Looking ahead already: A way-too-early look at ECU 2015-16, starting with QBs

Since Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill returned home to ECU, he has said over and again and then some that one of the cornerstone goals for the program was to build competitive depth at every position and then pay great detail to those young players to ensure that the program gets maximum output from each kid with an oar in the waters.

Air Ruffin: Coach McNeill (aka @RuffinMcNeill), never tires on the recruiting trail because these are more than players in his book.

Air Ruffin: Coach McNeill (aka @RuffinMcNeill), never tires on the recruiting trail because these are more than players in his book.

Whether it be competition on the scout team or a battle for a depth chart spot, the competitive conditioning of each player on the roster – scholly or no – is and will always be hyper-critical for our program because the roster is always stitched together from overlooked, off-measurable, and oft-vagabond players who find strength in the collective much more so in their individuality. Family. It is ECU and it is what drives the engine for a program that must achieve against stacked odds each year…and in Ruff’s time, they have done it. Credit to Ruff and his staff.

So, with this foundation in place, I am so bullish on this team going forward into the 2015-16 season even considering the immense loss of talent and leadership we have just experienced in the departure of this small (just 16) but ridiculously pivotal group of seniors…and the loss of OC Lincoln Riley and OL coach Brandon Jones (to Oklahoma and Cal, respectively.)

Competitive Depth…you can almost hear Ruff’s voice saying it. He really didn’t microwave it. Just like he said.

Oh, there will be impact on the team, yes. Losing 3-year starting QB Shane Carden and 4-year all-everything WR Justin Hardy along with heady RB Breon Allen, monster ups WR Cam Worthy, and mean (in a good way) C Taylor Hudson, we should all expect to get absolutely no love from the media on the offensive front. On the D side, losing the Swamp Monster NT Terry Williams, Lightning ILB Brandon Williams, the freakish OLB Maurice Falls, Big bad NT/DE Chrishon Rose, the silent assassin S Lamar Ivey, never-say-quit DE Terry Biles, and better-every-time-out CB Detric Allen…there is no doubt the talent that will not be suiting up next year for the Pirates. And guys like DB Greg Robinson, OLB Jake Geary and ILB Desi Brown – both who fought through countless injuries to fight it out every day as a Pirate…the very competitive depth coach Ruff describes – their losses will be felt.

And, on special teams, losing Charlie Coggins and Warren Harvey will leave holes in the line-up, no doubt.

But…

When you look down the returning roster, you see talent and experience in every position. Yes, some is unproven, like at QB. But, really, you see holes to fill, not anything to rebuild.

Competitive depth.

With this in mind and with National Signing Day literally weeks away, why not take a vulgar swipe at looking ahead to 2015. C’mon…admit it…baseball is awesome, but most of you are already counting down to start of spring practice…we are built that way at ECU. So let’s dig in starting with the offense, specifically in this post, the one everyone is wondering about: who dares to step into the enormous shoes left behind with Shane Carden’s graduation?

OFFENSE

Coach Nichol has got this.

Coach Nichol has got this.

New OC Dave Nichol was promoted for a reason…he absolutely gets this system from both a player’s perspective as a receiver for Texas Tech and from a coaching perspective having coached both inside and outside receivers at Arizona before joining McNeill’s staff. Not just from a continue-to-run-it-like-Riley-did perspective, but from the evolve-it perspective. I also gotta believe that Coach Donnie Kirkpatrick will be asked by Nichol and be happy to assist in every way possible to ensure that the offensive success continues. Do I expect 6,000+ yards of offense this season? No, but we won’t need that this time around. Don’t sleep on the Pirate D…they are going to be nasty in 2015-16…game-controlling nasty (but more on that in a future post). Expect continuity in terms of player progression, competitive depth, and most of all recruiting for the Pirates under Coach Nichol.

Quarterback

Back drop: If you harken back to the Spring 2012, there was a young Shane Carden who was at the end of his rope in regards to patience. He had done everything he was asked to do and did so with striking maturity. He was chomping at the bit and poised for a fight for the starting job. Lincoln Riley had always – if you listened closely – tipped that he thought…nay…expected Carden to be the man. Carden hadn’t taken a snap in a game when he finally got his chance against South Carolina. He took the job and never looked back. His quality of start was good from wire to wire in his career.

Leader of the Pack: Benkert passes the eye test for sure. Should be his job to lose.

Leader of the Pack: Benkert passes the eye test for sure. Should be his job to lose.

I bring this up because the Pirates again are at the QB crossroad and strikingly similar, rising RS-SO Kurt Benkert sits there doing all he can to maintain his own patience…time into the program served, chomping at the bit and carrying into the competition, actual game experience, albeit not so meaningful. Keep in mind also, when Riley was at Texas Tech, it was expected that a new QB would take the reins each year without drop-off…which was the case there then.

Then there is the southpaw Blake Kemp – a pure winner everywhere he has been – who will pull out the stops in the competition to replace Carden. Cody Keith was making great strides before his injury and with the signing of JUCO standout and dual-threat QB James Summers (from Hinds CC), there is the makings of a fantastic battle wherein the winner should be almost a lock for success, particularly behind a vastly experienced offensive line and with a bevy of talented receivers to throw to (more on those positions later).

The Contenders:

SPOILER: Did I mention that I am high on Benkert? I have to admit that this big support of Benkert comes in large part from numerous conversations I had with LIncoln Riley. He spoke of Benkert this season in striking similarity to how he discussed Carden during Dominique Davis’ tenure.

  1. Kurt Benkert (RS-SO): At 6-3 and 220 pounds, he is a bigger, stronger version of Carden. His QB skill acumen has always been considered pristine by our former OC and there is no doubt about his smarts – he is an honor roll student. He has not only pulled time on the scout team, as primary back-up to Carden for a year and half now, he knows this system much more than just theoretically. He has had to think through a game each time out and has been in the front row seat the whole way. And, as a bonus, he has been in games – 3 precisely. In those three, he hit on 80% of his pass attempts and rushed for 23 yards and 2 TDs. He is a capable runner, a precise passer, and is more than ready to move the offense. He also appears to have made inroads in gaining the full confidence of his receivers who have on many occasions in conversations with me, indicated that they are eager to catch passes from Benkert.  He must now progress to starter in spring. It should be his job to lose.
  2. Will push Benkert: Kemp has proven he can lead and win...now he must prove command of the system.

    Will push Benkert: Kemp has proven he can lead and win…now he must prove command of the system.

    Blake Kemp (TR-JR has a redshirt available and assume it was used in 2014): [NOTE: My brain is slipping…in initial post I erred in comparing Blake as a lefty to Garrard – who was a right-handed QB. Thanks to my friends at HTC for catching that.] There is a lot to get excited about in Kemp, starting with the fact that he is a winner. Quietly, while in high school, Kemp led perennially nationally ranked Hamilton (AZ) High School to a 13-1 campaign as its QB and watched many of his teammates get swooped up to national programs while he was kind of lost in the talent shuffle. So, he stayed close to home and went to Mesa CC where in two seasons he led the team to two bowl games while passing for 4,554 yards and 43 TDs hitting on 63.7% of his passes. Though on the smaller side at 6-1, he has the experience and is a mobile passer with a nose for victory. Kemp’s mission – demonstrate he knows this offense. If he does so, he could put immense pressure on Benkert and the rest.

  3. A Healty Return? Gotta love Keith's grit. Hopefully he is healed up to make a run of it.

    A Healty Return? Gotta love Keith’s grit. Hopefully he is healed up to make a run of it.

    Cody Keith (SR but perhaps a hardship waiver candidate?): Don’t count Keith (6-3, 200) entirely out…he has always believed in himself. The contender will have his chance if he is fully recovered from multiple injuries that cut short his debut season as the primary back-up to Carden in 2013 and his entire 2014 season. In his limited action in 2013, he saw game experience 3 times and hit on 63% of his pass attempts. He should know this offense inside and out but questions not only linger about his health, but also about his ability to lead in a fashion that Carden established the hallmark for. His technical skills seem behind Benkert and his playmaker tendencies seem shy of Kemp’s. Still, Keith has always had a host of detractors and has always had the self-confidence and determination to push through it. He will serve the competition well if he is well.

  4. James Summers (TR-JR signee): On paper…wow! Just wow. A 6-3, 215 pound athlete of a QB who can kill with his legs as much as his arm. As a prepster, he led Greensboro Page to the 4AA state title in 2012 before moving on to be Hinds CC’s starter as a frosh and sophomore. As a senior at Page, he rushed for 1,600+ yards and passed for another 1,500+ yards…truly a dual threat athlete. He chose ECU over Georgia and Kansas State because the Pirates promised him a chance at QB. He will have to improve on a dreadful completion percentage (sub 50% at Hinds) and learn the system completely before he has a chance to let that athleticism loose at ECU. Fortunately he has a red shirt available and will likely need it to indoctrinate himself. The thought of a QB who can run like a RB is intriguing. Remember some of Garrard’s totes? The big upside is that Summers can be used other places should he not pan out as a signal-caller.
  5. Other QBs expected on the roster: Jonathon Weymann (SR) who knows the system inside and out; Ray Smith (RS-FR ) from Cherokee HS; John Jacobs (FR commit) from Oklahoma.

Early Call:

Benkert storms the job in the spring, looking like a veteran already in this system behind a talented OL with top-flight receivers. I think offensive confidence will be sky-high coming out of spring with Benkert at the helm. Kemp will show that he has made ample strides in the playbook and be considered a game-ready back-up should Benkert need an assist. It would make sense that Summers will be tagged with a RS and Keith will push for the back-up job but I expect he will settle in as an insurance policy for the Pirates. Remains to be seen if Benkert has the intangibles that Carden has, but he definitely has an impressive skill-set…and should have a ton of enthusiasm now that his time has arrived.

NEXT POST:

We survived life without Cooooooooop (Vintavious Cooper) last season and we will be fine after the departure of Breon Allen (will definitely miss his passion too)…both studs in this offense, but with a legion of stud running backs…the beat will go on at ECU. More in-depth review on the Running Backs next.

Running Backs

Wide Receivers

Offensive Line

Defensive Line

Linebackers

Secondary

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Looking ahead already: A way-too-early look at ECU 2015-16, starting with QBs

  1. Chris

    Ron. How about the 5 star freshman out of Oklahoma? Is he definitely a redshirt or can he compete for the starting job? The #1 dual threat qb coming out of high school. He got my attention when he said, “I’m going to light up the Carolina skies. “

    • Hey Chris…great to read your thoughts.

      I would hope that he redshirts for both his own ability to entrench in the system and for program continuity.

      Benkert really looks like robo-QB…have you ever watched him warm up…he is technically flawless and big-armed. I think he is going to special as well.

      I do love that quote…I had not seen that before, but you have to love a kid who thinks that way and particularly one who didn’t back peddle with Riley rolling to OK. Surprised Riley didn’t take him with him.

      Cheers Chris…

  2. Ron, I think it will be interesting if the program can get to the point thanks to the stability of the head coach where it can reload rather than rebuild.

    I am not happy with how quickly the powers that be and the media have 1000% accepted the so called P5 or the haves vs the have nots. I find it painful where a kid would rather sit 4th on a depth chart for their career rather than have a chance to showcase their abilities on a Saturday playing for Boise, Cincy or us. What this Senior Bowl showed is that if you have talent the NFL can and will find you. I dont know how many times Boise must take down a so called P5 power or for us to lay 70 on ACC program who has every advantage but can never produce a consistent winner.

    With networks hurting for programming its highly likely your games will be seen on TV. I think all but 1 ECU contest was shown here in the DC market. So other than a few more pairs of shoes and some additional gear what is the real draw? I guess the thought of making the playoff but many should see that is usually fixed to begin with.

    Not saying that Ohio State didn’t win the playoff but IMHO they had no business even making it based upon the rankings heading into the final week. Point is the network will be choosing the 4 they want.

    Sorry for the rant here but we are once again in that time frame where our kids continued to be poached as signing day approaches. I like the thought of the family atmosphere that Ruff has created and would love to have kids in the program for all 5 years but I think its tough to compete with lightly recruited players with the hope of them developing. For every Shane and Justin there are 10 others that never see the field or cant compete at the level we wish to play. I like what has Cincy has done and that’s put the welcome mat out to transfers. Both Luc and Keil were the top prospects at their positions coming out of high school. IMHO we need talent like that if we expect to play with the Big Boys.

    I must say I am excited about who we lead our program next season. No doubt #5 will be missed but I wonder if #2 will be missed even more. You wonder how many drive saving snags were made by Hardy over the years and who could possibly fill his shoes. Hardy was nothing more than a first down machine who could make me look good if I was taking snaps.

    I think Benkert is better in every measurable aspect bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic, than Shane. The test though will be does he have the head and heart that Shane did, few can match that.

    I think Cody Keith also possesses the physical abilities but is not getting any younger and therefore might be relegated to a backup role.

    Kemp and the incoming Frosh I think are cut from the mold of what I would call a system QB. They do not possess the big arm or huge size that they like to see at the next level but are smart and accurate enough to get the ball out to the desired target and run this system. These guys will be key as they are a play away from leading the team something we have been very lucky with over the years.

    As far as the JUCO kid I would love to see us use his skill set to our advantage meaning let him line up under center and run the ball in short yardage, goal line, and take the air out of the ball situations. If there was a huge flaw in what Lincoln brought to the program it was our inability to score inside the 10 this year or take time off the clock while allowing our defense to stay off of the field. IMHO with 6-8 and 6-7 tackles you should be able to punch the ball in or pick up a 4th and 1. We will have our deepest backfield go into this and next season line up a TE as a lead blocker and make it happen.

    The funny thing about a QB battle is that you end up with the daily report of who is leading the battle each and every day leading up to the opener. It seems to never fail that the eventual winner cant move the team in the first half, is replaced to start the 3rd and never heard from again.

    One thing Jeff Charles said which is so true is how blessed he was along with the Pirate faithful as to how many great QB’s we have had to lead the program from Kevin Ingram, Blake, Crandel,,Garrard, Gonzalez,and Shane. Just think how many programs never find a guy that can complete a simple out pattern.

    Cheers

    • Chris

      Outstanding post dcpirate! I can’t get excited about Benkert. I was in Birmingham, sitting 15 yards away and looking him in the face when he fumbled at the goal line. The reason he fumbled is he got his bell rung. His face looked like Mike Tyson had just connected an uppercut. He’s got to go right back to Gainesville and face that same defense early in the season. I don’t see that competitive fire in him i like to see in our field general. My apologies to his supporters and i promise to support him if he wins the job. Just offering my opinion that we need something different. Right now i guess I’m a Cody Keith supporter but want to see what these new kids bring to the table.

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