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NOTEBOOK: NFL feel to special teams

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Head coach Scottie Montgomery looks on during practice on Thursday, August 3, 2017. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers and Ronnie Woodward
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Man by man, Scottie Montgomery is trying to build a winning football team.

As his East Carolina Pirates prepare to strap it back up today after their first scheduled day off from August camp on Monday, many position battles are ongoing, but just as many positions are fast becoming filled. The process for the second-year head coach has been in part about rethinking his personnel after a 3-9 season, but also about replacing some of the team’s bright spots lost to graduation.

Arguably one of the most important positions on the team got filled the same day the Pirates took the field for practice last Thursday. And when Eastern Michigan graduate transfer Austin Barnes took the field, he made his presence felt right away.

“Probably the brightest spot in special teams right now in our camp has been the way Austin Barnes is punting the football,” Montgomery said of his new punter, who replaces another former transfer, Worth Gregory, who became a mainstay the last two seasons. “He’s really, really hitting the ball well and giving our punt return team some NFL-type looks. We’re really looking forward to seeing if we can use him as a weapon when we do have to punt the football.”

Barnes will be joined by returning placekicker Jake Verity.

Montgomery said he has not finalized who will man his return duties this season, though he knows he likes senior receiver Quay Johnson and sophomore Auburn transfer Tim Irvin fielding punts. The team’s preseason depth chart lists senior receivers Davon Grayson and Jimmy Williams as the lead candidates at kick returner.

Attack mode

After finishing last in the country in sacks last season with eight, the Pirates have changed their alignment so that most of the time, two linebackers will be joined by five defensive backs and now four linemen instead of three.

Like most linemen, senior tackle Demage Bailey said Saturday at the team's media day event that the switch has brought extra energy to the defensive front. Bailey has been limited so far by a leg injury but is expected back soon, and while watching practice he has seen a defense that he described as often in "attack mode."

An emphasis on the play by both lines will continue this week in the buildup to ECU's first preseason scrimmage on Saturday.

"I feel like this is better for most of the guys, because the majority of us in high school, we ran a 4-3," said Bailey, who is joined by Kiante Anderson as the lead returning senior linemen looking to grab starting spots on a defense that has seen some talented transfers join since the end of last year. "Coming in and making the change to a 3-4, that was a hard transition for a lot of us. I'm just looking forward to what four linemen can do for us this year."

Breaking it down to its simplest form, first-year d-line coach Robert Prunty expressed optimism in the Pirates being better this year at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

"It's always better when you see more than three, so normally it can take care of itself," he said. “I'm a four-man front guy, and I think you could see more presence on the edge (at defensive end). We have some guys who can really come off the edge.”

The Wiggins connection

When ECU begins its season Sept. 2 against James Madison, it will not be the first time Korrin Wiggins has been in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a game.

Wiggins, a graduate student who is a potential starter for the Pirates at safety after transferring from Clemson during the offseason, is the younger brother of former ECU receiver Reese Wiggins. Reese played for the Pirates from 2011-14 and was often a quality complement to star receiver Justin Hardy during games at Dowdy-Ficklen.

Korrin, a Durham native, is aware of that as he heads into his lone campaign with the Pirates.

"I never thought about coming to East Carolina when I was here to watch him play, because I was younger," he said. "It's just funny how everything comes full circle."

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