ECU's Carden is North Carolina's best
Posted November 26, 2013
The 2013 college football season is heading into its final weekend here in the Old North State unless the storybook season of the Duke Blue Devils has a chapter left in it that no one could have foreseen when the year began. If David Cutcliffe's squad can scratch out a school-record 10th win Saturday in Chapel Hill, they'll extend the schedule to next Saturday's ACC championship game against big, bad Florida State at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium.
Other than the final weekend and all that is riding on the outcome of crucial games – like ECU's battle with Marshall for the Eastern Division title and a spot in the Conference USA title game – all that's left is to crown the best Division 1 player in the state of North Carolina. The rules were simple: any player at any Division 1 school in our state is eligible for the honor. Whether he plays at UNC or NCCU, Elon or Duke, East Carolina or Wake Forest, it doesn't matter. Nor does his team's record, status in the conference standings or position on the bowl pecking order. All that matters is that the player be deemed worthy of being considered for the Capitol Broadcasting Company's inaugural college football player of the year award.
The five semifinalists all have one thing in common: they all play on the offensive side of the ball. Two are quarterbacks, the other three are receivers and two of the five are among the most versatile players in the region. And, even though team success isn't necessary for this particular recognition, the three teams represented have won a combined 17 consecutive games and two are vying for their league's championship.
East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden and his top receiving target Justin Hardy are among the five semifinalists. They're joined by Jamison Crowder and Brandon Connette of Duke and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
That doesn't mean that there weren't other spectacular individual performances this year outside of those fantastic five, in fact, I could make arguments for several players over even a couple of our award candidates. There were simply a lot of qualified players, and the beauty is in the eyes of each individual beholder. You can vote until the end of the week right here at WRALSportsfan.com.
North Carolina Central University didn't have a great season as the Eagles were just 5-7 overall, but you can't blame any of that on linebacker Tazmon Foster or all-purpose performer Adrian Wilkins. All Wilkins did was average well over 100 all-purpose yards per game, while Foster simply led the FCS in tackling.
Elon also struggled this season, going 2-10 in the always difficult Southern Conference, but Kierre Brown did his part, with over 1,600 all-purpose yards, among the best in the Championship Subdivision. And, defensively speaking, I was surprised to see that Wake Forest's Nikita Whitlock, Kareem Martin of UNC and Duke's Kelby Brown and Ross Cockrell all managed to escape recognition in spite of spectacular seasons that will almost certainly end up with all-conference honors.
However, from fifth to first, here is my ballot …
5) Eric Ebron, TE, UNC (50 receptions, 774 yards, 15.5 yards/rec, 3 TDs)
First, let me say that among the players on this list, it's almost certain that Ebron will be drafted the highest, and it likely will not be close. Ebron looks the part of the modern, pass-catching, NFL hybrid tight end. He's as fast as most receivers, his running is fluid, and he is equally dangerous down the field and over the middle. However, other than the electrifying night against Miami, when Ebron torched the Hurricanes for 199 yards and a score on eight receptions, there was just one other 100-yard receiving day. I'm sure the injury to Bryn Renner had an adverse effect on his season, but not as much as the occasional lapses in concentration that led to a few key dropped passes. Still, a sure-fire all-ACC selection.
4) Brandon Connette, QB, Duke (1,210 passing yards, 13 TDs, 6 Ints, 324 yards rushing, 13 TDs)
Connette is one of the most unique players we've seen in the ACC in a long, long time. He's clearly number two on the Blue Devils' depth chart at QB, but he finished the season third in the ACC in touchdowns from scrimmage. His 26 total TDs rank only behind Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston in the ACC. And, when called upon, Connette just delivered. He had a six touchdown game (4 passing/2 rushing) against Pittsburgh, and five each in wins over Troy and Miami. He's not a starter, but the way he performed in the red zone, he's more like Duke's closer.
3) Justin Hardy, WR, East Carolina (95 receptions, 1,130 yards, 8 touchdowns)
In a season filled with injuries to so many of his fellow receivers, Hardy was a constant for quarterback Shane Carden. Hardy appears certain to crack the 100-catch barrier this weekend at Marshall and totaled in excess of 100 receiving yards four times this year including a 230-yard, 17-catch explosion at Tulane, the Pirates' only loss since the middle of September. This is the second straight 1,000 yard season for the junior and his total of 25 touchdown receptions is already the school's all-time record.
2) Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke (83 receptions, 1,077 yards, 8 total touchdowns)
It was easy to forecast that this would be a break out season for Crowder. The 5'9" junior proved his mettle with his game-winning touchdown catch – under extreme duress – in the dramatic comeback win over North Carolina a year ago. This year, Crowder is simply the Blue Devils' most critical piece on offense. Six times Crowder went over 100 yards receiving, seven times he hauled in at least seven passes, and he added a pair of punt return touchdowns and another on the ground to the five he gathered through the air. Crowder is 6th in Duke history in receiving yards and his 173 catches ranks 4th all-time for the Blue Devils and the program's all time marks in both categories is definitely within range. That's saying something when you consider the likes of Scottie Montgomery, Clarkson Hines and Conner Vernon are all ahead of him.
1) Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina (72.8% completion, 3, 575, 32/7 TD/Int)
Digest these numbers from the Pirates junior gunslinger: his 325 passing yards per game rank seventh nationally, ahead of Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston. He's not only an outstanding passer, but he's very effective out of the pocket, with nine rushing touchdowns five of which came in the two high-profile games against in-state, non-conference rivals. In the two games against North Carolina and NC State, Carden threw for 621 yards and six touchdowns while adding five more on the ground. And, while consistency has been Carden's strength, with at least one touchdown pass in every game, he's been among the most explosive and productive players in the nation. Carden was responsible for seven touchdowns against Tulsa, six against the Tar Heels, and five each against Old Dominion, UAB and NC State. His 41 total touchdowns would get Heisman attention in a bigger conference, but he'll have to settle for my support as the best college football player in the state of North Carolina.
Congratulations to all the candidates, even those who didn't make the final five. And, what's best about this list is that every single player on it has another year of eligibility. Even though Ebron has already announced his intention to turn pro after North Carolina's bowl game, we know that we've got another year to enjoy the other four.