An offseason of surprising quarterback transfers has left East Carolina’s Philip Nelson, a transfer himself, as the lone candidate to stabilize the quarterback position in 2016.
Blake Kemp, the starter for most of last season, transferred to Northern Arizona in January, and Kurt Benkert announced in May he would follow former ECU coach Ruffin McNeill to Virginia.
Those moves have given first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery, a former Duke player and offensive coordinator, no choice but to trust Nelson, who has had a tumultuous college career of his own. Nelson spent 2012 and 2013 as an ineffective starter for Minnesota. He then transferred to Rutgers, where he was expelled for first- and third-degree assault charges that were later reduced to misdemeanor assault. He walked on at ECU and sat out the 2015 season behind Kemp and quarterback-turned-running back James Summers.
Montgomery says Nelson has earned the respect of his teammates and will be an important leader in the Pirates’ quest to get back to a bowl game after going 5-7 last year.
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Here are four things to know about East Carolina’s season.
1. Nelson developing connection with Jones, receivers
Nelson hasn’t played a college game in almost three years after completing just 50 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2012 and 2013 with Minnesota. Nonetheless, Montgomery has been impressed.
“There’s a lot of respect for him on the field and off the field. He’s a vocal leader as well. When he says ‘move,’ they move,” Montgomery said of Nelson. “He has great arm talent, he’s very elusive in the pocket, he understands how to run the game and take care of the football.”
Helping the new starter settle into the passing game will be slot receiver Zay Jones, who returns after leading the Pirates and ranking third in the American Athletic Conference with 1,099 receiving yards last year. The top six receivers below Jones on last year’s roster are all back, as well.
“Zay has a tremendous skill set — a large catch rate, he’s quick in and out of cuts, quick to the tuck,” Montgomery said. “He and Phil (Nelson) have a great relationship so they’ll probably be connecting on a lot of passes.”
2. New focus from Montgomery
The Pirates appeared on track for a bowl game appearance in 2016 until losing four of their last five games. Three of those losses came in games in which ECU was tied or leading in the fourth quarter. The late slump ultimately cost McNeill his job at the end of last season.
Those struggles played into Montgomery’s decision to heavily emphasize conditioning — a term he mentions frequently — during practices with his new program.
He’s also working to rebuild depth on a gutted offensive line. Only two regular starters (senior guard J.T. Boyd and junior tackle Brandon Smith) return from a unit that was mediocre last year, allowing the fourth-most sacks in the conference.
3. Improvement through defensive competition
New defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson, hired from Vanderbilt, has brought a new theme of intra-unit competition.
“Everybody wants to be the position group that makes the biggest splash,” Montgomery said. “It’s a huge, huge competition in how they’re being coached and how they’re performing. They’re not just performing against our offense every day, but Coach Thompson has them competing from room to room.”
The defense returns six starters — two in each of the three units (defensive line, linebackers, secondary).
4. Prove legitimacy against Power 5 opponents
After the Sept. 3 season opener against Western Carolina, the Pirates have three straight games against Power 5 conference opponents: N.C. State will travel to Greenville on Sept. 10, then ECU will visit South Carolina and Virginia Tech.
ECU has won its last two meetings against both Virginia Tech (including a 35-28 victory last year) and N.C. State and nearly upset SEC power Florida on the road last season. More strong showings against top-tier opponents could set up the team nicely to return to a bowl in 2016.
Sept. 3 vs. Western Carolina
Sept. 10 vs. N.C. State
Sept. 17 at South Carolina
Sept. 24 at Virginia Tech
Oct. 1 vs. Central Florida
Oct. 8 at South Florida
Oct. 13 vs. Navy
Oct. 22 at Cincinnati
Oct. 29 vs. Connecticut
Nov. 5 at Tulsa
Nov. 12 vs. SMU
Nov. 26 at Temple