GREENVILLE (AP) — For the past two seasons, East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill had the comfort of knowing Shane Carden was at quarterback, Justin Hardy was at receiver and Lincoln Riley was calling the offense.
Things are going to be a bit different this fall.
All three are gone now, leaving the Pirates’ high-scoring offense in training camp transition. The main focus is a three-man race to start at quarterback against Towson on Sept. 5. Though the Pirates also have a new offensive coordinator in Dave Nichol and also must replace Hardy, the all-time receptions leader in Bowl Subdivision history.
“This is the time of year you kind of throw it up there and see if it sticks,” Nichol said Saturday at the team’s preseason media day.
“But like I’ve always said, we’ll probably look pretty darn similar to the naked eye the first game.”
The Pirates have run a pass-heavy spread offense that has routinely put up big numbers since McNeill arrived before the 2010 season. But the man who ran the offense throughout his tenure, Riley, is now Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator.
Nichol had spent the past three seasons as ECU’s outside receivers coach. McNeill said that the offense should remain the same, though Nichol “will add his own flavor.”
While Isaiah Jones gives the Pirates an experienced returning receiver, the Pirates are looking at sophomore Kurt Benkert and juniors Cody Keith and Blake Kemp at quarterback to replace Carden — a three-year starter who left with most of ECU’s major passing records.
Benkert — who as a high schooler appeared in a YouTube video throwing a football into a mailbox across the street — completed 8 of 10 passes for 58 yards and an interception in three games last year.
“I’m just trying to find consistency in everything I do and trying not to force things down the field too much,” Benkert said. “I’m trying to learn to take what the defense gives me because I feel like anytime we drop back or hand off the ball it can be a big play.”
Keith threw 11 passes in 2013 and none last year.
“Seeing what Shane did and guys like Dominique Davis before him did in this offense, all those guys did some great things and pushed the ball downfield,” Keith said. “So it’s pretty cool to know you can be in this offense and potentially go to the next level.”
Kemp redshirted last year after transferring from a similar offense in junior college.
“The offense is starting to become second nature and it’s a lot of fun,” Kemp said. “It’s a lot more exciting now that you get a shot to go after something instead of redshirt and wait and wait. I get out of bed fired up to go to practice so it’s a good feeling.”
Nichol said he’d ideally like to have a starter decided two weeks before the opener, but said the competition will go as long as necessary.
“At three (QBs) you’d rather have it at two, then you want to get to one so they’re going to get exponentially better (with reps),” Nichol said. “But we’ve just got to figure that out and we’ve got to be fair to them. Trust me, the minute we think one doesn’t need reps anymore, then we’ll let them know.”