East Carolina

Oops: How everybody missed out on ECU's Shane Carden

East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden (5) and wide receiver Justin Hardy (2) walk off the field after East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014.
East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden (5) and wide receiver Justin Hardy (2) walk off the field after East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014. ehyman@newsobserver.com

A crystal sheen covered an icy East Carolina University campus the first time Shane Carden stepped foot on it. A fitting entrance for a player whose statistics will remain frozen in time when he takes his last step as a Pirate.

It was the final weekend before the 2010 National Signing Day, and much like the offense the quarterback has guided for the past three years, Carden was in hurry-up mode, scrambling to find a school that would appreciate his abilities.

Despite winning the Southwest Preparatory Conference state championship as a senior at Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas, Carden was getting looked over like a balcony.

“I always had confidence in myself, but it was tough,” Carden said this week. “I went to a lot of camps before my senior year. There were some camps I did really well at and felt good about it, but sometimes the school wouldn’t even call me back. It was tough. I had one coach email me and tell me that I was good, but that I was more of a D I-AA quarterback. I won’t say what school that was.”

The numbers speak for him. Since then, the 2-star quarterback everyone passed on has passed for more than 8,700 yards and stands just 306 yards shy of becoming ECU’s all-time leader. It’s about the only significant school record he doesn’t hold, and he’ll get a chance to break it Saturday against a Texas school, SMU, one of many that doubted him.

Fate and phone calls

Bellaire, a Houston suburb, is about 1,300 miles southwest of Greenville. It took fate and a few timely phone calls to steer Carden that far away from home.

The journey began with some advice from TCU offensive line coach Eddie Williamson. He told Carden’s high school coach, Steve Leisz, that Carden was “No. 2 on everybody’s board” and that he should “pick a school close by,” Leisz said.

Carden’s backup plan was Stephen F. Austin, an FCS school 2 1/2 hours from home.

“We told them up front that if something happens (in recruiting), he’s leaving,” Leisz said.

Something happened. As Carden was “making calls and trying to figure out some stuff,” ECU hired Ruffin McNeill away from Texas Tech, and McNeill brought Lincoln Riley with him to be his offensive coordinator.

Their next step was to find someone who could fly their Air Raid offense.

Enter B.J. Symons and Dana Holgorsen. Both men knew Carden and McNeill. They helped connect the dots.

Symons played at Texas Tech from 1999-2003, when McNeill was an assistant coach. He threw for 5,833 yards and 52 touchdowns as a senior. He conducted private workouts with Carden and saw his potential.

“B.J. had alerted us that (Carden) hadn’t signed anywhere yet,” McNeill said. “He said he would fit our system and what we do. B.J. was mobile and tough and smart like Shane. B.J. had worked with him and understood that Shane understood the position.”

Riley had his eye on another quarterback, though, Hutson Mason, now starting for Georgia.

“We thought we were going to get Hutson flipped over (to ECU),” Riley said.

Riley had just finished watching Mason when he returned to his hotel in Atlanta and called Symons. Carden’s name came up.

“I saw his film when I was in a hotel in Atlanta and I had talked to (Symons) about him,” Riley said. “I was working the phones trying to get us a quarterback and (Carden’s) name came across. I remembered the name from being in Texas and I remembered a little bit about him, so I went back and watched his senior tape and we saw enough there that we took the process further and brought him on a visit.”

McNeill’s thoughts on the tape: “Well, we signed him.”

‘Y’all need to take this kid’

Riley said Carden’s game film looked a lot like what fans of the No. 22 Pirates (3-1, 0-0 AAC) have witnessed on Saturdays for the past two-plus seasons.

“I saw some of the same things you see now,” Riley said. “I thought he was a playmaker. I thought when he got outside of the pocket he made things happen.”

Leisz said Carden also got a ringing endorsement from Holgersen, the West Virginia head coach who then was offensive coordinator at the University of Houston. Holgersen coveted Carden.

“I don’t know if (Shane) realizes it, but Dana Holgersen is a big reason why he is at your school,” Leisz said. “Dana was at our practices quite a bit. He liked Shane a lot, but somebody wanted to go with this kid out of Louisiana (Terrance Broadway) and Dana did not want that. He wanted Shane.

“So when (UH) decided to go in that direction, Dana, who was coming off of that Texas Tech staff and was buddies with all them, called up East Carolina and said that there’s a diamond in the rough at Episcopal High School and he will beat U of H’s (butt). Y’all need to take this kid.”

McNeill and Riley came to the same conclusion.

“I think we offered him to get him on the visit, before he came on the trip,” Riley said.

‘It just kind of worked out’

The Pirates offered Carden a scholarship, but they didn’t land him until he visited the campus.

“They had offered me. I was supposed to go to ECU, then Central Michigan. It was the last weekend before Signing Day,” Carden said. “I was talking to Riley and he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to go to Central Michigan (to visit), then I’m going to bring in another quarterback this weekend.’

“So I was talking with my family and I said well, ‘I want to see Central Michigan, but I don’t really know if I want to go to school up north.’ So we called Riley back and I said, ‘Well, what if I just came to ECU all weekend’ and it just kind of worked out.”

McNeill was not in Greenville for Carden’s visit, but he quickly established the family atmosphere that proved to be key in landing so many recruits.

“Ruff had called me up because he wasn’t able to be there that weekend, with the weather and everything he couldn’t come in,” Carden said. “He called me up before I came and he said, ‘I understand that you’re coming up. I’m your new dad.’ I haven’t heard anything like that before and I’ve talked to a lot of coaches.”

Carden knew then he had found his new home away from home.

“I came up here for my official visit and I was the only recruit that weekend,” Carden said. “It was actually iced over. The campus was closed. You couldn’t see much, but it just seemed like a good place. I loved the coaches and the offense we were going to run. That’s how I ended up here.”

As well as in the ECU record book.

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