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Pirates seek defensive improvement in Montgomery’s third year

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GREENVILLE — If Scottie Montgomery is entering what amounts to a make-or-break season in his third year at East Carolina, then there’s little question as to the area that must show the most improvement.

“Defensively, there’s no secret that we have to get better than where we were last year,” Montgomery said during the team’s Media Day activities Saturday inside the Murphy Center. “That’s exactly what we plan on doing. People ask my expectations of the defense, it’s simple. Hold them to one point less than the offense.”

That’s something that was in no way accomplished last season as the Pirates completed their second straight 3-9 season in as many years under Montgomery. ECU was last among the 129 FBS teams in points allowed per game, yielding an average of 45 points per game.

To that end, Montgomery made a change at defensive coordinator, bringing in former ECU offensive lineman David Blackwell to direct the unit. In both 2015 and 2016 at Jacksonville State, Blackwell was a finalist for the FCS defensive coordinator of the year honor.

“There may be games where we score 60 and they hold them to 59, and we’re going to rejoice because of a victory,” Montgomery said. “Then, there may be games where they score the only two points of the game and we don’t score any on offense. But we hold them to no points, and we’re all going to be happy with the victory.”

Offensively, ECU will be breaking in a new starting quarterback after Gardner Minshew elected to transfer to Washington State for his final season of eligibility. Sophomore Reid Herring, a Raleigh Millbrook High product, steps into the full-time role for the first time. He’ll be backed up by true freshman Holton Ahlers of D.H. Conley High and Kingsley Ifedi, a redshirt freshman. Ahlers, a left hander, had one of the highlights of Saturday morning’s open practice period where he rolled out across his body and flipped a pass to running back Anthony Scott for a long TD. As for Herring, he’s only thrown one collegiate pass, a 20-yard touchdown strike against Cincinnati last season.

“We get along very well,” Herring said of the relationship among quarterbacks. “We all hang out away from the field. We joke on each other and laugh together, so it’s been real fun there.”

Ahlers could conceivably see time this season without losing a year of eligibility after the NCAA passed legislation that allows players to participate in up to four games without giving up a season.

“A kid does not have to go out on the field and lose his entire year at the end of the year because of somebody getting injured,” Montgomery said of the change. “And now, coaches are not being placed in positions where they may have a quarterback that has a bad ankle that’s just going to take the ball and take a snap and take a knee. We can get him out of there. It’s about the safety of the game, and I have no problems with whatever we’ve got to do to tweak the game of football and make it continually safe for the people that are out there playing.”

The Pirates were picked last in the league’s East Division and accrued the fewest points of any of the 12 teams in the preseason media poll for the American Athletic Conference.

“We kind of try to brush that to the side,” Herring said. “We all believe in one another, we believe in what we can do. We know that we’re creating something special here and we are changing the culture — trying to get back to that winning culture that they had a few years back. It’s just been fun working with these guys and believing in one another.”

Even though Montgomery doesn’t own a lengthy tenure at the helm of the program, he spoke of a need to return to some of the program’s bedrocks.

“We’ve got to get back to the tradition of Pirate football,” Montgomery said. “There’s been a lot of things that have changed over the last four or five years that we’ve got to get ourselves set back in some of those traditions.”

One of those bedrocks — particularly from the Steve Logan teams of the 1990s — was trick plays.

“I’d like to bring back the tradition of exciting trick plays this season,” he said. “I’ve had a good offseason of being in a position to work on that, but that’s directly connected to what we do on the other side of the ball. Trick plays don’t work if you’re down by 30 points and you’ve turned it over two times in a row.”

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