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Opponent Preview: East Carolina Pirates

This team sure could pass in 2016. But now there’s no Zay Jones to make them at last exciting.

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

Editor’s Note: Originally said Jimmy Williams was no longer with the team, which was an error. Post has been updated to reflect that.

How should we grade the East Carolina Pirates’ first year under Scottie Montgomery? Its a question that’s been bugging me. On one had, there is the strict way of it. The Pirates were terrible. They went 3-9, lost to Cincinnati, played defense in the same way an open door keeps intruders out and and had just one win against the American Athletic Conference. However, a more lenient professor may point to the fact that Montgomery led the team to a win over NC State and a near upset of South Carolina on the road while employing one of the more prolific offenses in the league. Now, the Wolfpack and Gamecocks were no world beaters, but they were bowl teams from power conferences, so being competitive in those contests obviously showed that the Pirates had some stuff going right.

I will lean toward the stricter grading curriculum, but there is a little bit of me that thinks the Pirates deserve a bit of slack.

Anyway, now that we’ve decided to call the Pirates terrible, its worth noting that they are not so far removed from being a good football program. From 2006 to 2014 they made eight bowl games and had a winning record seven times. Montgomery came in to replace Ruffin McNeill, who was unceremoniously let go, so there was always going to be growing pains. It remains to be seen if that first hiccup will be just that or an unnerving trend for the purple and yellow.

What They Do Well

The hallmark of the last few good ECU teams has been potent passing. Montgomery didn’t change that up too much, as the Pirates led the AAC in passing yardage. They threw the ball all the time in fact. So much so that they had more completions than three non-Navy teams in the conference had attempts. It was a smart strategy because the Pirates best offensive player was Zay Jones, who could catch anything thrown his way. That’s why he finished with 158 receptions and 1,746 yards. Unfortunately for the Pirates, Jones and Jimmy Williams, as well as quarterback Philip Nelson, are gone now, so it may be tough to air it out with such success, unless Jimmy Williams can carry the offense on his shoulders.

What They Don’t Do Well

There was a lot more on this list than the other, even if Jones was the best wide receiver in the conference and perhaps the country. For all the passing yardage they racked up, the Pirates were only ninth in the AAC in scoring, partially because they only converted 73.9 percent of their red zone chances into scores, which was better than only UConn among league foes.

Then there was the defense. Teams scored at will against ECU, putting up 36.1 points per game, which was the second-most given up by any AAC team. Turnovers and a lack of pressure made it easy for teams to pick apart an already over matched group. The Pirates forced a total of eight turnovers. That wasn’t just the worst mark in the conference. It was the worst one in the entire country. You know what, maybe this whole strict grading rubric is the right one after all. Aside from their brutal efforts to create mistakes, the Pirates also had an AAC-low 54 tackles for loss and eight sacks, the latter of which was also a nation-wide low.

Players to Watch

Jimmy Williams, WR

Williams will step in to take over Jones’ role on the offense after recording 818 yards and eight touchdowns on 45 receptions as the No. 2 receiver a year ago.

Quay Johnson, WR

If there’s no Jones and no Williams then the Pirates need Johnson to evolve into a game-changing receiver. He certainly has the chops to do it. He ranked second on the team in receptions last season (58), but could do with a few more big plays, as he averaged only 9.7 yards per catch.

Gardner Minshew, QB

Minshew got plenty of time in at QB behind Philip Nelson and will be a junior this year. He threw for 1,347 yards and 16 touchdowns on 58.9 percent passing while being intercepted only four times in 202 attempts. He should be the starter as redshirt freshman Reid Herring and true freshman Kingsley Ifedi are his main competition.

Jordan Williams, LB

On a team without tons of defensive talent, Williams stands out if for no other reason than the fact that he led the team in tackles last season (77).

Do They Play Cincinnati

They sure do. After taking the Pirates down 31-19 last season at home, the Bearcats will visit Greenville, North Carolina on Nov. 18.

Prediction Time!

The only thing holding the Pirates together last season was Zay Jones and even he couldn’t make the team avoid disaster completely. Obviously Montgomery has a lot of work to do in year two but I’m not sure he can do it without Jones. Oh, and Jimmy Williams and Nelson and leading rusher James Summers and Dayon Pratt and... well you get the point. ECU is headed for another 3-9ish season and it could be a whole lot worse than that.