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ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery tabbed the starting quarterback he hopes will lead his team to a bounce-back season on Tuesday evening, naming junior quarterback Gardner Minshew the Pirates’ top signal-caller for the Sept. 2 opener against James Madison inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The decision closed an intense battle through ECU’s preseason camp between Minshew and Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk, who enrolled over the summer.
With nine days until the season opener, Minshew will get most of the first-team reps going forward, though Montgomery indicated Sirk will still get a small amount, while also working full-time with the second team.
“It was one of those situations as a coach where you hate to make those decisions, you wish you could play two teams and all that, but you have to make them,” said Montgomery, whose team went 3-9 last season in his first year as a head coach. “Gardner did a good job and Thomas did a good job. We just felt like Gardner, at the end of the day, was a little bit ahead of where Thomas was. He knew our personnel, he knew our system, he took care of the football.”
For those outside the program, the announcement will come as a bit of a surprise. Most expected Sirk to win the job based on his past success while Montgomery was his offensive coordinator at Duke in 2015. But Sirk has struggled with Achilles injuries over his career, and even though the Pirates say he’s returned to near-full health, Minshew is more familiar with the offense, his teammates and has also improved mightily since enrolling from junior college last season.
Minshew saw action in seven games last year, starting the final two. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder, who entered preseason camp as the starter, completed 119-of-202 passes for 1,347 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions last year.
Sirk, who could still see some action in specific packages as a backup due to his running abilities, threw for 2,625 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while also running for 803 yards on 163 attempts during the 2015 season. He missed all of last season with the third Achilles tear of his career before transferring to ECU as a sixth-year senior.
Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said Minshew and Sirk both looked like starting quarterbacks during camp, but Minshew’s experience in the system after enrolling last year kept him a tick ahead of Sirk.
“When you looked at the film through (camp), Gardner was able to keep his job,” Petersen said. “He was able to play well enough on film to be able to earn that spot. He had a little bit of an advantage with all the snaps he’s had in the offense, where Thomas was a little disadvantaged there. It was a great battle. It’s made both of them better.
“We’ve got two starting quarterbacks. Both of them are going to play. Thomas isn’t just going to go sit on the bench. I’m excited for both of them and I’m excited for Gardner. But I’m also excited for what Thomas is going to do this year.”
MEETING AFTER DECISION
As much as both Minshew and Sirk wanted the top spot as ECU’s starting quarterback, the two kept level heads throughout the competition and pushed each other to be better.
After Montgomery sat both quarterbacks down to tell them the news, Minshew said Sirk congratulated him one-on-one and had nothing but good things to say.
“We spoke for a little bit,” Minshew said. “He’s such a class act. He congratulated me. We kind of talked through it and I can’t be thankful enough for the grace that he displayed and how the situation was handled.”
Sirk, who quarterbacked Duke to its first bowl win in 54 years in 2015, said he was disappointed by the news after the rehab he’s been through, but plans to continue preparing as if he’s the starter.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to get to this point and not hear your number called,” Sirk said, “but I’m not going to get down, I’m not going to let it discourage me. I know how hard I’ve worked to get back to this point. I’m going to continue to work this hard going forward.”
SIRK STILL HAS ROLE
Even though he may not start, expect to see Sirk involved in ECU’s game plan somehow during the Pirates’ season opener.
When asked on Tuesday if Sirk will still play despite being the backup, Petersen’s answer was to the point.
“Oh yeah, Thomas will play on Sept. 2,” the offensive coordinator said.
Montgomery was a little more vague in his response to what Sirk’s role will be, but with a 6-foot-4, 220-pound weapon who’s a proven red zone threat in their pocket, it’s unlikely the Pirates will let a dual-threat like Sirk go unused.
“Well, we will see on September the 2nd,” Montgomery said. “Right now, we’re singularly-focused on JMU and seeing if we need to create that role (for Sirk). It depends on what we can do with this football team. We’re starting to get a lot of guys back healthy and determine everything, so we’ll see.”
TRANSFERS READY TO MAKE MARK
Those who haven’t followed ECU closely this season will be surprised at the number of new faces that will play prominent roles for the Pirates beginning on Sept. 2.
Five graduate transfers, five junior college players and Auburn transfer Tim Irvin - who sat out last season - have all joined ECU’s active roster for the fall. While Sirk garnered most of the headlines, the defensive additions of Irvin, Minnesota grad transfer defensive end Gaelin Elmore and Clemson graduate safety Korrin Wiggins have upgraded that side of the ball in a major way.
Offensively, Tyshon Dye (Clemson graduate transfer) has joined former Havelock star Derrell Scott atop ECU’s backfield to form a formidable one-two punch at running back.
Eastern Michigan transfer Austin Barnes - a Ray Guy semifinalist last season - will take over the punting duties for the graduated Worth Gregory.
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.