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Stepping Up: Defense’s spring struggles no cause for concern

GREENVILLE — East Carolina’s April 22 Purple-Gold Spring Game is rapidly approaching. The Pirates were focused on defensive improvement heading into yesterday’s scrimmage. While the new-look defense was able to get three interceptions, highlighted by a 73-yard pick six by Travis Phillips, it was largely overwhelmed.

The showing was inconsistent with the usual trend of the defense being ahead of the offense at this point in the season. The Pirates are implementing a new 4-2-5 scheme, which sacrifices the third linebacker for a fifth defensive back.

Perhaps the extra player in the secondary helped the defense come up with three interceptions. However, getting used to the new formation likely played a role in ECU’s offense gashing its defensive counterparts both in the air and on the ground.

In that first scrimmage on April 1, the offense ran for 177 yards on 29 carries. The passing game, led by quarterbacks Gardner Minshew and Reid Herring, racked up 370 yards. Washington native Jimmy Williams led the aerial assault with two touchdown catches of a combined 215 yards. Deondre Farrier, Malik Gray and Quay Johnson collectively scored four more times.

Pepper in four rushing touchdowns and the offense scored 10 times.

With the Sept. 2 season opener against James Madison still a while away, this can only be so concerning. Linebacker Jordan Williams is set to return for his senior campaign after leading the defense in tackling a year ago. However, four of the five Pirates behind him graduated.

Meanwhile, many of the offensive weapons not named Zay Jones are gearing up for next year. Jimmy Williams was an impact player last year. Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson have been on hand for spring workouts. Running backs Devin Anderson, Anthony Scott and Derrell Scott are all back, too.

It may not be the usual situation, but all things considered, the offense should have been ahead in the first scrimmage. It would be a concern, though, if the defense, which was oftentimes porous last year, doesn’t show improvements from then to when Pirate fans get to see the team on April 22.

Until then, take what the spring has been for what it is. The offense should excel. Even without Jones and Phillip Nelson, there’s still a lot of playmaking power. Scottie Montgomery said that Minshew will be the starting quarterback until someone dethrones him.

Minshew has experience starting under center, but ECU just welcomed someone into the fold that has plenty of that, too. Former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk announced on Twitter Friday that he’s transferring to ECU. As a graduate, the one-time Blue Devil will be eligible to play right away.

He didn’t play last season, but showed his talents in 2015. Working under Montgomery, who was then Duke’s offensive coordinator, Sirk completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 2,625 yards and 16 touchdowns.

ECU’s offense was fine even when it lost the duo of Shane Carden and Justin Hardy. All signs point to that being the case this season, too. However, the defense must round the corner for it to be competitive in the American Athletic Conference. If it can hang with its offense, things should be fine.