The much-anticipated football season opener on Sept. 1 continues to inch closer for East Carolina University as it wrapped up its fall preseason camp on Saturday with its final preseason scrimmage at Bagwell Field inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirates did all situational work, going from the two-minute drill to team run, third-and-long, red zone and possessions where the offense took over on its own four-yard line. Overall, the offense fared much better in the run game than it did in the first scrimmage a week earlier, especially in red-zone situations, where all three touchdowns were scored.
"Defensively, we were in a lot of places to make plays in contested areas, we just had some spectacular plays today from the offense," head coach Scottie Montgomery said. "We've been seeing plays like that in camp, both offensively and defensively. Those receivers made some unbelievably spectacular catches."
Montgomery has said before all three of his quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Reid Herring, freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi, could go out and run a college offense right away. Montgomery said Ifedi has made the most improvement during fall camp, but it is Herring who he stopped just short of being named as the week one quarterback.
"Reid has separated himself," Montgomery said. "I think the one thing that's really separated him is the time in the system. He gets us out of bad plays. He has the ability to stop tackles for losses just with his mind right now. We're growing Kingsley and Holton to that point, and they're already starting to do it, but that's third-year stuff. There's no question Reid has a great arm, but just getting us out of the bad plays, he does a good job of that."
Herring completed 10 of 22 passes for 190 yards, Ifedi was 6-for-11 for 67 yards and Ahlers was 3-for-9 for 15 yards. Ifedi led the ground game with 26 yards on three rushes. Redshirt freshman Trace Christian had four rushes for 25 yards, including one gain of 15. Senior Anthony Scott picked up 13 yards on three rushes. As a team, ECU had 81 yards on 17 carries, good for 4.8 per attempt. Montgomery has talked about wanting the team to average at least four yards per carry in order to have an effective running game this season.
Redshirt freshman Blake Proehl had two catches on the day, with the other one being good for 31 yards as he led all receivers with 56 yards. Redshirt freshman Leroy Henley had six grabs for 51 yards, Senior Trevon Brown had two for 41 and sophomore Tahj Deans had one for 32. Montgomery said the depth at wide receiver is strong and ECU can finally rely on many good wide receivers to get the job done instead of one or two great ones.
Other than a couple of procedure penalties and two sacks, it was positive day as far as offensive coordinator Tony Petersen was concerned.
"We ran the ball hard downhill and got some great runs from our running backs," Petersen said. "Our wide receivers made plays on the outside. If people want to play us in tighter coverage or in one-on-one, we have to take advantage of that because we have the height and the depth at wide receiver and the skill at quarterback. If we can make those plays, it forces them into situations where we can run the ball in the lighter boxes."
The defense, which outside of the red-zone opportunities gave up just a 33-yard field goal by Caleb Pratt during the two-minute drill. The defense’s top performances were senior Ray Tillman (four tackles, one pass breakup), junior Michael Witherspoon (four tackles, one for loss), freshman Myles Berry (three tackles, one sack) and sophomore Keyshawn Canady (three tackles). New defensive coordinator David Blackwell has made strides with the defense throughout the offseason, but was not impressed with the performance from that side of the ball on Saturday.
"It was one of those kinds of days," Blackwell said. "We were really good in the two-minute drill, OK in the first-and-10 period, and our twos were really good on third down. But I was really disappointed in the red zone. I thought we were not good there. It was the worst we've been in the red zone. The offense took it to us."
Montgomery thought the defense did better than it seemed and that it was more a result of the offense having weapons and doing its job than the defense not doing its job.
"Defensively we clogged up a lot of stuff on the inside," Montgomery said. "We have some things we need to clean up. Once we go back and look at it on tape, I would think our defense performed a little bit better than what we feel like just because of some of the plays that were made on the perimeter. But that's the ebb and flow of the game. When you have weapons outside and you get them the ball, things like that happen."
The Pirates, now finished with camp, had one more light practice Sunday and begins its regular season practice schedule starting tomorrow.