ECU looks for turnaround after consecutive 3-9 finishes

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Scottie Montgomery hopes this is the year things get turned back around at East Carolina.

His Pirates are coming off a second straight 3-9 finish and are picked to finish last in their division. Off the field, it couldn’t hurt to impress a temporary boss who is sticking around long enough to judge the entire regular season.

Plus, ECU is spending $60 million on a project to add suites and luxury seats at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and could use some on-field success to fill them up. And Montgomery is confident that success is on the way.

“I chose pressure a long time ago,” said Montgomery, a former coordinator at Duke and receiver in the NFL. “When you choose football as a player at a young age, you’re choosing pressure. You’re choosing your job being on the line every play. I’ve already seen the turn in the program, because I’m on the inside. It’s harder to see those things when you’re on the outside. But I’m on the inside. I already saw it.”

He has to hope his new boss sees it, too.

Former Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, who joined the athletic department in a temporary advisory role after former AD Jeff Compher stepped down under pressure in May, will remain the school’s de facto AD until Dec. 15 after agreeing to a three-month extension this month. Compher, who hired Montgomery after firing popular predecessor Ruffin McNeill, had been the subject of fan protests last season.

Winning will soothe everything, of course, and ECU has to show serious improvement in a tough American Athletic Conference to avoid its fourth straight losing season — something that hasn’t happened since 2002-05.

The three young quarterbacks in the mix were all recruited out of high school by Montgomery, who went with transfers from junior colleges and other FBS schools during the last two years.

Sophomore Reid Herring entered camp as the presumptive starter for the Sept. 1 opener against North Carolina A&T, with highly touted freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi pushing him.

Then again, it may not matter much if the Pirates still can’t stop anyone.

East Carolina had the nation’s worst defense in 2017, ranking last in both points (45.0) and yards (541.7) allowed. The Pirates fired their defensive coordinator after their second game last season, then brought in former ECU player David Blackwell to coordinate the defense and coach the linebackers.

“I don’t talk about negatives. I expect us to be a great defense,” Blackwell said. “I cannot coach scared. If I coach scared, they’re going to play scared. They have to have confidence that I believe in them. That’s the first thing.”

Some other things to know about the 2018 East Carolina Pirates:

STUCK IN NEUTRAL

The Pirates’ ground game has to be better this season, too. East Carolina ranked 121st nationally last season, averaging just 3.26 yards per carry. Maybe former Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney, hired to coach that position with the Pirates, will shore up a line that struggled to open holes for the Pirates’ running backs.

SEASON OPENER

The Pirates open Sept. 1 against North Carolina A&T.

KEY GAMES

East Carolina always gets amped to face instate power-conference rivals, with North Carolina visiting on Sept. 8, but the key stretch comes midway through the season with visits from Houston (Oct. 13), reigning league champion Central Florida (Oct. 20) and Memphis (Nov. 3).