Thanksgiving is a time when everyone gets to recount what they’re thankful for, and if you’re an East Carolina fan, Shane Carden should be somewhere in that conversation.
Carden entered Friday night’s game at Tulsa trying to add to his school records for passing yards (10,829), touchdown passes (77) and completions (954), earning a Conference USA Most Valuable Player award along the way and emerging as a top candidate in the American Athletic Conference this season.
The senior has gone 24-10 as a starter and delivered the Pirates their first bowl victory since 2007. He led them back into The Associated Press Top 25, beat North Caorlina twice, N.C. State once.
However, his time is running out. Thursday night against Central Florida, Carden will make his final home start, his final regular-season start. A bowl will follow, then the biggest question facing the program:
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Who will replace Carden?
“The leadership and experience will be tough to replace. Nobody is going to have that right off the top,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “Leadership is earned. And experience, you have to go trial by fire a little bit. You have to go through some situations. You have to fail at some things, succeed, play in some tough environments. You got to get hit in the mouth. You got to lose a game. Those are all things you have to go through to develop and learn how to handle it.”
The Pirates have three other quarterbacks, and together they have combined to complete 15 of their 21 pass attempts for 105 yards, one interception and zero touchdowns.
Carden’s backup is redshirt freshman Kurt Benkert, who has completed eight of 10 passes for 58 yards this season against N.C. Central and North Carolina. Benkert, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt freshman from Cape Coral, Fla. He won the top backup job after junior Cody Keith (7-for-11 57 yards), a 6-3, 200-pound Charlotte product who was last season’s No. 2, sustained an elbow injury midway through the 2013 season and needed Tommy John surgery.
Keith, who still is rehabbing his elbow, and Benkert appear to be the front-runners to replace Carden, but Riley quickly noted that scout team quarterback Blake Kemp, a 6-1, 209-pound transfer from Mesa Community College who redshirted this season, also will factor into that competition.
“You need to throw Blake Kemp in there, there’s no questions about that,” Riley said. “All of those guys will be in the mix.”
Each quarterback brings a something a little different to the offense.
“Getting to see (Kemp) out here, he’s a fiery guy. An intangible guy,” Riley said. “Very smart. Knows how to get the ball out of his hands. You can tell he’s played some ball. Moves around pretty good and can make some things happen with his feet. He’s done a nice job with our scout team. Kind of a gritty, determined guy. He has some qualities like Shane. Both (Keith and Benkert) are pretty big guys. They both throw the ball well. Kurt’s probably a little bit more mobile.
“Cody’s been here a little bit longer and has a little bit more experience, but they’re very similar in a lot of ways. Cody’s a little bit more of a laid-back guy, while Kurt’s a little bit more fiery.”
Choosing the right quarterback will be challenging and risky. With three who will have at least two years of eligibility remaining, there’s a distinct possibility that one will transfer.
“It’s just part of it,” Riley said. “We recruit good ones and it’s a position that normally only one or two guys play. That’s part of it. We went through it at Texas Tech and we’ve had it here, too. That’s part of that position.”
Though it might seem complicated, Riley said choosing the winner will be rather simple.
“It will just be the guy that moves the offense the best. The guy who the players respond to,” Riley said. “They’re going to all make big plays and they’re all talented kids.
“You can’t look at too many things. What’s the priority? The priority is moving the ball and scoring points, and the guy who does that the best will be the guy.”