COLUMBIA - For Shane Carden, it all started at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Who: East Carolina (1-0) at South Carolina (0-1)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
Line: South Carolina by 15.5
It was in Columbia two seasons ago when the East Carolina quarterback, who had lost the starting job in preseason camp in part due to a broken finger, replaced Rio Johnson in the second half of what would become a 48-10 Gamecocks victory. Carden came off the bench and immediately threw an interception, but he finished 12-of-18 passing with a touchdown, and has been the Pirates' top signal-caller ever since.
"That was Shane's first snaps in that game," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill remembered. "He started off kind of touchy, but ended up taking the job from there on."
And rewriting the Pirates' record book in the process. The quarterback who returns to Columbia for Saturday's 7 p.m. contest is no longer a green sophomore, but a seasoned senior who last year threw for more yards than any other passer in East Carolina history, which is saying something given that the school has also produced the likes of Jeff Blake, Marcus Crandall and David Garrard.
And in the wake of last week's 52-28 season-opening loss to Texas A&M - in which sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill passed for a school-record 511 yards in his first collegiate start - that alone might be enough to make Gamecocks fans nervous. But here's more: under McNeill, who worked for a decade under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, the Pirates have installed their own version of Leach's "Air Raid" offense, and last year rolled up an average of 468 yards and 40 points per game.
And it all revolves around the 6-2, 221-pound Carden, who passed for 4,129 yards and 33 touchdowns a season ago. The former Texas high school standout runs an up-tempo spread offense directed by coordinator Lincoln Riley, another Leach disciple who was a reserve quarterback for one season at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders lineage goes even deeper - Carden was tutored in high school by former Texas Tech star quarterback B.J. Symons, which helped him pick up the spread offense well before he arrived in Greenville, N.C.
"Our offense is not very complicated," Carden said. "It's just being able to think of things on the fly. The seconds between snaps are so quick - you've got to see your play call, you've got to know your route, and you've got to know what you're doing real quick."
Carden played three quarters in the Pirates' 52-7 season-opening rout of Football Championship Subdivision opponent North Carolina Central last weekend, throwing for 283 yards and three scores. Although ECU (1-0) competed in Conference USA last season before moving into the American Athletic Conference, Carden still racked up big numbers against major-conference opponents North Carolina and North Carolina State in guiding the Pirates to a 10-3 record in 2013.
"He works on his craft and his tools like no other," McNeill said. "He's a grown man. That's how I talk to him. Everybody on the team respects him. From man one to 125, they respect Shane. Respect is earned, not given. He's unselfish, and you lead from the front. He does it by his actions. Well done is better than well said with Shane."
Carden entered this season as the top returning quarterback in the nation in terms of completion percentage (70.5) and as holder of the top three passing games in school history, in addition to the single-season mark he set in 2013. The Gamecocks (0-1) seemed shell-shocked by the 99 plays Texas A&M ran in the season opener, and now brace for an East Carolina team that managed 101 against North Carolina last season.
"We all know what he's done the last couple of years there," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Carden. "He's a very good player, excellent passer. They know what they're doing in the passing game. They're a lot like Texas A&M - they get it out of their hands quickly, they've got excellent receivers, and we're going to be well tested on defense, that's for sure."
Carden has a strong offensive supporting cast anchored by senior receiver Justin Hardy, who last year set school records with 114 receptions and 1,284 receiving yards. As far as the quarterback is concerned, the records are just a product of the system.
"It's funny, we'll go through a game, and we'll get asked about, 'How do you feel about breaking this record?' And I'd be kind of like, 'I had absolutely no idea it just happened,' " Carden told ECU's radio network. "This offense, it's weird how it works. You just kind of play and play, and all of the sudden at the end of the game, you just have all these stats that kind of rack up. It's something you don't even realize until you're told about it."
And it all started two years ago at Williams-Brice Stadium. Both Carden and the Pirates have come a long way since. "I think they're a lot better team now," Spurrier said, "than they were then."