GREENVILLE, N.C. -- To call it a quarterback controversy at East Carolina would be quite an understatement.
The Pirates have four -- yes, four -- players competing for the starting job, and coach Ruffin McNeill said Saturday that "I think they're all, right now, in the mix."
When East Carolina opens in four weeks against Appalachian State, the starting QB could be junior Rio Johnson. Or sophomore Shane Carden. Or redshirt freshman Cody Keith. Or fifth-year senior and former walk-on Brad Wornick.
"In the end, I just think it'll make whoever the starter is that much better," Carden said. "When you have a competition between two people, they kind of push each other forward to make the better play or to step up their play more. When you have four, it just makes it that much closer of a competition."
McNeill says there's no need to hurry and pick one because all four have been around long enough to become familiar with coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lincoln Riley's offense. Instead, the priority is on "making the right decision and what's best for the football team."
Said Johnson: "It isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. This whole camp, this whole process, it's not just off of one day."
The Pirates are replacing Dominique Davis, who in two years as the starter rolled up the two highest single-season total yardage totals in school history.
His 4,108 total yards in 2010 and 3,397 yards last year were products of the combination of Davis' dual-threat playmaking abilities, the defensively challenged environment in wide-open Conference USA and East Carolina's quarterback-friendly version of Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense.
The Pirates hoped to have found more answers during spring ball, but a finger injury to Carden and improved play by Wornick kept it a legitimate four-man race. Among the contenders, only two -- Johnson and Wornick -- have ever taken a snap in a college game.
Johnson was the only one to see the field last season, completing 20 of 29 passes for 157 yards with an interception in relief of Davis. Wornick is the only one with a college touchdown pass to his credit -- but that came in 2010, when he was 13 of 19 for 138 yards.
That experience "definitely helps with the nerves," Wornick said. "As you get in a team situation, it's nerve-wracking a little bit -- especially at quarterback. You've got to stay calm and composed, so having some experience kind of gives you the confidence to back that up during practice."
Physically, there isn't much difference in some of them: All four are between 6-foot-2 and 6-3. Johnson, Keith and Wornick are right around 190 pounds, while Carden is roughly 25 pounds heavier -- and looks it.
With precious little time until the opener, Riley has the tough job of dividing the workload at practice. He says the reps will be evenly distributed early during camp. Once the pads go on and the offense goes live against the defense, there's even less time, so he'll come up with a rotation to get them enough work.
"Four, at this stage in the game, is pretty unique," Riley said. "It's good and bad. You wish you had more reps, but you're glad you've got four guys you really think can get it done. It's good for these guys all to compete and learn how to compete. They know that every rep is really, really important right now. So it really puts them to the test to see what they're made of."
The winner of the quarterback derby -- whoever it is -- must do two things: Protect the ball, and bring out the best in his teammates. The Pirates ranked 119th nationally last year with 35 turnovers lost and were 11th in C-USA in turnover margin.
"He's got to be a leader. He's got to be a guy that makes the other 10 guys around him better," Riley said. "That's the best quality, to me, that a quarterback can have. Obviously, we're going to place a premium on taking care of the ball. You've got to make good decisions. The second half of the season, we put the ball in a bad situation more than we needed to and more than this team can afford.
"But at the same time, I don't want a cautious guy," he added. "This offense, to me, is based upon aggression, and we're not changing that for one second. We can do that and make good decisions, too. Our guys will need to do that to win this competition."