On a clear, but somewhat humid day, muggy air sifted through Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during East Carolina’s second scrimmage of the spring, but it was a feeling of hope that filled the atmosphere upon conclusion of the exhibition.
Standing at his own 30-yard line, quarterback Kurt Benkert took a snap and heaved a brilliant, well-placed spiral 70-yards down the right side of field to wide receiver DaQuan Barnes, who fought off coverage for a touchdown that would be nullified by a penalty.
The Pirates offense was able to pick up a first down on an ensuing running play, then Benkert struck deep again. This time, it was a 51-yard strike to Davon Grayson, which helped set up a 1-yard TD by running back Anthony
The sequence said a lot about Benkert, a sophomore, who is in a competition to replace ECU’s record-setting QB Shane Carden with junior Blake Kemp. Not only did Benkert not allow his unit to be brought down by the flag, but he also showed no fear by coming back and airing it out once again.
It’s that kind of courage and arm strength that has given the Pirates cause for optimism in the post-Carden era, and perhaps has handed Benkert a slight edge in the race to the top of the depth chart as spring practice comes near an end.
“I believe Kurt’s strength is definitely his arm,” said Grayson, who caught two passes for a scrimmage-best 80 yards. “He’s not afraid to take a chance. He trusts his receivers to make big plays, and with me playing on the outside, he throws those deep balls and that’s what I love.”
Benkert, a 6’3,” 220-pound Florida native who has taken a good number of first-string snaps so far this spring, finished the scrimmage 8-for-17 for 153 yards, including a 54-yard pass to Bryce Williams.
“I feel like I had some bigger plays (Saturday). The first scrimmage I had some more routine plays, but this scrimmage I had bigger plays,” said Benkert, who went 6-for-12 for 29 yards in ECU’s first spring scrimmage. “I just want to put it all together and have a perfect scrimmage if I can.”
Kemp, a 6’1” 209-pound transfer from Mesa (Arizona) Community College, had a few balls batted down at the line of scrimmage on Saturday, but completed 10 of his 18 attempts 78 yards. Neither quarterback turned the ball over.
“I’m just trying to be the best leader I can be,” said Kemp, who redshirted after transferring last season and ran the scout team offense. “It’s about the team, and the best quarterbacks make their team the best.”
While it may appear as if Benkert is in line to succeed Carden, ECU’s first-year offensive coordinator Dave Nichol said not so fast.
“I think they are both doing really well,” Nichol said. “Blake doesn’t look pretty, but he moves the ball a little bit sometimes, and that’s the quarterback’s job. I don’t care how it gets done.
“I’m not real close to making a decision … They’ve both done some pretty good things. It’s relatively close.”
Nichol said there is no definitive timetable set to name a starting quarterback. Potentially complicating the matter is the return of Cody Keith, a 6’3”, 200-pound junior from Charlotte who injured his right shoulder near the end of the 2013 season and has been out since.
“He’s doing good. He’s rehabbing his arm and we are being safe and smart with him,” Nichol said. “Our trainers and doctors feel really good that he’ll be able to start rolling sometime in the summer. I don’t know an exact day. It sounds like, if everything stays good, he will be back for fall (camp) for sure.
“… It’s been a long time since he’s thrown, but he’ll get every opportunity (to compete for the starting job). It’s quick in the fall, but he’ll get an opportunity.”
Nichol said the No. 1 factor in deciding who gets the job comes down to which quarterback excels at moving the chains.
“It’s just who’s the best at moving the ball,” Nichol said. “However it looks, however big or strong or tall you are, it’s just who can get the ball in the end zone.”