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Special teams battle on tap

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East Carolina's Caleb Pratt practices kickoffs at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Aug. 11.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

East Carolina could benefit from touchbacks and fair catches in Saturday night’s football matchup at South Florida.

USF freshman Terrence Horne raced to two kickoff return touchdowns already in a win against Georgia Tech on Sept. 8 to make him the only player in the country this year with more than one kickoff return to pay dirt. He is complemented by fellow receiver Tyre McCants (averaging 9 yards per punt return with a long of 19) and running back Johnny Ford as a dangerous special teams backup.

ECU (1-1) will look to counter against the 3-0 Bulls with senior left-footed kickoff specialist Caleb Pratt, who has kicked off 14 times this year with 10 touchbacks. Last year, he finished with 40 touchbacks on 61 kicks.

The Pirates have stressed specials teams this week, but it also will not be all on Pratt to limit Horne’s impact.

“Caleb has a leg out of this world, but you can't count on that and really you have to rely on him not making it to the end zone every time,” backup linebacker and special teams regular Cannon Gibbs said. “You have to run it out and bust your tail to the end zone and stay in your lane or whatever your job is and doing that role and responsibility. It’s about setting up good field position for the defense.”

At punter, first-year Pirate and West Virginia transfer Jonn Young has seen three of his eight punts returned for a total of three yards.

The Pirates also are looking to gain an edge in field goals. Jake Verity enters as the top kicker in the American Athletic Conference with makes on all five of his attempts.

USF’s Jake Vivonetto went 2-for-2 in Week 1, but he has been limited since with an illness, and Coby Weiss went 1-for-3 combined during the last two games. Both players are listed on this week’s depth chart with an ‘OR’ not designating a starter.

A focal point for this matchup that is easy to identify is quarterback play, where USF first-year starter Blake Barnett comes in ranked second in the league at 307.7 passing yards per game. ECU’s Reid Herring, also a first-year starter, is third at 299.5 yards per outing.

Where the QBs and offenses will be positioned on the field to begin drives could be affected by kicking and returns.

“We understand that Georgia Tech was in a difficult situation throughout that game because of the dynamic return abilities by South Florida,” Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery said. “It would have been a different game if they didn’t have that, but that is why they call it special teams, and they put special players on that part of the group. Our special players have to go out and stop theirs.”

East Carolina hasn’t recorded a kickoff return TD since the first game of the 2009 season. Its last punt return touchdown was by Travis Williams on Nov. 20, 2004, for the sixth-longest drought in the nation.

Montgomery and some of the Pirate coaches are plenty familiar with some of the Bulls’ playmakers, given ECU’s dip in recent years into the Sunshine State to try and secure top-end speed and talent.

ECU running backs Hussein Howe and Trace Christian are from Florida, as is redshirt freshman receiver Leroy Henley. The Pirates snagged Johnny Bogle from Ponte Vedra Beach in their last recruiting class and he is already the starting tight end, but Horne and Ford also were lead targets for the Pirates a year ago, and they ultimately signed with the Bulls.

“We’re really satisfied with the guys we have recruited here and these are the battles we are looking to stay in and continue to find great young men and great speed,” Montgomery said. “That is something we identified early (with Horne) and we really wanted to go after him hard. They came in later in the recruiting process and they won the recruiting battle, so now we have to go out and win the football battle.”

DBs update

Montgomery said during Wednesday’s teleconference with reporters that defensive back Tim Irvin will be active this week after being suspended for the first two games of the season.

He also said a final decision has not been made on starting cornerback Colby Gore, who suffered a hit to the head Sept. 8 during the second quarter against North Carolina and went into concussion protocol.

“We’ll need to get a little bit closer to Thursday to know if he’ll be able to go or not,” Montgomery said.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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