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Q&A Preview: East Carolina Pirates

The Bearcats are back in action this weekend so we did some reconnaissance about their next opponent, the East Carolina Pirates.

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

Its been a rough fall for the Cincinnati Bearcats but it has been a difficult one for the East Carolina Pirates as well. As the two teams get set to let their frustrations out on one another Saturday at Nippert Stadium, we spoke with Bubba Rosenbaum of Underdog Dynasty to get a feel for the Pirates.

DTD: What have been your impressions through the first six games of the Scottie Montgomery era?

BR: While the Pirates are currently riding a four-game losing streak—their longest since 2004, I’ve actually been very encouraged with most of what I have seen from Scottie Montgomery and his staff since they took over last December.

There is obviously no one—players, coaches, fan base—happy with the current plight. Then, there is that faction of the fan base that I feel has rushed to judgment regarding this regime and needs to get things in perspective. You always expect that extreme reaction—especially when a coach who was loved by many—is dismissed. When Director of Athletics Jeff Compher parted ways with Coach Ruff, he stressed that the expectation was to compete for championships and that there wasn’t room for excuses—be it injuries or otherwise. Therefore, I feel that some individuals have reacted to the current struggles even more strongly.

With that being said, all indications are that Coach Mo and his staff are operating all facets of the program in a first-class manner. Numerous players and others close to the program have reiterated the increase in organization and discipline under their new leadership. The staff appears to be doing really well on the recruiting trail, as they have received more commits at this juncture than ever before and seem to be landing some nice talent such as quarterback Kingsley Ifedi and receiver Jayden Borders. Ifedi and Borders are considered by some recruiting analysts to be the top prospect at their position in North Carolina.

The increased discipline seems to be transferring to the field in terms of fewer penalties, as ECU has committed just 24 penalties (T-2nd in AAC) and is penalized just 35 yards per contest (3rd in AAC).

When it comes to schemes and play calling, people are always going to have their differences of opinion when it comes to the X's and O's. However, I think some personnel problems such as a lack of depth, critical injuries, talent deficiencies and inexperience have been the bigger problems. For instance, the defensive front doesn’t possess much size and depth. Additionally, a starting defensive end was lost just over a week before the season and talented nose guard Demetri McGill has been out since the Virginia Tech game (Sept. 24). These front deficiencies have placed an inexperienced secondary in some difficult spots.

Coach Mo and his staff seem to really embrace ECU’s football culture and have also earned a reputation for giving back to Eastern NC through various types of community service.

Overall, my gut says that the Scottie Montgomery Era will be a successful one if the administration allows him adequate time to implement his program. After all, the Pirates have been competitive in every game with the exception of the loss at Virginia Tech.

DTD: ECU is currently riding a four-game losing streak. What are some things that need to be mended so that the Pirates can stop the slide this week?

BR: The Pirates have certainly had a plethora of issues up to this point.

Offensively, pass protection and running the football have been a struggle much of the time. Additionally, no one in the nation has been worse in the red zone than the Pirates and many of those woes have stemmed from a failure to protect the football. ECU has surrendered 19 sacks—only UCONN has allowed more (20)—and is also tenth in rushing (137.3 ypg). The Pirates began to use the multi-talented James Summers in more of a running back role against USF and it paid dividends with him producing 114 yards on just 18 carries in the increasingly downhill approach to the ground attack.

Defensively, the front is going to have to generate more pressure so Gunner Kiel won’t have all day to throw the football.

Finally, the special teams—which have been atrocious for most of the season—were improved against USF and they will need to build on that. Davis Plowman converted 3-of-4 field goals while Caleb Pratt and the kickoff team successfully executed some sky kicks.

DTD: The Pirates are using their third starting quarterback in as many years but are still leading the AAC in passing yards. What has been the key to that success?

BR: First, ECU has employed pass heavy attacks under Ruffin McNeill and Scottie Montgomery where they’re throwing the football nearly 60 percent of the time.

The current staff will likely run the football more as they acquire the necessary personnel and develop the ability to do so. Expect it be closer to 50-50 as we move deeper into the Coach Mo Era.

The previous coaching staff had brought in some quality receivers and signal-callers so the current staff is doing the smart thing and playing to the strengths of its current personnel.

Remember, Coach Ruff always said, “At East Carolina, we throw the ball for a living, not a hobby.

On the other hand, Coach Mo has preached, “We will throw it to score and run it to win.”

DTD: Although the passing yards have continued to pile up, Philip Nelson and Gardner Minshew have seemed to be splitting the work at quarterback recently, and James Summers adds another element under center. What do you think is behind the alternating and do you think it has helped or hurt?

BR: When healthy—as he is this week—Philip Nelson is the starting quarterback.

Gardner Minshew’s playing time against UCF and USF was due to Nelson getting knocked out of the game. He sustained a concussion against the Knights and no word was released whether he suffered one when he was lifted from the game with the Bulls.

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen is very confident in Minshew’s ability to lead the team if necessary, but has clearly stated there is no quarterback controversy.

As far as Summers’ involvement, he played in a conventional quarterback role last year, but has strictly seen “wildcat” quarterback reps this season with a variety of designed runs. He has officially attempted just one pass and only a few pass plays have been called with him behind center.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

DTD: Zay Jones is a monster (84 receptions, 840 yards, three TDs). Are there any weak points in his game?

BR: Zay, a senior, is pretty well rounded with no real weaknesses in his game. He is a true leader on and off the field, an excellent route runner, a great blocker and has tremendous hands. He frequently makes very difficult catches look almost routine. If you had to point to something that could be a concern at the next level, there may be questions on whether he has the ability to consistently separate against man coverage—whether on shallow crossers or to be a true deep threat. With 63 receptions, Jones—who is currently tied for 3rd with 325 catches—would surpass former teammate Justin Hardy as the all-time leader in the FBS.

DTD: Aside from Jones, who are some playmakers UC needs to be wary of, whether on offense or defense?

BR: Aside from Zay Jones and the aforementioned James Summers, the top playmakers are Jimmy Williams, Deondre Farrier and Anthony Scott. Williams, who averages 23.5 yards per catch on 20 receptions, is the team’s top deep threat. Farrier has struggled to protect the football at times, but he has steadily emerged in recent weeks and is giving Nelson and Minshew another viable option in the vertical passing game.

Following a strong start to the year, Anthony Scott began to struggle with ball security and has seen his playing time diminish. He is one of the fastest Pirates and is a threat running the ball or out of the backfield in the passing attack.

DTD: ECU has just one sack on the season. Why has it had so much trouble getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks?

BR: As mentioned earlier, the defensive front was a source of concern coming into the season. Then, a starting defensive end getting dismissed and veteran nose guard missing multiple games due to an injury made a questionable situation worse.

The linebackers were inexperienced and a lack of depth definitely exists—which has meant early playing time for talented freshman Kendall Futrell.

Yiannis Bowden—who had 3.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2015—hasn’t been able to produce the pressure that many thought he would.

Senior Dayon Pratt (6’4”, 237) registered the team’s lone sack against NC State.

While ECU has played its share of mobile quarterbacks, it’s tough to put a positive spin on one sack in 168 official pass attempts.

DTD: The Pirates are also last in the conference in turnover margin (minus-9). What needs to be addressed to allow ECU to hold onto the ball better?

BR: The failure to protect the football has been the result of a variety of things. Poor decisions, bad ball security and the failure to execute have all been contributing factors to the Pirates’ turnover woes.

For instance, in ECU’s loss to UCF, two red zone turnovers were connected to redshirt freshman receiver Deondre Farrier. The first was an interception after the pass deflected off his hands while the second stemmed from the Florida-native’s failure to keep a screen pass on the perimeter rather than cutting it back.

Coach Mo and staff incorporate a “Respect The Ball” period into their practices that features a number of drills addressing the different aspects of ball security.

DTD: Both UC and ECU are winless in league play right now. Why do the Pirates need this victory more than the Bearcats?

BR: While fourth-year head coach Tommy Tuberville is starting to feel a little more pressure to win and the Bearcats need a victory badly, first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery is attempting to establish his culture and a strong foundation at ECU. After suffering four straight losses, the Pirates really could use a win as it would allow them to see “the fruits of their labor” and move forward knowing that their new staff’s process is paying off.

DTD: Lastly, who wins this game and why?

BR: After an unexpected open date due to Hurricane Matthew, East Carolina is the healthiest it has been since the conclusion of fall camp.

The return of Philip Nelson (QB), Demetri McGill (NT) and Corey Seargent (CB) should really benefit the Pirates.

Against USF, ECU ran the ball better and avoided disasters on special teams. However, it still surrendered more than 500 yards of offense—including 306 on the ground. The UC run game hasn’t exactly been clicking on all cylinders, but Tion Green has proven to be a very capable back when he has some help.

Both of these teams throw the ball well and neither defend the pass very effectively so keep an eye on which team can generate the better pass rush to help its secondary. The numbers make you think that it would be the Bearcats.

If the ECU offensive line can give Nelson time to operate, he could really have a solid outing if UC continues to employ primarily zone coverages.

Expect this one to be decided in the fourth quarter and the Pirates to narrowly escape Nippert Stadium with a road win to spoil the Bearcats’ homecoming.