GREENVILLE, N.C. – A glaring sign that James Summers is no longer East Carolina’s quarterback was unavoidable at the Pirates’ recent media day.
He sat alone at table in the Murphy Center.
At the other end of the room, with tables set up for various players, sat starting quarterback Philip Nelson. Seats were filled with reporters and others, including cameramen standing around the table.
Quarterbacks always draw a crowd.
Despite Summers’ lonely setting, the 6-foot-3, 218-pounder sat ramrod straight. The senior’s persona gave off anything but the attitude of a sacked quarterback. He was engaging with anyone who stopped by to discuss his move to tight end…
Or is it wide receiver? Or running back? Or a situational quarterback, in particular for wildcat plays?
Actually, the answer is all of the above.
New head coach Scottie Montgomery, a former Duke offensive coordinator and Pittsburgh Steeler assistant coach, marvels at Summers’ versatility.
“I know that he can play receiver,” Montgomery said. “I know he can play quarterback, I know he can play running back, I know he can play tight end. I’ve never been able to say that about any kid I’ve ever coached – EVER — in any situation. There are things I know we need to do to put together a plan so that we don’t disrupt the offense. But I think we can do that.”
Quarterbacks are like kings. They don’t like to give up their reign. Yet, Summers has welcomed Montgomery’s unique plan of abdication. He’d rather be a knight on the playing field than a prince in waiting.
“I’ve always wanted to play different positions,” Summers said. “I love to take up a challenge. That’s what this is – a challenge. He’s giving me a challenge, and I thank him for it.”
A year ago, Summers split time as a dual-threat with passing quarterback Blake Kemp. They shared the role once projected starter Kurt Benkert was lost for the season with a knee injury a week before the opener.
They both had their moments. Summers played in 10 games and started four. He led the Pirates to their high-water mark, rushing 21 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 victory over Virginia Tech.
It wasn’t enough for Montgomery to think Summers or Kemp were the answer in ECU’s attempt to bounce back from a 5-7 record. Kemp transferred to Northern Arizona, and Summers was moved to tight end to open spring drills.
Benkert and Philip Nelson, a former Minnesota starter who sat out last year as a transfer, competed at quarterback. Once Nelson emerged from spring drills on top, Benkert transferred to Virginia.
That might have necessitated moving Summers to backup quarterback, but the Pirates had already moved on from playing him in such a role. A couple weeks into spring drills, Montgomery wondered if Summers’ potential was limited to one position.
“He asked me if I’d like to run some wildcat plays,” Summers said. “The first play I took off for about 55 yards. He said that was the first time he had seen that happen. We went from there.”
Montgomery could have kept it simple and used Summers as a situational running quarterback, but that would draw the defense to him. Montgomery believes Summers’ versatility and playbook command allow the Pirates to keep opposing defenses on their heels.
“I’m cool with this,” Summers said. “It’s been eye-opening for me. He has a lot of trust in me I can do all these things, and I trust him (with the switch from QB).”
Montgomery brought in junior college transfer Gardner Minshew as the backup QB, but Summers can step into that role at any time.
The move is about helping East Carolina win games, but looking beyond 2016 season, Summers recognizes he has more potential to play at the next level by demonstrating his versatility. He’s a rare senior who is fine with giving up the dream of playing quarterback.
“It doesn’t always work out the way you want it to,” Summers said. “The only thing do I can do is make the best of it. A guy like Coach Montgomery has made it a lot easier. He’s great coach. I’ve learned a lot from him. I really trust him. I hope he trusts me and obviously he does.”
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