Since Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill returned home to ECU, he has said over and again and then some that one of the cornerstone goals for the program was to build competitive depth at every position and then pay great detail to those young players to ensure that the program gets maximum output from each kid with an oar in the waters.
Whether it be competition on the scout team or a battle for a depth chart spot, the competitive conditioning of each player on the roster – scholly or no – is and will always be hyper-critical for our program because the roster is always stitched together from overlooked, off-measurable, and oft-vagabond players who find strength in the collective much more so in their individuality. Family. It is ECU and it is what drives the engine for a program that must achieve against stacked odds each year…and in Ruff’s time, they have done it. Credit to Ruff and his staff.
So, with this foundation in place, I am so bullish on this team going forward into the 2015-16 season even considering the immense loss of talent and leadership we have just experienced in the departure of this small (just 16) but ridiculously pivotal group of seniors…and the loss of OC Lincoln Riley and OL coach Brandon Jones (to Oklahoma and Cal, respectively.)
Competitive Depth…you can almost hear Ruff’s voice saying it. He really didn’t microwave it. Just like he said.
Oh, there will be impact on the team, yes. Losing 3-year starting QB Shane Carden and 4-year all-everything WR Justin Hardy along with heady RB Breon Allen, monster ups WR Cam Worthy, and mean (in a good way) C Taylor Hudson, we should all expect to get absolutely no love from the media on the offensive front. On the D side, losing the Swamp Monster NT Terry Williams, Lightning ILB Brandon Williams, the freakish OLB Maurice Falls, Big bad NT/DE Chrishon Rose, the silent assassin S Lamar Ivey, never-say-quit DE Terry Biles, and better-every-time-out CB Detric Allen…there is no doubt the talent that will not be suiting up next year for the Pirates. And guys like DB Greg Robinson, OLB Jake Geary and ILB Desi Brown – both who fought through countless injuries to fight it out every day as a Pirate…the very competitive depth coach Ruff describes – their losses will be felt.
And, on special teams, losing Charlie Coggins and Warren Harvey will leave holes in the line-up, no doubt.
When you look down the returning roster, you see talent and experience in every position. Yes, some is unproven, like at QB. But, really, you see holes to fill, not anything to rebuild.
With this in mind and with National Signing Day literally weeks away, why not take a vulgar swipe at looking ahead to 2015. C’mon…admit it…baseball is awesome, but most of you are already counting down to start of spring practice…we are built that way at ECU. So let’s dig in starting with the offense, specifically in this post, the one everyone is wondering about: who dares to step into the enormous shoes left behind with Shane Carden’s graduation?
New OC Dave Nichol was promoted for a reason…he absolutely gets this system from both a player’s perspective as a receiver for Texas Tech and from a coaching perspective having coached both inside and outside receivers at Arizona before joining McNeill’s staff. Not just from a continue-to-run-it-like-Riley-did perspective, but from the evolve-it perspective. I also gotta believe that Coach Donnie Kirkpatrick will be asked by Nichol and be happy to assist in every way possible to ensure that the offensive success continues. Do I expect 6,000+ yards of offense this season? No, but we won’t need that this time around. Don’t sleep on the Pirate D…they are going to be nasty in 2015-16…game-controlling nasty (but more on that in a future post). Expect continuity in terms of player progression, competitive depth, and most of all recruiting for the Pirates under Coach Nichol.
Back drop: If you harken back to the Spring 2012, there was a young Shane Carden who was at the end of his rope in regards to patience. He had done everything he was asked to do and did so with striking maturity. He was chomping at the bit and poised for a fight for the starting job. Lincoln Riley had always – if you listened closely – tipped that he thought…nay…expected Carden to be the man. Carden hadn’t taken a snap in a game when he finally got his chance against South Carolina. He took the job and never looked back. His quality of start was good from wire to wire in his career.
I bring this up because the Pirates again are at the QB crossroad and strikingly similar, rising RS-SO Kurt Benkert sits there doing all he can to maintain his own patience…time into the program served, chomping at the bit and carrying into the competition, actual game experience, albeit not so meaningful. Keep in mind also, when Riley was at Texas Tech, it was expected that a new QB would take the reins each year without drop-off…which was the case there then.
Then there is the southpaw Blake Kemp – a pure winner everywhere he has been – who will pull out the stops in the competition to replace Carden. Cody Keith was making great strides before his injury and with the signing of JUCO standout and dual-threat QB James Summers (from Hinds CC), there is the makings of a fantastic battle wherein the winner should be almost a lock for success, particularly behind a vastly experienced offensive line and with a bevy of talented receivers to throw to (more on those positions later).
SPOILER: Did I mention that I am high on Benkert? I have to admit that this big support of Benkert comes in large part from numerous conversations I had with LIncoln Riley. He spoke of Benkert this season in striking similarity to how he discussed Carden during Dominique Davis’ tenure.
- Kurt Benkert (RS-SO): At 6-3 and 220 pounds, he is a bigger, stronger version of Carden. His QB skill acumen has always been considered pristine by our former OC and there is no doubt about his smarts – he is an honor roll student. He has not only pulled time on the scout team, as primary back-up to Carden for a year and half now, he knows this system much more than just theoretically. He has had to think through a game each time out and has been in the front row seat the whole way. And, as a bonus, he has been in games – 3 precisely. In those three, he hit on 80% of his pass attempts and rushed for 23 yards and 2 TDs. He is a capable runner, a precise passer, and is more than ready to move the offense. He also appears to have made inroads in gaining the full confidence of his receivers who have on many occasions in conversations with me, indicated that they are eager to catch passes from Benkert. He must now progress to starter in spring. It should be his job to lose.
Blake Kemp (TR-JR has a redshirt available and assume it was used in 2014): [NOTE: My brain is slipping…in initial post I erred in comparing Blake as a lefty to Garrard – who was a right-handed QB. Thanks to my friends at HTC for catching that.] There is a lot to get excited about in Kemp, starting with the fact that he is a winner. Quietly, while in high school, Kemp led perennially nationally ranked Hamilton (AZ) High School to a 13-1 campaign as its QB and watched many of his teammates get swooped up to national programs while he was kind of lost in the talent shuffle. So, he stayed close to home and went to Mesa CC where in two seasons he led the team to two bowl games while passing for 4,554 yards and 43 TDs hitting on 63.7% of his passes. Though on the smaller side at 6-1, he has the experience and is a mobile passer with a nose for victory. Kemp’s mission – demonstrate he knows this offense. If he does so, he could put immense pressure on Benkert and the rest.
Cody Keith (SR but perhaps a hardship waiver candidate?): Don’t count Keith (6-3, 200) entirely out…he has always believed in himself. The contender will have his chance if he is fully recovered from multiple injuries that cut short his debut season as the primary back-up to Carden in 2013 and his entire 2014 season. In his limited action in 2013, he saw game experience 3 times and hit on 63% of his pass attempts. He should know this offense inside and out but questions not only linger about his health, but also about his ability to lead in a fashion that Carden established the hallmark for. His technical skills seem behind Benkert and his playmaker tendencies seem shy of Kemp’s. Still, Keith has always had a host of detractors and has always had the self-confidence and determination to push through it. He will serve the competition well if he is well.
- James Summers (TR-JR signee): On paper…wow! Just wow. A 6-3, 215 pound athlete of a QB who can kill with his legs as much as his arm. As a prepster, he led Greensboro Page to the 4AA state title in 2012 before moving on to be Hinds CC’s starter as a frosh and sophomore. As a senior at Page, he rushed for 1,600+ yards and passed for another 1,500+ yards…truly a dual threat athlete. He chose ECU over Georgia and Kansas State because the Pirates promised him a chance at QB. He will have to improve on a dreadful completion percentage (sub 50% at Hinds) and learn the system completely before he has a chance to let that athleticism loose at ECU. Fortunately he has a red shirt available and will likely need it to indoctrinate himself. The thought of a QB who can run like a RB is intriguing. Remember some of Garrard’s totes? The big upside is that Summers can be used other places should he not pan out as a signal-caller.
- Other QBs expected on the roster: Jonathon Weymann (SR) who knows the system inside and out; Ray Smith (RS-FR ) from Cherokee HS; John Jacobs (FR commit) from Oklahoma.
Benkert storms the job in the spring, looking like a veteran already in this system behind a talented OL with top-flight receivers. I think offensive confidence will be sky-high coming out of spring with Benkert at the helm. Kemp will show that he has made ample strides in the playbook and be considered a game-ready back-up should Benkert need an assist. It would make sense that Summers will be tagged with a RS and Keith will push for the back-up job but I expect he will settle in as an insurance policy for the Pirates. Remains to be seen if Benkert has the intangibles that Carden has, but he definitely has an impressive skill-set…and should have a ton of enthusiasm now that his time has arrived.
We survived life without Cooooooooop (Vintavious Cooper) last season and we will be fine after the departure of Breon Allen (will definitely miss his passion too)…both studs in this offense, but with a legion of stud running backs…the beat will go on at ECU. More in-depth review on the Running Backs next.