So, my Pirate friends, tomorrow on Bonesville, my spring football package is running – apologies for it being a bit later than usual, but I screwed up in sending it to the publisher and so it is running in parallel with camp rather than just ahead of it.
That said, I have been doing a lot of thinking about this spring camp and the battles being waged for depth chart slots, the coaching additions, player movement (off the team and to new positions), and injuries.
I thought I would use this space – since I get to be more biased here than on Bonesville, to dig a little deeper into the positions and give my thoughts – based on ongoing discussions I have had with the coaches and on my fanstincts (read: my point of view is no more insightful than anyone else’s) to perhaps generate a little discussion. I sincerely love getting emails from you guys discussing the team, the player battles, the coaching philosophies, direction of the program, any topic related to ECU football really because getting other insights enhances my understanding and thoughts on
the topics discussed.
So, with that in mind, I thought I would start with the QB battle.
I want to come at this from two perspectives: 1) glass half full; and 2) glass half empty and do so in a point-counter point fashion.
Point: For the most part, history and common sense would suggest that because a record-setting quarterback – Dominique Davis – has departed the program and a new QB will be getting his first stint as “starter,” that a production drop-off, particularly early in the season (when our schedule is brutal) should be expected. In fact, I can’t recall the source, but I remember reading an article that surveyed several coaches and the consensus was that a new QB typically results in 1-3 losses you probably wouldn’t have had had the previous starter returned.
Counterpoint: There is evidence in the Texas Tech history – under largely this ECU coaching staff – that would indicate that in this system, a first year starter typically thrives and no drop-off occurs because the success/failure is predicated on the QB’s knowledge of the system which takes a couple of seasons to get; hence, a 2nd, 3rd or 4th year understudy can typically step into the driver’s seat and perform as well or even out-perform the previous starter.
Point: Dominique Davis was a stellar QB (he once was a Steve Logan product), well ahead of the other QBs on the roster, so replacing him will not be similar to the succession plan that worked at Texas Tech.
Counterpoint: In fact, Dominique Davis while very good, was an odd fit for this offense and was record-setting in 2010 largely due to the fact that he had an effective offensive line and two extraordinary receivers. His “eliteness” came in the form of leadership, not necessarily QB talents that fit this system. Moreover, the argument could be made that because he was not prototypical for this offensive system, the errors he made (and there were many that were game changers) were directly related to him not fully understanding and operating the system, which is not his fault since he was learning it “live” while his understudies – this year’s battle participants – were learning in a more controlled environment.
Point: Davis’ leadership will be impossible to replace…he was a natural leader and the team rallied around him.
Counterpoint: Yes, Davis was a natural leader which is a huge point when assessing him. His leadership carried him at times as he was not fully engaged in the system. This helped cover his deficiencies in the system knowledge. That leadership allowed him to forge great rapport with Dwayne Harris and Lance Lewis but at times he never looked past either of these WRs which limited the system. Understand that the quarterbacks vying for the job this year have spent the last two years working with many of this year’s starters in the Thursday night scrimmages and on Scout Team. The winner of the QB battle will more than be able to assume leadership, at the very least within the huddle.
Point: Davis had a worse year in 2010 – presumably after he knew the system better – so it is not likely that the other QBs will fair even as well as he did. Davis proved he was elite in 2010 and these guys have not proven that they can even complete a game on the field yet and Davis’ 2011 performance doesn’t give a lot of faith in the “they know the system argument.”
Counterpoint: While it is true that Davis had an exponentially better handle on the system in 2011, his performance in 2011 hints at the initial fundamental point he was a forced square peg in this system. What we saw in 2010 was the result of just how talented and heady a player he was and that he could succeed with two incredibly talented WRs and a heavily experienced offensive line. When left to produce based on system knowledge and only one receiver he had rapport with, he did not do as well. There were unprecedented injuries and a lot of dropped passes, but Davis’ non-system attributes worked against him some in 2011. He was antsy in the pocket and often made poor decisions when under pressure. This is not to bag on him…he was outstanding and carried the team in both seasons offensively. The point is that compared to the three young men competing now, Davis’ system-friendly attributes and his knowledge of the system may not be superior. In fact, if he were new to the program this year, he may not even be among the leaders this spring. So, sticking with the premise that Davis, though highly talented, was not a natural fit for this offensive system, consider that the QBs battling for the job – Brad Wornick, Rio Johnson, and Shane Carden, all have MORE time in the system than Davis heading into this spring battle. Wornick is working on his 3rd year in the system and has game experience where he performed very well. Johnson also is going on his 3rd year in the system and has game experience, albeit limited. And Carden, also in his 3rd year of the system, also successfully ran a similar system under the direction of a former Texas Tech QB alum. Each of them is “ready” to take the reigns and OC Lincoln Riley is measuring them against a much higher bar than he did when the QB battle was being waged two years ago in spring.
OK, so using these points as the basis for my opinion on how the QB battle will shape up, here are my way-early thoughts on the QBs this year and where they fall on the depth chart coming out of spring:
Brad Wornick: Riley has said that Wornick’s positives are: he is a gamer, meaning that with the game on the line, under pressure, he rises to the occasion. Riley has also lauded Wornick’s pocket presence and command of the offense from a system perspective. Wornick’s flaw? He is not a good practice player, meaning he doesn’t work with urgency to perfect each rep, he doesn’t bring his game elements into the daily grind of practice drills and scrimmages. This is an issue because practice is the only indicator of what will happen over the long-term and in this case, over the course of a full game and a full season. Depth chart slots are earned on the basis of daily output and in this case Wornick is his own worst enemy. Like having the cure for a disease and not telling anyone…the net result, clipboard duty.
Riley has told me on several occasions that he is counting on Wornick to truly and for the first time, bring it in spring camp. This is critical for Wornick if he hopes to be ECU’s first 1-year senior starter – ala Texas Tech – in this offensive system. Anyone hanging on to the “he was a former walk-on” blah-blah-blah needs to pop in the tapes from 2010. Wornick can run this offense and in those games, he looks uber comfortable, throws a nice pass, gets through his progressions, and is a good decision maker.
Prediction: If he brings it this spring, I see Wornick listed as a “Or” No. 1 or a No. 2 coming out of spring. If he is a No. 1 “OR” then I believe it indicates it is his job to lose in the fall. If he comes out as a No. 2, then I believe it almost guarantees that Carden gets his shot at starting.
Rio Johnson (JR-RS): Johnson won the battle a year ago to back up Davis, in my opinion, for very similar reasons that Davis won it in 2010. First, Johnson put a ton of effort into learning the system, working hard day in and day out and growing up and establishing an ability to command the huddle. I see him as a bit of a poor-man’s Davis and not necessarily a good fit for this system. Still, he has done everything Riley has asked and Riley was very candid about the fact that Rio’s biggest problems were his attitude and approach to the system. Riley expects him to be very motivated and to not backslide this spring in regards to maturity level. That said, Johnson won the No. 2 spot last year, right before the season, edging Carden out as camp closed and the schedule began. I speculate that Johnson won it because he was the QB “most like” Davis and would ensure some consistency should Davis have been injured. Don’t forget that Riley has said over and again that the offensive system still is not fully installed and much of that was based on limitations that Davis had as the “square peg.” Johnson has to show that he has moved off of being a very good athlete who has gotten a Davis-like handle on the system to a QB that fits this system and executes it to the maximum.
Prediction: I expect that Johnson comes in and has a great camp…works hard, is mature, is a leader. However, I also expect that his limitations will be come more noticeable as Carden, Wornick and Keith – all more natural in this offensive system – move past him in execution of the full system package. I am guessing that Johnson comes out of camp listed as an “OR” No. 1 or a clear No. 3. If he is an “OR” No. 1, then it indicates that none of the QBs has the system down enough to give Riley confidence that the hybrid or limited installation can be left behind and the offense move forward to the fully-intended system. This would be disappointing to me if the reason is as I am presuming. I see Johnson being a very polished ready-reserve QB at No. 3.
Shane Carden (SO-RS): Looking back at Carden’s career, you can see a clear progression. Each spring he has been consistently effective in the offense and it has become more pronounced each spring. He led the competition for the No. 2 spot a year ago literally until the close of fall camp, where Riley had Johnson edging the young quarterback – who was Riley’s first signee focused on this system. Riley has repeated to me that Carden has the best skillset for this position and has demonstrated in the Thursday night scrimmages, last spring, and on Scout Team that he can lead and lead well, can make decisions under pressure and can make every throw needed in this offense. He is also the most athletic QB on the roster, also something Riley has indicated previously and repetitively, noting that the run-game impact is noticeable and desired in the full rollout of the system. Finally, Carden himself has been waiting for this moment…he has supreme confidence in his ability to operate this offense to its fullest extent in game situations. Riley has indicated that Carden is the model for practice, bringing it day in and day out as he refines his skills and deepens his knowledge of the system’s smallest details and situational nuances.
Prediction: I expect Carden to be listed as either the only No. 1 or an “OR” No. 1. The latter might make sense in regards to keeping the young QB under pressure to keep up the effort and force a continued battle in the fall. If he is the clear-cut No. 1, then it will indicate that Riley considers him enough of a leader and is giving him the reigns officially to this offense. If he is a No. 2 behind Wornick, it could be to push him into Fall battles or it indicates that he is still a year away, which is not likely.
Cody Keith (FR-RS): Unfortunately, Keith needed ankle surgery during the off-season and is trying to get totally healthy. With the QBs on the roster, the expectation is for Keith to use spring to refine and show that he has a handle on it. There is no pressure for him to be game ready yet, but as the depth chart shapes up, it is certain that Keith wants to be on it to set up his own progression within the program. With no QB signed this year, Keith’s development into a system-savvy QB is paramount for the future of the program. Riley has told me that when Keith is healthy and on top of his game, he is uber impressive and that one thing the OC is looking forward to if for his coaching colleagues to finally get a good look at Keith putting it altogether because to this point, Riley is the only one who has seen it live. How much Keith can show this spring is still up in the air pending his ankle. That said, if he competes, he will push for more reps and that means that Riley will have to make a bunch of decisions based on what is best for this season and what is also best considering the future.
Prediction: Keith exits camp listed on the depth chart as an “OR” No. 3. This will be a strategic move, aimed at giving evidence to the young QB that he is progressing properly – this matters. Also, it allows for Keith to be in “the competition” though he probably for all intents and purposes is not. If he is listed above No. 3 in any capacity, then it gives me pause in regards to the other 3 QBs and our system. Unless it is clear-cut No. 1 which would indicate we have a phenom on our hands and then I would have another set of worries – the other 3 QBs packing it in.
Conclusion: Riley was explicit and saying that the QB battle would be conducted with no bias, meaning all QBs would compete agnostic to their depth chart position a year ago. No one is the incumbent, no one is the favorite, no one gets more chances then the other. Nice try coach. To some extent that will happen, but you have to believe that Riley knows already the maximum potential of each of these QBs relative to the system he wants to run. Not that he has a favorite, but I do think he has an internal ledger that says something like, “If X wins the job, I can expect Y on the field this year.” And with that, I think this battle gets narrowed very quickly with maybe only two real combatants heading into fall since reps for your No. 1 and No. 2 are critically important in preparation for this fall. Going to be great fun to watch though.
PLEASE, my friends, chime in and share your thoughts on this position and the camp battle.