Sirk’s mobility, if it still exists at the same level, gives him an edge, but either quarterback will be throwing to a pretty experienced receiving corps.

Jones’ departure hurts simply because he was so frequently targeted — he occupied more than 40 percent of ECU’s targets by himself (a rarity). But Trevon Brown replicated his per-target stats in 2015, Davon Grayson is a decent intermediate option, and Jimmy Williams is a legitimate deep threat. In an efficiency passing game, he averaged 18.2 yards per catch. Throw in three-star redshirt freshman Tahj Deans, JUCO tight end Eric Weber, and another potential star in mid-three-star sophomore Deondre Farrier (10.5 yards per target last year), and it appears the receiving corps is stocked enough to account for Jones’ loss.

Whether Sirk returns to his 2015 form or just serves as a Minshew insurance policy, I like this offense quite a bit. Petersen’s second Marshall offense improved by 3.9 adjusted points per game per Off. S&P+, and his second Louisiana Tech offense improved by 19.5. I lean more toward Marshall than Tech when thinking about this ECU attack, improvement is in the cards.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at East Carolina
Deondre Farrier
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

One of the draws of a radar chart is that it pretty quickly tells you not only what a unit’s strengths were ... but whether the unit had any. If your radar is just a couple of scribbles, your unit was probably awful. Well...

ECU defensive radar

ECU ranked reasonably well in completion rate and stuff rate and horribly in virtually every other category.

The Pirates wanted to be aggressive, attacking the line of scrimmage and attacking the ball when it was in the air. That sounds great, but opponents just ran the ball anyway, and when they weren’t getting stuffed, they were gaining big yards. And on the rare occasion when opponents threw the ball, ECU didn’t have the pass rush to do its secondary any favors and got burned deep. Despite opponents leaning pretty heavily on the run, ECU allowed 25 passes of 30-plus yards, 109th in FBS.

Translation: inefficiency and a propensity for allowing big plays are a pretty bad combination.

ECU defensive efficiency & explosiveness

It’s hard to be successfully aggressive, though, when you’re changing pieces in the lineup every game. Nine linemen, seven linebackers, and 10 defensive backs made at least 5.5 tackles last year. Of those 26 players, eight played in all 12 games. That’s disastrous. Power to Kenwick Thompson for still trying to figure out how to be aggressive, but it was never going to work.

You could use attrition as a reason not to make any major changes, but while Montgomery kept Thompson, Thompson’s moving to more of a 4-2-5 arrangement. That certainly minimizes one problem — the loss of a lot of linebackers — but puts more pressure on the members of the secondary that got burned so many times last year. Plus, the nickel look rarely does favors to one’s pass rush, and that was already a massive problem: the leading returning pass rushers are linebacker Jordan Williams and cornerback Colby Gore. They had one each.

Montgomery signed four JUCO defenders and added former Auburn cornerback Tim Irvin [update: plus nine-game Minnesota DL starter Gaelin Elmore and 2014 Clemson starting nickelback Korrin Wiggins as grad transfers]; it’s possible that as many as four of these five newcomers starts. Williams and end Yiannis Bowden are keepers, but after that, no one is good enough to guarantee a starting job.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at East Carolina
Yiannis Bowden
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Experience and health will help. Nineteen of last year’s 26 regulars are back, and just keeping the same 11 guys on the field from week to week would be a refreshing change. And between buzz and recruiting rankings, you figure the newcomers upgrade the talent level.

End Tyree Owens, assuming he ends up eligible, was a mid-three-star JUCO signee with SEC offers, while end Brandon Henderson, linebacker Cannon Gibbs, and defensive back Marcus Holton Jr. were all three-star JUCOs as well. Redshirt freshmen like tackle Raequan Purvis, end Chance Purvis, linebacker Aaron Ramseur, and defensive back Keyshawn Canady are all potential playmakers as well.

I’m not sure the talent matches the scheme just yet, and I figure the pass rush is still going to be a liability, but just comparing this year’s season-opening two-deep to the one that finished last season, I’m thinking the former is going to be quite a bit more talented. That alone should result in at least minor improvement.

Jacksonville State v Auburn
Tim Irvin
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Special Teams

ECU ranked 109th in punt success rate, 109th on kickoffs, 116th on kick returns and dead last on punt returns last year. 10 Pirate punt returns generated a total of 18 yards. And a fumble. Is there any wonder why ECU was so completely awful in the field position battle?

Because of the weight place-kicking carries in the formula, it’s hard to have a decent kicker and still rank in the triple digits in Special Teams S&P+, but ECU figured out a way. And now that decent kicker — Davis Plowman, who was a smidge inaccurate on shorter kicks but went 8-for-11 on FGs more than 40 yards — is gone. Yikes.

Kickoffs guy Caleb Pratt is back; he was far more effective than Plowman, who replaced him in that arena when he was hurt. But returns are still somewhere between unknown and awful, and now ECU needs new punting and place-kicking legs. Yikes again.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep James Madison NR 7.8 67%
9-Sep at West Virginia 69 -12.4 24%
16-Sep Virginia Tech 25 -17.8 15%
30-Sep South Florida 56 -10.2 28%
7-Oct Temple 67 -8.5 31%
14-Oct at Central Florida 78 -9.2 30%
21-Oct BYU 46 -11.6 25%
28-Oct at Houston 49 -16.1 18%
4-Nov at Connecticut 125 4.7 61%
11-Nov Tulane 94 1.3 53%
18-Nov Cincinnati 75 -4.5 40%
25-Nov at Memphis 61 -14.8 20%
Projected S&P+ Rk 100
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 86 / 104
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.7 (78)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 76 / 78
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -16 / -10.1
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 49% (37%, 61%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.6 (-0.6)

In McNeill’s six years in charge, ECU ranked between second and seventh in its conference in S&P+ every year; the Pirates were second in Conference USA in 2013 and third in 2014 before slipping to seventh in his last season. Then, in his absence, they fell to 10th.

That’s not a good look, and on the surface, it fulfills the giant first step of Brewsterfication. But with the injuries the Pirates suffered, there was no hope of any coach coming in and succeeding. This will be Montgomery’s first year in which he actually has a chance to make a mark, and may well do so.

Still, there’s quite a bit of catching up to do. ECU must improve by 25 spots in S&P+ just to reach where last year’s seventh-ranked AAC team (UCF) resided, and the Pirates will be heavily reliant on transfers to provide a boost. Their S&P+ projection, which doesn’t take transfers into account, places them 100th, same as last year. There’s reason to believe the offense could drastically exceed its No. 84 projections, but the defense still has a large volume of concerns.

For both narrative and Scottie Montgomery’s job security, this is a huge year in Greenville.


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