"He'll go between the tackles, take the linebackers head-on," Carden said. "And he'll shift, he'll make you miss. It's hard to describe, he does a lot things well. He's a smart kid and that's what's great about him."
While Cooper emerged after getting 28 carries in the first four games, the 6-2, 218-pound Carden started the season wearing a headset on the sidelines. He battled Rio Johnson for the starting job all through spring and the preseason, coming up second.
That changed when he entered in the second half of a forgettable loss to South Carolina. After going 12 of 18 for 140 yards in that half, he started the next game and hasn't given it up. Johnson left the program Nov. 9, perhaps spurred by what Carden called the best game of his career.
Carden threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 30 yards on six carries in that game, the Pirates' 48-28 romp over Houston, an opponent that later fell 44-41 to Marshall. That made ECU bowl eligible, avenged a 56-3 Cougar rout in 2011 and gave Carden the added thrill of beating his hometown team.
In his 101/2 games, Carden has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,399 yards and 18 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. He is fifth in Conference USA in passing yardage (218.1) and third in pass efficiency rating (139.8).
He also has helped the Pirates rank third in the league in third-down conversions (44 percent), behind only Marshall (53.9) and Central Florida (46.2).
Carden's indisputable top target is Justin Hardy, whose 67 receptions, 875 yards and 10 touchdowns easily outpace the Nos. 2 and 3 targets, combined. The Pirates do have six others with 20-plus receptions, including that "big, big, big" tight end, 6-8, 258-pound Justin Jones, who caught all three ECU TD passes last year against Marshall.
"The most impressive thing, to me, is what he does on third down, the way he keeps the play alive," Rippon said of Carden. "He's not a runner. They'll call some called runs here and there, but the way he keeps the play alive, they're making a lot of good plays.
"We're excited about going down there, but it is a new guy."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.