GREENVILLE — The East Carolina offense has generally been so powerful this season, it hasnt needed a good deal of smoke and mirrors to score points but it has needed screens.
As junior quarterback Shane Carden has become more entrenched in the finer points of the offense masterminded by fourth-year coordinator Lincoln Riley, the Pirates screen game with its outside receivers and running backs has become a major component in ECUs trips to the end zone.
I think weve come a long way with the screen game, said Carden, who leads Conference USA with 2,589 passing yards many of them accumulated on screens and has 24 total touchdowns. I was always comfortable with it, but now with the weapons we have were able to use that game to feed off our running game and our passing game
In addition to leading receiver Justin Hardy (team-high 72 receptions, 901 yards, five TDs), Cardens screens have also been finding senior tailback Vintavious Cooper, who in addition to leading the team with 561 rush yards is also the teams second leading receiver with 32 grabs for 302 yards, including his first TD catch of the season last weekend at Florida International.
Cooper said Riley told him long before he arrived at ECU that hed better start catching a lot of footballs in preparation.
Timing is everything in the screen game, Cooper said. It takes timing to call it at the right time, timing for the linemen to get out (on their blocks), timing for the throws. It definitely expands our playbook. Weve got a lot of playmakers on our team, and given a screen its likely we can take the ball 50 or 60 yards down the field on a given play.
Cooper said he caught so many balls when he knew he was transferring from Southwest Mississippi Junior College to ECU that he thought he might not ever run the ball for the Pirates.
I got comfortable with my hands, and there was a time when I thought Id come here and play receiver, Cooper said. Im a receiver at heart I feel like, and it definitely creates a lot of possibilities for our team. Being in an air-raid offense, its everything to be able to catch.
According to East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill, the 6-2 Pirates are trying to stick to the simple premise of stretching opposing defenses vertically with deep passes and horizontally with screens and run plays.
So far, so good.
This offense has been known for a variety of screens and being able to time them properly to get yardage, and the other night (at Florida International) they were good to us and we able to get a couple of scores, McNeill said. Its a big part of our offense, and Shane and Lincoln have done a good job of mixing them in there.
Carden, who also leads C-USA in passing efficiency, has leaned heavily on Cooper, often slinging a quick shovel pass to him to surprise defenses for big gains.
The quarterback from Houston admits he wishes he had the shovel pass in his arsenalwhen he was younger, but said he owes that wrinkle to Riley.
Thats Lincoln Riley all the way, and its a great play and I wish I had that in high school, Carden said. Thats worked out well, and its great being able to use that to keep teams off balance. They get back (in coverage) because they think were passing on third and long, and all of sudden we shovel it up to Coop.
Nathan Summers writes for The Daily Reflector in Greenville.