2018 football season preview

Redshirt freshman Trace Christian runs through blocks during this year's Spring-Gold football game.

With only 52 days until the East Carolina University football team kicks off its 2018 season at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against North Carolina A&T on Sept. 1, the excitement is growing for Pirate football to return once again.

ECU had a down 2017 season in which it finished 3-9 and ranked at or near the bottom in the American Athletic Conference in most categories. Skill positions such as the quarterback, running backs and wide receivers are no exception. Let’s take a look at where ECU was at each position a year ago and what it could be this upcoming season, starting with the most talked-about position on the field, quarterback.

With Gardner Minshew and Thomas Sirk splitting time at quarterback, ECU threw the ball more often than any other team in the AAC, often out of necessity due to being down big in games. This wasn’t a good thing for the Pirates. The team recorded the second lowest combined quarterback rating in the league but threw 53 more passes than Memphis, the second closest team in the conference who also had the second best combined quarterback rating.

Perhaps fortunately for ECU, it will have a new face at quarterback this season. With Sirk having graduated, Minshew was set up to be the starter as a veteran with young players learning behind him. But, Minshew transferred to Washington State University, leaving Reid Herring the likely one to be thrusted up into the starting quarterback spot for the Pirates for week one. Herring could have a breakout season, but if not, there’s still freshman Holton Ahlers, who you can count on seeing on the field at some point this season. Either way, ECU has room for better play at its quarterback position in 2018.

The running back spot was one which did not get nearly as much use in 2017 as the quarterback spot did. Again, this is due to the Pirates often being behind big in games. ECU finished last in the AAC in rush attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry last season. Its 107.7 yards per game was last in the conference and near the bottom of the entire country. The position wasn’t devoid of talent however, as Hussein Howe led the team with 419 rushing yards and was the featured back. Howe was 27th in the AAC in rushing attempts, but his 4.4 yards per carry ranked 17th in the conference.

A good thing for ECU is that it gets its running backs from last season back and then some. Howe and Darius Pinnix, the two leading rushers from last season, return to the fold again. Anthony Scott returns to the Pirates as a senior and redshirt freshman Trace Christian had a stellar performance at the Purple Gold Spring Game. If ECU’s running backs can step up and create a productive running game for ECU this season, it will help a lot, especially with easing a new quarterback into place.

The wide receiver position in 2017 for ECU was a deep one. Coming off losing the FBS all-time receptions leader, Zay Jones, the group was led by Trevon Brown, who stepped up with a 1,069 receiving yard season on 60 catches. The group had three other receivers, Quay Johnson, Davon Grayson and Jimmy Williams, who all had more than 30 catches and went for more than 400 yards.

For the 2018 version of the ECU wide receiver corps, figuring out new depth will be the issue. Trevon Brown returns to be the clear cut leader of the group again this season, and possibly the next ECU receiver to play in the NFL. But after Johnson, Grayson and Williams all graduated, the question now becomes who will be the other key contributors on the outside for Herring and the quarterback position.

Among those who could step up and take pressure off of the wide receiver spot are the tight ends at ECU. After losing Stephen Baggett, ECU is left with a group of three juniors, Anthony Watley, Jaray Simpson and Dalton Montgomery, to replace him.

Overall, the offensive skill positions have room for improvement but seem to have the players to make the necessary improvements. Third-year Head Coach Scottie Montgomery will have plenty of options as he takes the field heading into a crucial 2018 season.

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