From the time the last second ticked off of East Carolina’s 28-20 loss to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, Pirates fans have wondered just how exactly ECU will replace record-setting quarterback Shane Carden.
With the Pirates just days away from their season opener Saturday against Towson, that question still looms large.
Rocket-armed sophomore Kurt Benkert served as Carden’s understudy last season and won the right to succeed ECU’s all-time passing leader on Aug. 19, as he fended off juniors Blake Kemp and Cody Keith for the job.
However, a week later Benkert suffered a right knee injury during practice that will sideline him for the entire season, leaving the Pirates coaching staff to call an audible as the clock winds down.
On Monday, ECU’s sixth-year coach Ruffin McNeill declared Kemp, a 6-foot-1, 207-pound junior transfer from Mesa Community College, will get the starting nod.
“Blake Kemp is the quarterback. He was the backup quarterback, so he’s next in line. Cody Keith is back at practice and James Summers has also joined us. James was able to join us on Friday.”
Kemp, who redshirted last season and ran the scout team, said the promotion has not changed his approach to practice.
“It’s that not much of a difference, honestly,” Kemp said. “I was preparing the same way.”
In high school, Kemp helped the Hamilton (Ariz.) Huskies win 53 straight games and three state championships before heading to Mesa CC. It was there that he got connected with the coaching staff at East Carolina.
“I ran the same offense in junior college and my coaches knew the staff here and knew (offensive coordinator) (Dave) Nichol from when he was a (graduate assistant) at Texas Tech,” Kemp said. “He used to run camps there and that’s how I met (former ECU offensive coordinator) Lincoln Riley and all those guys.
“My coaches told me that the people here (at ECU) where good people and good coaches, so that’s why I came here.”
Nichol said that Kemp has the right temperament to lead the Pirates offense.
“I coached at Arizona and he’s from there and he’s pretty West Coast chill which is good because the guys kind of respond to him,” Nichol said. “I think his calmness and his overall intelligence (are his strengths).
“He’s one of those people that probably sometimes keeps me calm. I kind of lose it every now and then and he just kind stares at me and says ‘Yes sir. No sir.’
“It makes me mad sometimes, but it has a calming effect on our offense. I think the guys like to block for him.”
Kemp has had an up-and-down offseason and struggled with batted balls during the Pirates spring game, completing six of his 10 attempts for 33 yards.
In two scrimmages this fall, Kemp has combined to go 15 for 24 for 150 yards with one interception and no TD passes.
The numbers don’t exactly knock you over, but Kemp said the key is to play big when it counts.
“Honestly, I think at the end of the day it’s who can win on Saturdays,” Kemp said. “At the end of the day you just have to out and win football games.”
Kemp was the logical choice for McNeill and the Pirates considering Keith has been sidelined since the 2013 season due to an elbow injury, and Summers, a junior transfer from Hinds Community College who was originally supposed to play wide receiver, just arrived on campus.
Clearly, Kemp has the early lead over his competition. But will he be able to stay out in front?
Keith is a 6-3, 210-pound junior who has been with ECU the longer than Kemp and was Carden’s backup before Benkert. However, in 2013 Keith succumbed to an elbow injury that had been in the works since he was in high school, forcing him to have Tommy John surgery and miss most of the 2013 season and the year after.
The injury even kept Keith out of the Pirates spring practices this year, but he finally made his return in time for fall camp. That is, until a foot injury sidelined him for both of ECU’s scrimmages.
Prior to that, he felt positive about his return.
“It’s almost been about 22 months since I’ve been in a real team situation or practice,” Keith said during ECU’s media day. “After the surgery, I have been throwing and working out with my quarterbacks coach, Joe Dickinson, just trying to get the elbow back to 100 percent, and it feels real good right now.”
The progression of Keith and Summers is expected to keep the heat on Kemp, but for now the Pirates quarterback is just going to approach each day as the one before it.
“I’m just trying to be the best teammate and leader I can be,” Kemp said. “I feel like I can go out and be a positive influence on everybody else and make everyone better.”