ADDRESSING NEEDS: ECU signees fill offensive line, defensive backs voids

Published 4:00 pm Monday, February 8, 2016

MICHAEL PRUNKA | DAILY NEWS FRONT AND CENTER: Charismatic East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery mans the podium during last week’s National Signing Day press conference.

FRONT AND CENTER: Charismatic East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery mans the podium during last week’s National Signing Day press conference.

GREENVILLE — Twenty-two players put pen to paper last week on National Signing Day to commit their football talents to East Carolina. The class may have been ranked 78th in the nation by, but it adds a lot to the program when evaluated from a need-based standpoint.

One of the program’s focuses was adding size. ECU has had to catch up to the size of the rest of its American Athletic Conference opponents ever since making the move from Conference USA.

The Pirates made a big step in the that department by bringing on four freshmen offensive linemen — Sean Bailey, Jack Doyle, Cortez Herrin and D’Ante Smith — that combine to weigh in at over 1,200 pounds. They’ll only get more imposing from there now that they have a few years in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors ahead of them.

“Offensive linemen are the bedrock of any great football program,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said. “It’s a position we wanted to attack. … (Offensive line coach Geep Wade) was relentless in his ability to go out and evaluate these guys and build relationships.”

The Pirates graduated half a dozen offensive linemen in C.J. Struyk, Tre Robertson, Quincey McKinney, Dontae Levingston, Ike Harris and Stewart Hinson.

Those four aforementioned freshmen, as well as 345-pound junior college commit Jarred Dorton, will help to fill that massive void.

STARTING UP FRONT: Isaiah Jones celebrates with the offensive line during ECU’s game against Virginia Tech this past season. The offense can only be so effective without a big, strong offensive line.

One of the other main concerns ECU hoped to address with recruiting was its defensive secondary. The team graduates Rocco Scarfone, Domonique Lennon and Josh Hawkins.

Lennon and Hawkins were leaders in a defensive backs corps that oftentimes disappointed last season. ECU gave up over 225 passing yards a game and 17 touchdowns through the air last season. Defending the pass is important in a league that boasts aerial threats such as Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis and Tulsa.

“What we wanted to do was go out and get defensive backs that had a tremendous amount of length, speed … and an understanding of the football game,” Montgomery said.

Four of the five defensive back commits stand at least six-feet tall. Most of them played defense in high school, too, which helps with that coveted understanding of the game. It wouldn’t be shocking to see two or three of those five start this season.

Defensive backs coach Rick Smith played a vital role in recruiting at that position. Smith had been the defensive coordinator under former coach Ruffin McNeill and was brought on to the new staff to coach the secondary. He was able to provide insight into the players the former staff had been watching.

His vast experience was also tapped into for the players the program hadn’t been previously recruiting. Smith recalls one night getting a call from defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson informing him that Javontay Smith had decommitted from North Carolina.

“I stopped what I was doing, looked at him on film, called him back and said, ‘Offer him,’” Smith recalled. “Some of the kids we got because we had already recruited them and some of them we got because the other coaches that were hired had relationships with kids because of the schools they came from.”

With spring drills still a little while away, it’s hard to tell who does and doesn’t have a solid shot at earning playing time. Even so, physicality is what stood out about Javontay Smith and Keyshawn Canady. That could lead to opportunities for them to make quick impacts.

“(Javontay Smith) is a very physical football player,” Smith said. “He’s a great tackler. I believe he’s a good enough athlete to play corner, but I’ll probably have him at safety.

“(Canady) is very physical, benches over 340 and runs a sub 4.5 (40-yard dash). He played running back, safety and corner. He may have a chance to play early because he’s so physical.”

Incoming offensive linemen and defensive backs will have more opportunity to get playing time right off the bat simply because of the openings. However, the new coaching staff provides a new set of eyes and an open mind. That means that the new players won’t be redshirting by default. Also, players already on the team won’t have much security on the depth chart. They’ll need to prove their worth.

“There really is no philosophy on red shirting players because you don’t really know what you’re going to get until they’re here,” Montgomery said. “They’re going to have to earn it one way or another. Now, if they’re not physically ready to go out and compete against 22-year-old men, we have to protect them. That’s what we will do.

“This is a developmental program. Our coaches are getting paid to develop talent. … If you’re ready to play, my philosophy is you’re going to play. I’m not going to hide you if you’re ready to go. But, I do have a lot of respect for the men that have been here already. … It’d be very hard for some guys to come and jump some of those guys.”

The excitement should continue to ramp up as spring practice closes in. The influx of new talent and battles throughout the depth chart will make for an interesting offseason.