We’ve got a lot inside Pirates information over here this week, so let’s stop wasting time and get right to it.
1. Let's start with the Pirate's BMOC, QB Philip Nelson. After two phenomenal performances to start the season, which you highlighted here, what has been the signal caller’s biggest key to success en route to completing over 80% of his passes?
Nelson’s exceptional efficiency through two games can be attributed to a number of factors outside of the talented signal-caller’s abilities that had him regarded as one of the best in the Class of 2012.
First, he has excellent skill talent around him such as senior wide receiver Zay Jones and junior running back Anthony Scott.
Secondly, he is playing for a very experienced and seasoned offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in Tony Petersen. Petersen, who was a standout quarterback at Marshall in the late 80’s, has coordinated potent offenses at Minnesota, Marshall and Louisiana Tech. He has employed a very multiple, spread approach that really utilizes the running backs as receivers in the passing game. However, Nelson has also demonstrated tremendous accuracy in throwing the intermediate and deep routes.
Last, but certainly not least, first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery, OC Tony Petersen and his teammates have all talked about Nelson’s tremendous leadership abilities. He has totally embraced the process, demonstrated a strong commitment to making everyone better and put in the work that is necessary to maximize one’s potential.
2. What do you expect Nelson and the Pirates offensive coaches to look to take advantage of in South Carolina’s defense Saturday?
After going back and watching the Vanderbilt and Mississippi State games, the way South Carolina’s defense swarms to the football really stands out. They did however miss several tackles and struggle to stop the run - particularly in the loss to the Bulldogs when they allowed 290 yards rushing.
Mississippi State’s quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ran 17 times for 195 yards so don’t be surprised if the Gamecocks see a heavy dose of James Summers, ECU’s wildcat/change of pace quarterback, and perhaps even a few more runs for Philip Nelson.
Additionally, it appears that the South Carolina defensive front has struggled to get pressure on the passer thus far and ECU will be the most pass heavy team they’ve faced. Therefore, the Pirates may not deviate much from what they’ve done to this point and should be able to utilize much of their playbook in the passing game.
The Pirates’ offensive line held up pretty well against a very impressive NC State front, which provides hope that they can hold up just as well against SEC talent.
The secondary - with the likes of Lammons - really impressed me, so the ECU receivers will really have to block well on the perimeter for the Pirates’ screen game to be effective. Running back Anthony Scott is third on the team with 15 catches so the Gamecocks can expect ECU to attempt to get the ball to him in a variety of ways.
3. Taking a step back from the football field, what were your thoughts on the school's decision to oust Ruffin McNeil as its head football coach? Off that, what was you reaction when it was announced Scottie Montgomery would take over and how do you feel he's transitioned thus far into the role?
I was very surprised and upset when I heard the news of Ruffin McNeill’s dismissal. While there had been some notable game/clock management issues, myself, and probably most of the Pirate Nation, felt that he and his staff would receive another year due to the quarterback situation that they were dealing with last season.
However, after gathering more information on the situation and reflecting, I felt much better about the decision to go in another direction. Coach Ruff accomplished quite a bit in his six years at the helm, but there was definitely a sense that the program was not maximizing its potential.
As far as the hiring of Scottie Montgomery, I believe that East Carolina hit a home run. While he didn’t have head coaching experience, the fact that he had been a long-time assistant under David Cutcliffe - someone who is so well-respected in the coaching community - was extremely exciting. Additionally, he had spent a few years learning under the very successful Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
College football coaches are essentially CEOs and have to wear so many hats. “Coach Mo” has been like the energizer bunny and is the real deal. He has brought a very strong attention to detail, plan for success for every aspect of the program and is as organized as they come. He and his staff have instilled a very disciplined approach by everyone in the program - coaches, players, office staff, etc.- and emphasize the mantra, “Winning is an all the time thing”.
He and the team have been very active in the community, as they have really stressed giving back to and serving eastern North Carolina. They have done things such as visit children’s hospitals, participate in reading programs at local schools, assist with an area food bank and organize a blood drive.
4. The Pirates defense gave up nearly 500 total yards against NC State last week. While I'd be enjoyably surprised if South Carolina's offense could muster the same success, what kind of improvements are you looking for out of East Carolina's defense come Saturday?
Entering the season, the front seven was definitely a cause for concern with the lack of depth and experience. Then, there were some defections during the preseason, such as the losses of end Darius Commissiong (dismissed from the program) and linebacker Joe Allely (medical reasons due to concussions) that took a toll.
After bending, but not breaking against WCU, the ECU defense played well at times, particularly in the red zone and on third down against NC State, but there was definitely some areas that need plenty of work moving forward. The very physical Wolfpack ground game produced 215 yards, including runs of 37 and 54 yards. The Pirates also allowed an 80-yard touchdown pass and there were multiple occasions when defensive backs didn’t know where the ball was.
During his press conference on Monday, Coach Mo referenced his team’s need to improve its tackling and the emphasis that is being placed on that this week in practice. Additionally, he discussed the importance of having the proper fits and gap integrity in the run game to prevent some of the longer runs that his defense surrendered.
5. And finally, what're your thoughts on how this one will play out Saturday? I'm eerily concerned about Will Muschamp's home opener. Please convince me otherwise and pick my Gamecocks!
After a pair of home games to open the year, the Pirates will be making its first road trip of the Scottie Montgomery Era. During fall camp, Montgomery took his team on a road trip to Charlotte to conduct a practice/scrimmage to iron out some of the expectations and procedural aspects of the process.
While that and the artificial crowd noise is beneficial, nothing can truly simulate what East Carolina will experience when the ball is kicked off at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon. With it being the first home game of the Muschamp Era, I fully expect the Gamecocks to be ready to go before the sellout crowd.
The Pirates will present a different challenge than what Vandy and Mississippi State brought to the table, as ECU is probably the most explosive offensive team the Gamecocks will have seen to date. Therefore, the emphasis on improved tackling will be crucial.
Meanwhile, the ECU defense, coordinated by former Vanderbilt linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson, has certainly been one of the bend, but don’t’ break variety thus far. The South Carolina offense will have to play better than it has thus far because I don’t see the Gamecocks holding ECU to less than three touchdowns.
Offensively, the Pirates need to do a better job of protecting the football because it doesn’t need to provide a short field for a struggling USC offense. A quick start to quiet the rowdy crowd would also serve ECU well.
Carolina has won the last three meetings (2011, 2012 and 2014) in the series (13-5 all-time), but I feel that the Pirates have an excellent opportunity to steal this one on the road and spoil Muschamp’s home debut. However, I’m certainly expecting a competitive contest that is decided in the fourth quarter.
Well, that’s all for this week. Thanks again Underdog Dynasty and don’t forget to check out Bubba’s thorough coverage of the Pirates leading up to kickoff.