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Spring Battles Under Way in Pirate Land…A Closer Look at the QBs

So, my Pirate friends, tomorrow on Bonesville, my spring football package is running – apologies for it being a bit later than usual, but I screwed up in sending it to the publisher and so it is running in parallel with camp rather than just ahead of it.

Opinions are like...agree, disagree, would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

That said, I have been doing a lot of thinking about this spring camp and the battles being waged for depth chart slots, the coaching additions, player movement (off the team and to new positions), and injuries.

I thought I would use this space – since I get to be more biased here than on Bonesville, to dig a little deeper into the positions and give my thoughts – based on ongoing discussions I have had with the coaches and on my fanstincts (read: my point of view is no more insightful than anyone else’s) to perhaps generate a little discussion. I sincerely love getting emails from you guys discussing the team, the player battles, the coaching philosophies, direction of the program, any topic related to ECU football really because getting other insights enhances my understanding and thoughts on

the topics discussed.

Gamer: Wornick has shown he can move this offense.

So, with that in mind, I thought I would start with the QB battle.

I want to come at this from two perspectives: 1) glass half full; and 2) glass half empty and do so in a point-counter point fashion.

Point: For the most part, history and common sense would suggest that because a record-setting quarterback – Dominique Davis – has departed the program and a new QB will be getting his first stint as “starter,” that a production drop-off, particularly early in the season (when our schedule is brutal) should be expected. In fact, I can’t recall the source, but I remember reading an article that surveyed several coaches and the consensus was that a new QB typically results in 1-3 losses you probably wouldn’t have had had the previous starter returned.

Counterpoint: There is evidence in the Texas Tech history – under largely this ECU coaching staff – that would indicate that in this system, a first year starter typically thrives and no drop-off occurs because the success/failure is predicated on the QB’s knowledge of the system which takes a couple of seasons to get; hence, a 2nd, 3rd or 4th year understudy can typically  step into the driver’s seat and perform as well or even out-perform the previous starter.

Point: Dominique Davis was a stellar QB (he once was a Steve Logan product), well ahead of the other QBs on the roster, so replacing him will not be similar to the succession plan that worked at Texas Tech.

Counterpoint: In fact, Dominique Davis while very good, was an odd fit for this offense and was record-setting in 2010 largely due to the fact that he had an effective offensive line and two extraordinary receivers. His “eliteness” came in the form of leadership, not necessarily QB talents that fit this system. Moreover, the argument could be made that because he was not prototypical for this offensive system, the errors he made (and there were many that were game changers) were directly related to him not fully understanding and operating the system, which is not his fault since he was learning it “live” while his understudies – this year’s battle participants – were learning in a more controlled environment.

Point: Davis’ leadership will be impossible to replace…he was a natural leader and the team rallied around him.

Motivated: Johnson got a taste of game action and is hungry.

Counterpoint: Yes, Davis was a natural leader which is a huge point when assessing him. His leadership carried him at times as he was not fully engaged in the system. This helped cover his deficiencies in the system knowledge. That leadership allowed him to forge great rapport with Dwayne Harris and Lance Lewis but at times he never looked past either of these WRs which limited the system. Understand that the quarterbacks vying for the job this year have spent the last two years working with many of this year’s starters in the Thursday night scrimmages and on Scout Team. The winner of the QB battle will more than be able to assume leadership, at the very least within the huddle.

Point: Davis had a worse year in 2010 – presumably after he knew the system better – so it is not likely that the other QBs will fair even as well as he did. Davis proved he was elite in 2010 and these guys have not proven that they can even complete a game on the field yet and Davis’ 2011 performance doesn’t give a lot of faith in the “they know the system argument.”

Counterpoint: While it is true that Davis had an exponentially better handle on the system in 2011, his performance in 2011 hints at the initial fundamental point  he was a forced square peg in this system. What we saw in 2010 was the result of just how talented and heady a player he was and that he could succeed with two incredibly talented WRs and a heavily experienced offensive line. When left to produce based on system knowledge and only one receiver he had rapport with, he did not do as well. There were unprecedented injuries and a lot of dropped passes, but Davis’ non-system attributes worked against him some in 2011. He was antsy in the pocket and often made poor decisions when under pressure. This is not to bag on him…he was outstanding and carried the team in both seasons offensively. The point is that compared to the three young men competing now, Davis’ system-friendly attributes and his knowledge of the system may not be superior. In fact, if he were new to the program this year, he may not even be among the leaders this spring. So, sticking with the premise that Davis, though highly talented, was not a natural fit for this offensive system, consider that the QBs battling for the job – Brad Wornick, Rio Johnson, and Shane Carden, all have MORE time in the system than Davis heading into this spring battle. Wornick is working on his 3rd year in the system and has game experience where he performed very well. Johnson also is going on his 3rd year in the system and has game experience, albeit limited. And Carden, also in his 3rd year of the system, also successfully ran a similar system under the direction of a former Texas Tech QB alum. Each of them is “ready” to take the reigns and OC Lincoln Riley is measuring them against a much higher bar than he did when the QB battle was being waged two years ago in spring.

OK, so using these points as the basis for my opinion on how the QB battle will shape up, here are my way-early thoughts on the QBs this year and where they fall on the depth chart coming out of spring:

Future now? Carden comes in ready and motivated.

Brad Wornick: Riley has said that Wornick’s positives are: he is a gamer, meaning that with the game on the line, under pressure, he rises to the occasion. Riley has also lauded Wornick’s pocket presence and command of the offense from a system perspective. Wornick’s flaw? He is not a good practice player, meaning he doesn’t work with urgency to perfect each rep, he doesn’t bring his game elements into the daily grind of practice drills and scrimmages. This is an issue because practice is the only indicator of what will happen over the long-term and in this case, over the course of a full game and a full season. Depth chart slots are earned on the basis of daily output and in this case Wornick is his own worst enemy. Like having the cure for a disease and not telling anyone…the net result, clipboard duty.

Riley has told me on several occasions that he is counting on Wornick to truly and for the first time, bring it in spring camp. This is critical for Wornick if he hopes to be ECU’s first 1-year senior starter – ala Texas Tech – in this offensive system. Anyone hanging on to the “he was a former walk-on” blah-blah-blah needs to pop in the tapes from 2010. Wornick can run this offense and in those games, he looks uber comfortable, throws a nice pass, gets through his progressions, and is a good decision maker.

Prediction: If he brings it this spring, I see Wornick listed as a “Or” No. 1 or a No. 2 coming out of spring. If he is a No. 1 “OR” then I believe it indicates it is his job to lose in the fall. If he comes out as a No. 2, then I believe it almost guarantees that Carden gets his shot at starting.

Rio Johnson (JR-RS): Johnson won the battle a year ago to back up Davis, in my opinion, for very similar reasons that Davis won it in 2010. First, Johnson put a ton of effort into learning the system, working hard day in and day out and growing up and establishing an ability to command the huddle. I see him as a bit of a poor-man’s Davis and not necessarily a good fit for this system. Still, he has done everything Riley has asked and Riley was very candid about the fact that Rio’s biggest problems were his attitude and approach to the system. Riley expects him to be very motivated and to not backslide this spring in regards to maturity level. That said, Johnson won the No. 2 spot last year, right before the season, edging Carden out as camp closed and the schedule began. I speculate that Johnson won it because he was the QB “most like” Davis and would ensure some consistency should Davis have been injured. Don’t forget that Riley has said over and again that the offensive system still is not fully installed and much of that was based on limitations that Davis had as the “square peg.” Johnson has to show that he has moved off of being a very good athlete who has gotten a Davis-like handle on the system to a QB that fits this system and executes it to the maximum.

Prediction: I expect that Johnson comes in and has a great camp…works hard, is mature, is a leader. However, I also expect that his limitations will be come more noticeable as Carden, Wornick and Keith – all more natural in this offensive system – move past him in execution of the full system package. I am guessing that Johnson comes out of camp listed as an “OR” No. 1 or a clear No. 3. If he is an “OR” No. 1, then it indicates that none of the QBs has the system down enough to give Riley confidence that the hybrid or limited installation can be left behind and the offense move forward to the fully-intended system. This would be disappointing to me if the reason is as I am presuming. I see Johnson being a very polished ready-reserve QB at No. 3.

Shane Carden (SO-RS): Looking back at Carden’s career, you can see a clear progression. Each spring he has been consistently effective in the offense and it has become more pronounced each spring. He led the competition for the No. 2 spot a year ago literally until the close of fall camp, where Riley had Johnson edging the young quarterback – who was Riley’s first signee focused on this system. Riley has repeated to me that Carden has the best skillset for this position and has demonstrated in the Thursday night scrimmages, last spring, and on Scout Team that he can lead and lead well, can make decisions under pressure and can make every throw needed in this offense. He is also the most athletic QB on the roster, also something Riley has indicated previously and repetitively, noting that the run-game impact is noticeable and desired in the full rollout of the system. Finally, Carden himself has been waiting for this moment…he has supreme confidence in his ability to operate this offense to its fullest extent in game situations. Riley has indicated that Carden is the model for practice, bringing it day in and day out as he refines his skills and deepens his knowledge of the system’s smallest details and situational nuances.

Prediction: I expect Carden to be listed as either the only No. 1 or an “OR” No. 1. The latter might make sense in regards to keeping the young QB under pressure to keep up the effort and force a continued battle in the fall. If he is the clear-cut No. 1, then it will indicate that Riley considers him enough of a leader and is giving him the reigns officially to this offense. If he is a No. 2 behind Wornick, it could be to push him into Fall battles or it indicates that he is still a year away, which is not likely.

Cody Keith (FR-RS): Unfortunately, Keith needed ankle surgery during the off-season and is trying to get totally healthy. With the QBs on the roster, the expectation is for Keith to use spring to refine and show that he has a handle on it. There is no pressure for him to be game ready yet, but as the depth chart shapes up, it is certain that Keith wants to be on it to set up his own progression within the program. With no QB signed this year, Keith’s development into a system-savvy QB is paramount for the future of the program. Riley has told me that when Keith is healthy and on top of his game, he is uber impressive and that one thing the OC is looking forward to if for his coaching colleagues to finally get a good look at Keith putting it altogether because to this point, Riley is the only one who has seen it live. How much Keith can show this spring is still up in the air pending his ankle. That said, if he competes, he will push for more reps and that means that Riley will have to make a bunch of decisions based on what is best for this season and what is also best considering the future.

Prediction: Keith exits camp listed on the depth chart as an “OR” No. 3. This will be a strategic move, aimed at giving evidence to the young QB that he is progressing properly – this matters. Also, it allows for Keith to be in “the competition” though he probably for all intents and purposes is not. If he is listed above No. 3 in any capacity, then it gives me pause in regards to the other 3 QBs and our system. Unless it is clear-cut No. 1 which would indicate we have a phenom on our hands and then I would have another set of worries – the other 3 QBs packing it in.

Conclusion: Riley was explicit and saying that the QB battle would be conducted with no bias, meaning all QBs would compete agnostic to their depth chart position a year ago. No one is the incumbent, no one is the favorite, no one gets more chances then the other. Nice try coach. To some extent that will happen, but you have to believe that Riley knows already the maximum potential of each of these QBs relative to the system  he wants to run. Not that he has a favorite, but I do think he has an internal ledger that says something like, “If X wins the job, I can expect Y on the field this year.” And with that, I think this battle gets narrowed very quickly with maybe only two real combatants heading into fall since reps for your No. 1 and No. 2 are critically important in preparation for this fall. Going to be great fun to watch though.

PLEASE, my friends, chime in and share your thoughts on this position and the camp battle.

18 comments on “Spring Battles Under Way in Pirate Land…A Closer Look at the QBs

  1. That is a lot to digest and a lot of words, and I agree with every last one of them; especially the DD analyses and Carden. DD was indeed a play action/option square peg in a round spread hole and I felt bad for the type of criticism he was receiving last year. It was something like, 40% o-line decimation, 40% RIley not adjusting the play-calling to match what he had on the field and to make adjustment to the other teams, and 20% between the ears of DD. That’s “ROM” (rough order of magnitude) percentages but pretty close to the mark I would bet.

    If pressed, I say Carden will get the job for the following reasons – albeit I haven’t seen 1 second of practice live. (a) He was LR’s first spread QB recruit, (b) Carden pretty much gave up an Ivy League education to play here on the holy grounds of ECU, (c) he ran a full spread offense at HS – watch his HS tapes on YouTube (wow). That’s a lot of smarts, a lot to play for, and a lot of dedication – I don’t think he will be denied.

    Stoked for the 14th – morning 5k, kids get autographs, and get to obsess on the spring game. Life is good.

    • Pirate R…once again…thanks for dropping in and sharing. I see the discussion going on over at HTC…great discussion. I think what I think, but having said that, all the QBs are great athletes and I am confident that whomever wins the job, Rio included, obviously will be the winner of the battle and hence able to lead.

      Life is good my friend…I am here and so is football…

  2. Michael Jones

    I think it’s between Carden and Wornick. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Wornick win it, but I favor Carden. Johnson like you said is much like Davis and not really a true fit in this offense. It made sense to have him as the backup because he was probably the best at running the Davis version of the Air Raid, but the others are better fit to run the real version of the Air Raid.

    • Awesome to have your thoughts Michael…thanks for taking time to drop in and share them. I agree with your assertion – obviously – but for me, if it does come down to Carden and Wornick, it is an even bigger verification that Lincoln Riley is expecting to run his full system in 2012 with a few new bells and whistles (e.g., TE packages and Flex packages).

  3. 2010 vs 2011: In 2010, Davis had J. Williams & G. Ruffin to hand off and dump passes to. In 2011, he had who (on a consistent basis)?

    • Hi Den…thanks for dropping by and sharing. Your point is a very good one. Injuries weren’t limited to the OL in 2011, obviously we had serious RB problems, underscored by the fact that Zico Pasut was lining up in the backfield by season’s end. AND, it was not just handoffs, none of the backs last year compared with Jon and Giavanni in regards to pass catching out of the backfield. Well played on that point.

      Larger to that, I hope this post doesn’t sound like I am ripping on Dominique Davis…loved him as a QB, competitor, and leader. My point is to say that DD was not the prototype Riley wants in this system, which he has said again and again and also noted that he was not able to run the full offense, not only because DD, but also because of other factors, too.

      Please continue to keep things balanced and sanity checked Den…I value your opinions.

  4. I’ve heard from the players, even last year, that they wanted Rio to start.

    • Great to hear from you Pee Dee…thanks for taking the time to drop in.

      That is good news about Rio in regards to the fact that he has his teammates’ confidence, that is a huge ingredient for success.

      I know he has a big arm…hopefully in his maturation process, he is expanding his skillset for what is needed to fully execute this system. Hindsight being what it is, I wish that Rio could have gotten more significant snaps a year ago to really see what he can do. My thoughts are sort of a fusing of what I have seen, what I have heard from coaches (past and present), and what I pick up from others around the program.

      If Rio plays like gangbusters this spring and wins the job, then he must be the man, because he, Wornick and Carden are all good QBs.

      Thanks for sharing this info.

  5. Pirate Leo

    I know that LR is big on how folks practice, which may keep Wornick from starting unless he works harder. The coaches say that Rio has a great arm but that is about all, so he may not be “made” for this system but he has some of the tools needed to be successful. I think Carden, if LR has confidence that he can start, will probably be named the starter. It sounds like his work ethic and skillset make his a favorite of the coaches and I am sure LR wants to fully implement his scheme in year 3. Keith will be allowed to learn and fully recover so I don’t expect to see him this year but he may battle Carden next year for the starters job.

    • Welcome Pirate Leo…thanks for sharing your thoughts. I share your thoughts.

      I know other see things differently but what I think we can all agree on is that these three young men are all true Pirates, talented QBs, and motivated to be the guy here this year. Can’t ask for much more in a QB competition.

      Thanks again for dropping in.

  6. Patch The Pirate

    I always look forward to your break down of ECU Football. There really is no one better.

    I am ready to see this offense fully installed, but do you think we are really ready for that yet when you factor in the O-line, RB’s and WR’s? I think you are correct in that if we see Rio get the reigns, we are not there yet. That is also why I would like to see Wornick or Carden. I am interested to see if Wornick steps his game up now that DD is gone. You have to wonder if he took his foot of the gas once he realized DD was going to be the starter…hence falling down the depth chart. Its gonna be a fun battle to watch. I think all of these guys have potential to step in and produce.

    Cant wait for more Ron! Keep it coming!

    • Hi PTP…thanks for stopping by and dropping some thoughts.

      You know, that is something to very much consider. I think the WRs are there and have been seen late in 2010, but your point on the OL and RBs is a good one. I am planning to give thoughts on RBs tomorrow, so check in please.

      OL…the guys in the lineup are the ones that LR thinks are the right type, save a guy here or there, but they are all still sort of ramping up…you have given me much food for thought for when I dive into OL.

      Thanks again for stopping in.

  7. Mitchell Doub

    Hi Ron, great look at the QB’s. I guess, for me, I’d have to prioritize what I value:
    -Is it long term stability, i.e. a capable QB that will start and improve each year and have a really good junior year and a stellar senior year (Carden would fit this bill)
    -Or is it the best all around QB in camp, reguardless of age with the most game experience that gives us a chance for shortlived success of one year? (Wornick)

    I think we need to win this year so if I were LR I’d name Wornick the starter (shows others that staying with the program means something) and I’d re-evaluate him after the first two games. I’d name Carden as #2 and get him in for at least 3 or 4 series against ASU. If he does well, he’d play also against SC. In game 3 I’d make my final decision and stick with it. I’d name keith as #3 and let him see mop-up duty as the year goes along. I’d move Johnson to another position and let him play ALOT against ASU. I think everyone comes away happy, we have the most experienced QB at the helm, our future QB gets good reps, Rio gets to play and keith knows he’s the man for one, maybe two years.

    • Hi Mitchell…thanks for contributing. I think we will learn a lot about where LR feels we are with his system when this QB battle shakes out.

      Should be an exciting season. They are all capable QBs.

  8. Blackbeard's Ghost

    Great article..thanks for sharing RC. I’m gonna say this…whoever gets the #1 nod and starts, needs to be able to focus on the game and not worry about the number 2 QB waiting to come in and steal his job. I would have to go with the guy who shows the most focus..which makes me a bit shy of choosing Wornick. The spring will tell us some things…..but then again it might not! Hurry up spring game…can’t wait to see for myself!!

    • Hey BBG…greatly appreciate your thoughts…thanks for sharing.

      I am very excited about this team, QB notwithstanding. I really hope we find the right QB and a RB that can do it all.Then it is about healthy OLs…

      Please stop in any time.

  9. Coby Heath

    I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Davis. I don’t think Davis was a “square peg” for the Air Raid. He was not given the time to mature into the system. What he did with no spring practice and starting after a few weeks in a Pirate uniform was nothing short of remarkable. Had Davis entered the program as a true freshman and given 2 or 3 years in the system, he would have been a tremendous Air Raid quarterback. Last year’s mistakes were simply sophomoric errors. Guess what… it was his sophomore year in this system. Name one JUCO transfer quarterback that has had his success in the Air Raid. It’s a funny thing no one was saying “square peg” after the 2010 season.

    The drop off from year one was a direct responsibility of the offensive line. In 2010, he had a senior offensive line that was average due to their lack of time in the system. Yet Davis still set records with his abilities; not because of a great line. Last year’s offensive line was without a doubt one of the worst in the country… a breakdown on almost every play. He still set 2 NCAA records. He learned and excelled at 3 different systems during his college career… a great tribute to his abilities.

    Davis had his shortcomings as any great quarterback would, but it was because of the hand dealt to him and not being the wrong “fit”. After the Marshall loss he was quoted something like, “I apologize to East Carolina fans for not winning a championship, but I will always be a Pirate”. What a classy guy. He’s more of a Pirate than some of our fans that hurdle misguided criticism of him on the message boards.

    I see the point of your analysis, but your description as a misfit is inaccurate. It infers lack of ability and not lack of experience. The offensive line is the issue this and last year. If they don’t improve in quantum leaps this year, everyone is going to be trashing Wornick, Johnson, Carden, Keith or the poor soul that has to play behind them.

    • Hi Coby…awesome to hear from you…have followed your efforts for many years and feel honored that you stopped by and shared your thoughts.

      I think you make very good points in regards to DD, particularly the experience factor. I think in looking forward at the QBs in camp, I focused on this very point, but looking back at DD I really didn’t consider it, which may be flawed. I will chew on that a little bit.

      To be clear, I think his talent is what allowed him to be so wildly successful in 2010 and save the INTs – which certainly the OL has a large impact there – his numbers were very good still (maybe not through the roof as they were in 2010).

      I think what is clearly going to be missed with the next guy is the leadership factor. Maybe a “square peg” was too harsh, but rather, an inexperienced QB for the system is better. In to your latter point, none of the QBs in camp could have pulled off what he did, which LR has said clearly.

      You have given me much to think about…thanks Coby. And, please, stop by again…love to hear your thoughts.

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