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Is the Pirates’ problem coaching or lack of talent?

ECU Notebook

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The question has been asked for virtually all of the Scottie Montgomery era to this point.

Is it coaching or is it talent?

“It” being the constant struggles, the 4-14 record and the 13 double-digit losses the Pirates have endured under Montgomery.

If Montgomery’s comments during his Monday press conference following his team’s 34-10 loss to Temple on Saturday were any indication, he certainly seems to think it’s more talent than anything. The second-year Pirate head coach and former Duke offensive coordinator said Monday that while his staff’s scheme is growing, the recruiting and development of players is still a work in progress midway through year 2.

For anyone who has watched ECU’s first six games, resulting in a 1-5 record and being outscored 287-133 overall, it’s become obvious there are glaring depth issues on both sides of the ball. Opponents have often looked more physical, better prepared and just bigger overall than ECU.

While Montgomery finished off Ruffin McNeill’s 2016 recruiting class with a few late December and January additions, the 2017 group was truly his first and only recruiting class to this point. The 2018 class is also shaping up nicely with nearly 20 commitments at the start of October, as Montgomery has shown he and his staff can rack up quality commits, especially of in-state ilk.

As for if he can get the rest of the job done? It still remains to be seen.

“Scheme, I think we’re growing every single second,” Montgomery said. “I think recruiting, we’ve had one full class to recruit here. That’s the frustrating part of it all. I feel like I wish I could’ve helped our situation a lot more with 25 scholarships quicker. But (for) the foundation of the program, you can’t just go out and recruit 25 junior college players. You can’t do that to your program. We did have to recruit some young guys and we have young guys playing.

“The development, we still have a ways to go, in every situation. I think we can develop our guys better. We can make sure when they get to their junior year, they’re a little bit more physically fit than we are now, and we’ll do that. (Strength) Coach (Jeff Connors) is doing a good job working with those guys.”

Montgomery compared the necessary talent level to compete in the American Athletic Conference as opposed to Conference USA, ECU’s previous league. 

“We also have to bring in the highest level of recruiting,” Montgomery said. “That’s one of the things a lot of people need to understand is that, we’re recruiting in a different pool now. It was fine if you watch some of the talent level of some of the places at the last conference we were in. It’s fine to play (there). But now, every week you’re seeing guys that are (NFL) draft picks, that are big-time draft picks. We have to get to the point where we’re recruiting draft picks to go against those draft picks, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

This weekend’s game for the Pirates in Orlando will present a microcosm of just how far ECU has fallen behind. Two years ago, during the 2015 season, UCF finished 0-12 and the Pirates beat the Knights 44-7 in Orlando. Now, ECU is more than a 30-point underdog traveling to UCF to face the Knights, who second-year head coach Scott Frost has undefeated and ranked in the top 25 after making a bowl last season. 

“I think their situation is a little different than ours for a lot of reason,” Montgomery said. “I think Coach Frost has done a great job. I also think that if you do look at their roster and their sheet and their two-deep, he’s recruited some good players to be kind of compliments to the older players that were already there and in place and ready to go. They had a lot of speed and he’s grown it, and they’re in a place where they’re not going very far to recruit their talent and they’re doing a good job.

“Now, what I will tell you is that I do think that this program can look at that program and see that each one of these kids that are on (UCF’s depth chart) are developing, they’re getting stronger. ... We could mimic them in that way and continue to grow. But our situations are a lot different. We recruit this part of the state and we can do it with this state. We don’t need to always try to go mimic what other people are doing. We just have to get the very best from this part of the state.”

DEFENSIVE STAFF ADDS SOME HELP

Still searching for answers on the defensive side of the ball, Montgomery made the decision to bring in long-time college coach John Gutekunst as a defensive analyst.

Gutekunst, 73, is in his second stint at ECU. He was brought in as a special teams assistant in 2009 under Skip Holtz. Gutekunst was the head coach at Minnesota from 1985-1991 and has nearly 50 years of college coaching experience in all. He will work with defensive coordinator Robert Prunty, linebackers coach Ryan Anderson and defensive backs coach Brandon Lynch to help fix a unit that currently ranks dead last in the FBS in total defense. Former defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson was relieved of his duties after the second game of the season. 

Montgomery and Gutekunst are both graduates of Duke. 

“I’ve known Coach for a long, long time,” Montgomery said. “I just really wanted a calming effect, great eyes up top and then someone that can be in the building that can get some of the details we need to get fixed, fixed. He was the perfect choice.”

The Pirates are allowing a robust 599.5 yards per game on defense.

UCF SCOUTING REPORT

ECU will face its fourth ranked FBS opponent of the season when it takes on undefeated and No. 22 UCF this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Spectrum Stadium.

The Knights (4-0) have won every game by at least 28 points this season, including a 38-10 road victory at Maryland, and recent conference blowouts of Memphis (40-13) and Cincinnati (51-23). UCF’s games versus Georgia Tech and Maine were canceled due hurricanes earlier this season.

Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,165 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Speedy running back Adrian Killins Jr. is averaging 9.2 yards per carry and has a team-best 239 yards rushing.

Defensively, the Knights are led by linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He has four tackles for loss this year after tallying 20 TFL last season.

Former New Bern High School standout Mike Hughes, who ECU recruited last season from junior college, is a starting cornerback for UCF and he also handles kick and punt returns.

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