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Perhaps it’s the cliché thing to say, but Scottie Montgomery firmly believes his football team wouldn’t be as prepared as it is now if it didn’t go through the adversity and trials it faced last season.
There often isn’t much good at all that comes out of a 3-9 season. And outside of Zay Jones’ record-setting campaign and a thrilling win over NC State, ECU fans will do their best to wipe Montgomery’s first season from their long-term memories.
But Montgomery himself and the team remember every moment. The turnovers, the losses and the frustration festered in their minds. Montgomery has gone on record saying he and his staff took last season personally, and their offseason proves it.
ECU became relentless in its pursuit of several graduate transfers, adding five this offseason to go along with six junior college players that were signed when it became apparent midway through the 2016 season the Pirates needed depth badly. After ranking dead last in sacks, the Pirates switched to a four-man defensive front and brought in defensive line coach Robert Prunty to fix the issue. ECU upperclassmen and team captains Jimmy Williams, Garrett McGhin and Jordan Williams have all said the 2016 outcome was unacceptable, and they’ve pushed themselves and their teammates to put in the extra work this offseason.
So while no team ever wants to endure what ECU did last season, Montgomery believes it can be used for the better heading into Year 2 and Saturday’s season opener against James Madison.
“Everything that has happened and everything that has been said is really, really good for this football team,” Montgomery said. “We wouldn’t have responded the way that we have in recruiting and in playing, unless we had to hear some negative things. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t already been through what we’ve already been through and had to hear some of the things that we had to hear, which were rightfully so. We have embraced it.”
It was evident from the get-go in preseason camp just how different this team’s mindset was compared to a year ago. Physicality and toughness quickly came to the forefront, as the Pirates played with some fire on the practice field, and even took it out on each other over the course of a few practices. Simply put, the defense was angry when the offense was winning practice, and vice versa. When the two sides walked off the practice field, though, they were all one team. But on the field, competition was at the forefront.
“This was the most physical preseason, with altercations and everything, because everyone sees how hard you have to play every snap,” said Montgomery, who’s noted how strong the team chemistry is off the field. “Now we don’t have to talk about the chip anymore, it’s there and you see it on the field. You see it on the one-on-one drills that the receiver beats the defensive back. The next time that receiver comes to the line that DB is going to try and jam him at the line of scrimmage and then I’m going to have to be using my whistle the next five minutes because they’re going to be at each other. That’s what we need. We have competitive people in a lot of places.”
Luckily for ECU, it won’t have to go at each other anymore. Beginning this Saturday against James Madison, the Pirates can take out their frustrations on their opponents.
Long wait for Scott
Oct. 18, 2014.
That was the last time Derrell Scott received a carry in a live college football game.
So, it’s only understandable the former four-star recruit from nearby Havelock High School and Tennessee transfer will probably have a little nerves and excitement running through his body when he receives one of the first carries of Saturday’s season opener against James Madison.
After all, it will be breaking a span of 1,054 days between attempts in a live game.
“There’s definitely going to be a lot of adrenaline,” Scott said. “If you don’t have any adrenaline going into something like this, you shouldn’t be excited to play football. I’m definitely excited to get out there. ... It’s special when a coach has trust in you and believes in you and believes that you can make things happen, so I’m going to go out there and just do my job.”
Many didn’t expect it to be this long of a wait for Scott. After participating in two games his true freshman season with the Volunteers, and receiving 11 combined carries in back-to-back games in October against Chattanooga and Ole Miss, Scott stayed on the bench the rest of the season.
He elected to transfer to ECU the following spring, and redshirted while sitting out the 2015 season per NCAA rules. But then the 2016 campaign came, and many expected Scott to play a big role in Scottie Montgomery’s new offense.
Instead, the Eastern North Carolina product - despite being eligible - saw zero offensive snaps. This despite ECU having one of the mort short-handed rushing attacks in the AAC.
But Scott went back to the drawing board this offseason. Montgomery challenged him to shed some pounds and re-gain the quickness that once made him a top-notch prospect out of high school. He accomplished that goal, and is expected to open the season as the Pirates’ starting running back on Saturday.
“I think he will be fine. He’s had a great camp,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “He’s been hit, tackled, has held onto the football. He’s had great ball security. I don’t feel there will be any problem.”
Running backs coach Jason Nichols, who knows a thing or two about playing inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as a former ECU star receiver, said he hasn’t had any one-on-one sit-downs with Scott about how to channel his emotions for Saturday because he thinks his back will handle the situation well.
“I think Derrell is a very mature young man, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for him,” Scott said. “I’m excited and ready to watch him play. He should be chomping at the bit to go carry the rock, and that’ll be good for him.”
JMU the favorite?
There’s been some talk of James Madison being the potential favorite heading into Saturday’s season opener.
In fact, JMU was given as much as a 3.5 to 5.5-point edge by one offshore betting book earlier this offseason, though the lines have since been removed.
But when each head coach was asked about the unique circumstances surrounding a potential road FCS favorite playing at an FBS team’s home field, both Montgomery and James Madison head coach Mike Houston were quick to deflect it.
“I don’t know how in the world we’d be favored in this ballgame,” Houston said in the CAA teleconference. “You’re playing a team that has 85 scholarships. We have 63. They have a budget that dwarfs ours. The resources they have, it’s no comparison. So I don’t understand exactly how somebody would say we’re favored. I don’t know that you should ever see an FCS (team) be favored against an FBS opponent.”
Montgomery, meanwhile, indicated he understands why JMU could be considered the favorite, but he will remind his team of the news before kickoff as a little extra motivation.
“They were national champions last year and we think that they have gotten even better and we feel that we have also gotten better,” Montgomery said. “We’re talking about a team that had won their final 12 games and the only game that they lost was to UNC. You know that you are dealing with a talented team and a well-coached football team. I think that Coach Houston has done a wonderful job there. They’ve got the longest active win streak in Division I, they averaged 47.0 points per game and they outscored their opponents 700 to 318. That says everything about who they are as a program right now.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.