When your team has suffered through back-to-back 3-9 seasons, as East Carolina has on the football field over the past two years, it’s only natural to look for something, anything, on which to place your hope for improvement in the future.
For many Pirates fans, that hope is embodied in the person of Holton Ahlers.
And why not?
The talented young quarterback from D.H. Conley High has all the qualities you’d want in a savior. He’s got size, at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. He’s got a cannon for an arm. He’s confident and best of all, he’s already emotionally invested in the program, having grown up in Greenville as an ECU fan whose father is the PA announcer for football games at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
It also helps that he’s got the statistics to back up the hype.
He threw for 11,198 yards and 145 touchdowns in his four seasons at D.H. Conley High School, including 3,763 yards and 61 scores with only four interceptions as senior this year. He tied an NCHSAA record by passing for nine touchdowns in a game against Winterville South Central last month.
Saturday afternoon in Spartanburg, SC, Ahlers validated all those numbers by earning MVP honors at the Shrine Bowl while leading his home state to a 55-24 victory against the best players South Carolina has to offer.
It was a performance that will almost certainly raise the already high expectations that are about to be placed on him.
If they’re not already off the charts.
That’s why, even as Pirates fans go to bed this holiday season with visions of a young gunslinger throwing touchdown passes in purple and gold dancing in their heads, it might be wise to pull back on the reins of anticipation just a little.
Because as talented, confident and mature as he appears to be, it should be remembered that Ahlers is still only a teenager.
While some true freshmen are capable of stepping right in and playing at a high level — Georgia’s Jake Fromm is one that immediately springs to mind — others take time to adjust to college life and the increased speed of the game.
Only time will tell which category Ahlers will fell into. His play during preseason practice will determine that.
The good news is that as directly as coach Scottie Montgomery’s job security is tied to his team’s improvement next season, he doesn’t have to be desperate enough to rush Ahlers into action before he’s ready.
Gardner Minshew’s emergence over the final 4½ games of the recently completed 2017 campaign suggests that he’s fully capable of leading an offense potent enough to win games when complemented by anything resembling a competent defense.
Think of how much better and more prepared Ahlers could be if he has the luxury of spending a redshirt season learning as Minshew’s understudy?
That’s not as sexy a vision as that of a big, talented, local youngster standing confidently in the pocket and throwing strikes to Trevon Brown, Tajh Deans, Mydreon Vines and Blake Proehl while his dad provides the call over the Dowdy-Ficklen PA system.
But it’s always good to have options.
It’s an option that will become officially available to Montgomery and the Pirates on Wednesday, college football’s new early signing day.
Despite other schools continuing to pursue the four-star quarterback, including some with a very high national profile, Ahlers has made it clear he is just as excited as ever to be a Pirate.
“I wanted somewhere that I could play early and being at home,” he said in an interview after Saturday’s Shrine Bowl. “Playing in front of my hometown and my family and everyone like that it just all came together for what I wanted to do and I’m really excited about that.”
Ahlers has announced via his Twitter account that he plans to sign his letter of intent to ECU at 1 p.m. on signing day at Tiebreakers Sports Bar, and he has invited fans to come share the occasion with him.
It won’t be a victory celebration, per se. At least not yet. But it is an occasion that should at least give ECU fans some realistic hope for the future.
And who couldn’t use a little hope? Especially those whose team just went 3-9 in each of the past two seasons.