A tale of two QBs
GREENVILLE — Water dripped from head to toe off the Pirates new quarterback on Tuesday but there was no way a rain-filled practice was going to wash away the smile on Rio Johnson’s face.
It was announced on Monday that the junior passer would succeed Dominique Davis as the next East Carolina quarterback, a job title that Johnson earned by fending off three other quarterbacks in a heated offseason battle, giving him a right to flash that Kool-Aid-wide grin for at least a few days.
Sophomore Shane Carden, Johnson’s biggest challenger for the job, was minus the smile but managed to keep things in perspective. While Johnson was anointed the starter for Saturday’s season opener at home against Appalachian State, his status is not cemented.
A few bad reads or throws may lead Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to call for a reverse on the depth chart, something that Carden must prepare every day for.
“Right now I just have to prepare like a starter would and just watch film and prepare as if I was going in on the first play,” Carden said. “I just have to stay focused as best as I can.”
Two meetings, two different reactions. That was the scenario on Sunday as both QBs met with Riley and then McNeill to discuss their depth chart status.
“I found out this past weekend before Sunday night’s practice and obviously I was bummed,” Carden said.
For Johnson, finding out he would be the starting quarterback left him feeling more relieved than overjoyed.
“It got rid of all the butterflies in my stomach,” Johnson said. “It was kind of a relief but at the same time it motivated me to up my game even more.”
In the end, Johnson’s consistency appeared to be the deciding factor.
“Coach Riley really keyed on turnovers and making smart decisions with the ball,” Johnson said. “I think that was the big key.”
Riley said that both quarterbacks had a strong body of work this offseason but that the devil was in the details.
“I wouldn’t say there was one thing. When you have two guys like that, that are really different as players, leaders and really as people you’re going to have some things where one is better at than the other. Shane’s our best quarterback in some areas but Rio just had a few more areas right now,” Riley said. “It was close enough that it really came down to some small things: a missed read here, a bad decision here or a good decision here.
“They battled it out so close. I mean I’ve never gone down to just six days before the first game (to make a decision). … It was a great battle and that battle still isn’t over.”
The decision to name Johnson the starter was a tough one, but it was one that both Riley and McNeill saw eye-to-eye on.
“We were (on the same page). Obviously, I have a big say in it being my position as the coordinator but he’s the head coach. But, there was never any worry about us not being on the same page,” Riley said. “We’ve done this now for a few years. We’ve been together now in a few situations for a long time and we see the same things offensively. There’s not going to be a situation where he sees one thing and I see another. We’ve been coaching long enough that, that’s not going to happen.”
Though they both agreed that they made the right choice, it is now up to Johnson to prove them right.
“Well, we’ll find out on Saturday. You kind of find out as you go,” Riley said. “I’m really confident we got two really good ones, and really three when you count Brad (Wornick). I would be really confident if we picked Shane too.
“To go down to the wire like we did you have to feel pretty confident about your guys because if you don’t then maybe you would be tempted to make that decision a little bit quicker so you can pump more reps into the starter. I felt like both those guys could go on a game week of reps and be ready to play. Maybe by our actions we showed more confidence in them then I could tell you.”