August 27, 2014

ECU football: Arrr state to arrr nation?

ECU knocked off UNC and NC State last season, Pirates fans poking fun at the Wolfpack’s slogan along the way. This season, QB Shane Carden thinks the Pirates can go further.

The high-flying Shane Carden era didn’t exactly soar from the start. In fact, it struggled to get off the ground. But as East Carolina embarks on the 2014 season, Carden just might be the guy to lead the Pirates to unprecedented heights.

After losing a closely contested preseason quarterback competition to Rio Johnson in the 2012 fall camp, Carden, then a redshirt sophomore, saw his first game action at the start of the third quarter during ECU’s Week 2 battle against No. 9 South Carolina and future No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.

Carden’s first career pass didn’t exactly hint of the guy who would rewrite the Pirates record book.

“I was excited. I came running out of the tunnel real excited and then went out there and forced things because I was trying to make too much happen and I threw a pick,” Carden said. “I got pulled after that and I was sitting there thinking that might be my only pass this season. I was like, ‘This can’t really happen this way,’ honestly.”

Luckily for the Pirates, it didn’t. After Johnson threw an interception, Carden replaced him again and finished 12-of-18 for 140 yards with one touchdown and one interception during ECU’s 48-10 loss.

Not great, but good enough to earn his first career start against longtime Conference USA rival Southern Mississippi. While making a quarterback change can be a drama-filled affair, it wasn’t for ECU.

“It took about 10 seconds,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of his conversation with coach Ruffin McNeill about the decision to start Carden, who led the Pirates to a 24-14 victory over the Golden Eagles.

“What he did at Southern Miss was really impressive. We played poorly offensively, but he had a good feel for, ‘We’re not that great offensively right now. We’re on the road. We’re playing great defensively.’

“We were up most of the game, but he made just enough plays that we could win. He was really smart about it.”

Carden started the next 24 games, breaking several of ECU’s major passing records along the way. During that time he transformed from a game manager to a game breaker who has the Pirates on the brink of a breakout season.

Last year ECU (10-3, 6-2) had its second double-digit win total in the school’s 82-year history, and won a bowl for the first time since 2007.

Carden, the Conference USA Most Valuable Player, was magnificent. He threw for a school-record 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns, completing 70.5 percent of his passes, second-best in the nation.

With the aid of sure-handed wideout Justin Hardy, who grabbed a season record 114 passes for an ECU-best 1,284 yards and eight TDs, the Pirates’ Air Raid offense racked up 40.2 points per game, the eighth-highest total in the country.

Always in the shadows of its ACC neighbors to the west, East Carolina enters this season in prime position to steal the spotlight. During the offseason, the Pirates completed their move to the American Athletic Conference, whose seven-year, $126 million deal with ESPN assures the program increased exposure.

The timing couldn’t be better.

East Carolina will enter the AAC with a record-setting quarterback-wide receiver combo, an athletic defense, a nonconference schedule with headline-grabbing potential and no clear-cut favorite to win the conference.

That combination has the Pirates standing at the doorstep of a great opportunity, one Hardy saw coming two seasons ago, when they put the ball in Carden’s hands.

“I could,” he said. “I could (see it). Everybody has been buying into what the coaching staff has been talking about, and that’s 11-man football and being one heartbeat. I always told Shane … his chance is coming and when that chance comes, you got to make the most of it. I always knew.”

The only question is whether ECU can walk through the door.

“Absolutely it can. I have a ton of confidence in this team,” Carden said. “… This team has a very good offense, and with guys like (linebackers) Zeek (Bigger), B-Will (Brandon Williams) and Maurice Falls leading the defense, we’re going to be a good team this year.”

If the season goes as Carden hopes, by January the national media could be speaking about ECU in the same manner as Central Florida last season or Boise State in years past. However, McNeill refuses to indulge.

When asked if he catches himself thinking about what could be, McNeill, the Pirates’ fifth-year coach, said, “No. I really don’t. I think about things like how I can get ready for the team meeting tonight.”

Riley, the newly anointed assistant coach, took it a step further.

“It probably goes through your head, but the way this business is now, if you look ahead, they’ll fire your butt,” he said.

The players can’t resist the temptation.

“We talk about it all the time,” Carden said. “Last year our goal was to win the conference and we didn’t do that. We came up short. It was a successful season, but everyone felt we left something hanging. But we talk about it at our meetings. We want to go to a conference championship. That’s our goal.”

The Pirates will open Saturday night against N. C. Central. After that, ECU will travel to No. 9 South Carolina and Virginia Tech before returning home to host No. 23 North Carolina.

To some, the clashes with SEC and ACC opponents offer ECU an opportunity to show it belongs in the same class as Power 5 programs. McNeill and the Pirates feel they already are.

“They talk about the power this, but I’ve never thought of us and our program here as not having power players, a power staff, a power university, a power fan base or a power anything,” McNeill said. “I’ve always thought that way. People are trying to label this group as this, but they’ve never asked me that. I’ve never thought of my guys and our guys as nothing but power.”

“I’m looking forward to showing the country and exposing the country to not just East Carolina, but Eastern North Carolina and what we have here.”

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