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Tahj Deans came to ECU because he grew up watching receivers in the Pirates offense make catch after catch.
Now, in the midst of his redshirt freshman season, Deans is getting his chance to be a part of the explosive ECU offensive attack first-hand.
The 6-foot-2, 186-pounder from Southern Nash High rattled off recent ECU playmakers, including some current teammates who are now upperclassmen, when asked about why he chose the Pirates over some solid offers coming out of high school.
“It was the passing game,” Deans said with a big smile on Tuesday. “Coming here and watching Shane Carden, Justin Hardy, Zay (Jones), Trevon (Brown), Davon (Grayson) — all them guys putting up 500 yards of offense passing. It was fun.
“I’m here now and I’m loving it.”
Deans was a standout with the Firebirds in football and basketball from 2012-15 before signing with the Pirates as a three-star receiver over offers from Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. He was originally recruited by Ruffin McNeill’s staff, committing to the Pirates under that regime, before electing to stick and sign with new head coach Scottie Montgomery heading into the 2016 season.
After redshirting in a developmental year last season, Deans and his rangy frame that’s still developing has managed to get on the field at times this season despite several senior wide receivers taking up most of the reps. Montgomery a former standout wide receiver at Duke himself and one-time NFL receivers coach, sees plenty of potential in Deans.
“For the last three or four weeks, he’s really came on. He’s been playing really hard in practice and getting better,” Montgomery said. “What I really like is his skill set. We thought he would maybe take a year or two of development coming out of high school. Playing basketball, he was real thin — he’s not thick now by any means as far as big — but he’s gained some muscle mass and catches the ball extremely well.
“He knows three positions now, which you don’t usually get that until your junior or senior year. We’re pretty proud of him right now. We know he’s going to be a guy that continues to grow.”
Deans, who is a cousin of NFL sack artist and Southern Nash product Julius Peppers, knows how vital being able to play multiple positions can be. It’s allowed him to be one of the first reserves off the sidelines this season with six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.
“You’ve got to be able to read a defense,” Deans said. “If you know what this guy’s doing, and that guy’s doing, then you’ll know how to run your route. You’re able to find holes quicker and find seams better. Being able to know the whole offense will help your game tremendously.”
Deans, who caught his first touchdown at UCF in week 7 before having his second at Houston this past Saturday called back due to a penalty, is thankful for the playing time. Last season, he watched the likes of Jones and other upperclassmen on a daily basis to get a feel for what it takes to be successful at the college level.
“Last year I kind of sat back in the shadows and watched how these guys operate. But if you put in the work, eventually it will show,” Deans said. “Watching (the others) is motivation because guys like us weren’t recruited the highest. We weren’t five-star athletes. So you come out here and you work until you get to the top.”
For Deans, that ascension is just beginning.
NO QB ANNOUNCEMENT YET
Montgomery may know who’s going to open Saturday’s game against Tulane as ECU’s starting quarterback, but he isn’t going to announce it before he has to.
Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew outshined starter Thomas Sirk for the second consecutive outing in ECU’s 52-27 loss to Houston this past weekend. Minshew entered in the third series and proceeded to complete a school record 52-of-68 passes for more than 400 yards and three touchdowns.
All signs point to Minshew playing a prominent role in this weekend’s game as well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Sirk won’t play either.
“That’s an announcement of a decision we’re going to hold off on until later this week,” Montgomery said.
Minshew, who beat out Sirk in preseason camp with more consistent accuracy and a better understanding of the offense at the time, struggled in the first half of the season opener against James Madison, leading to his benching. In his only other start, he came out steaming hot against Virginia Tech in week 3 as ECU jumped out to a 17-7 lead, but the Pirates faltered over the final three quarters, losing 64-17.
Minshew had since seen limited action until coming off the bench a few weeks ago when Sirk exited the BYU game with an arm injury. Minshew displayed poise and confidence, leading ECU to multiple scoring drives in the second half of the eventual 31-13 victory.
The junior signal-caller showed that same command on Saturday at Houston.
“I really liked him in the pocket last week,” Montgomery said. “I really think he was settled. We did a good job with him, talking him through a few of his reads. I think he settled himself quite a bit.”
With Sirk set to graduate, and Minshew the only upperclassmen slated to come back on next year’s team, these final three games could be a good showcase opportunity for Minshew to state his case for next year’s No. 1 quarterback spot.
“If I’m in his position,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said, “and I could finish out the season playing well and starting, then you have to think, ‘I’m the starter going into next season. Somebody’s got to come beat me out.’ And that’s football. That’s how I like it, the competition in my room. They know I love them all, but whoever’s going to move the ball down the field and put it in the end zone is going to play. But if you’re the senior, you’re coming back and you’ve started most of the games, you’ve got to feel like you’re the guy.”
TULANE SCOUTING REPORT
For the first time since the 2014 season, Tulane and ECU (2-7, 1-4 AAC) will square off on Saturday in a matchup of two struggling AAC teams.
The Green Wave, which started the season with a promising 3-2 beginning, has since lost four in a row to fall to 3-6, including a disappointing 17-16 loss at home to Cincinnati last weekend.
Unlike ECU, Tulane has been competitive in most of its setbacks, falling by two points at Navy and losing by only six to South Florida earlier this season.
Dual-threat quarterback Jonathan Banks is the Green Wave’s major offensive weapon. He’s rushed for 380 yards and five touchdowns, while passing for 1,122 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.