Nate Conner grew up along the banks of the St. Johns River in the town of Orange Park, just outside of Jacksonville, FL. Across the river and almost due East from Orange Park is the seaside community of Ponte Vedra Beach, which is home to state football powerhouse Nease High School.
Leading Nease at quarterback during Conner’s time in Orange Park was future Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
“I was able to witness some of the Tebow years,” Conner said Tuesday. “I see a lot of similarities with Holt.”
“Holt” is Conner’s current quarterback at D.H. Conley High School in Greenville, Holton Ahlers, who on Monday became one of the highest ranked football prospects to make a verbal commitment to play for East Carolina. Ahlers, who is still only a junior, announced his decision in a heavily attended press conference at Conley with three simple words: “I’m staying home.”
It seemed like a natural choice for the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder whose father, Morgan, is the public address announcer for ECU football games at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. But Ahlers did give serious consideration to N.C. State, which had gone head-to-head with the Pirates in pursuit of Ahlers since the Wolfpack offered a scholarship last June.
“It was tough,” Ahlers said of his decision. “State did a very good job recruiting me. I didn’t really like State before recruiting, but they made me a fan. But East Carolina is home. I’ve been around it forever. It’s been a dream of mine to play there since I was a kid.”
The Rivals.com network ranks Ahlers as the nation’s No. 15 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2018, while 247sports.com pegs him as the No. 18 athlete nationally and a four-star prospect. Rivals and Scout.com have tabbed Ahlers a three-star prospect.
Conner said Ahlers came by his office last Friday to discuss his final decision before making the announcement publicly.
“I asked him to give me the reasons why he chose [ECU],” Conner said. “He just felt comfortable with [head] Coach [Scottie] Montgomery and (offensive coordinator) Coach [Tony] Peterson, and the offensive minds they have and the experience they have. He felt like they could continue to develop him as a quarterback, and he felt like there was a really good chance of contributing early in whatever role they have for him. And obviously, he gets to stay here with his family and be a Pirate like he’s always dreamed of.
“After he gave me all those reasons, he made me a believer in the school he chose.”
Ahlers long ago made Conner a believer in his football abilities.
Conner, who is in his seventh season at D.H. Conley, first witnessed Ahlers’ potential while he quarterbacked the squad at Chicod Middle School. Chicod traditionally plays its rival at Conley’s stadium, giving the players on both teams exposure to their future coaches.
“We had heard about him as an eighth grader,” Conner said. “We got a chance to see him in their rivalry game here. It was obvious he had a lot of ability. But once we got a chance to meet him and work with him we knew we had something special on our hands.
“He had all the intangibles. He was a coachable kid. When you talked to him about certain things, he was able to go out and execute them. That’s hard for a lot of young players who haven’t developed a lot. But he had a natural feel for it. He wanted to be coached and pushed, even at a young age. It’s exciting as a coach to know you have your hands on someone like that.”
Ahlers moved right into Conner’s starting lineup as a freshman. Even though he missed some action due to a broken thumb, Ahlers still managed to pass for 1,500 yards, rush for 800 and score 27 touchdowns in his debut season.
East Carolina’s previous coaching staff actually extended a scholarship offer to Ahlers after his freshman year. By the time the new staff picked up the pursuit in December 2015, Ahlers had completed a sophomore season in which he completed 132 of 262 passes for 2,457 yards and 27 touchdowns, rushed 168 times for 1,142 yards and 15 more scores while leading Conley to the third round of the state 4-A playoffs and an 11-3 record.
As impressive as that was, Ahlers took things to an even higher level during the 2016 season.
Statistically, Ahlers completed 284 of 460 passes for 4,503 yards and 51 touchdowns. He added 911 more yards rushing and 15 touchdowns in earning All-Metro honors from the Raleigh News & Observer, Area Offensive Player of the Year honors from the Greenville Reflector and first-team All-State from The Associated Press.
Ahlers’ 66 total touchdowns tied for the fifth-highest single-season mark in state history. Conley and rival Greenville Rose combined to set a state record for most points in a single game (144) during a September matchup that saw Ahlers produce nine touchdowns himself – five passing, four rushing – to set another state mark. He threw for 507 yards in the losing effort, despite departing late in the fourth quarter due to an injury.
Three weeks later, following an open date in their schedule, the Vikings defeated Charles B. Aycock, 83-68, to eclipse the combined single-game scoring record they’d set against Rose. Ahlers again made a major contribution, passing for a career-best 513 yards and rushing for 107. The 620 yards of total offense broke the single-game state record of 608 set by Nick Demuro of Athens Drive in 2007.
Those kind of performances were “Tebow-like” in Conner’s opinion.
“He definitely likes Tim Tebow, and has kind of molded himself after him,” Conner said. “He loves the way Tebow played. He loves how unselfish Tebow has always been. I think that’s a big thing about Holton, too. He’s a great leader and kids rally behind him.
“So, there are a lot of similarities. Holt is a really good sized kid, so there are those comparisons [to Tebow]. He’s left handed. Some people have even questioned his throwing motion, which they did with Tebow also. I’d love to [see] Holt to have some of [Tebow’s] same accomplishments. But he’s a special player in his own right.”
One of the many plays Ahlers made last season that is an example of the special talent he is occurred in a 36-20 win against New Bern in late October last season.
“They were playing a little different on defense and were getting a good rush on us,” Conner said. “It was pretty early in the game. Holt was able to elude their rush and on the run he moved the ball from his left to his right hand. Then, while on the run, he switched it back to his left hand when he saw somebody get open down field.
“He stepped into the throw just as he got hit. It was really a big-time play. It wasn’t for a touchdown. We probably gained about 30 yards. But his ability to get away from the rush, stick his foot in the ground and make an accurate throw was a heck of a play.”
Ahlers’ talents aren’t limited to the football field. He’s been a varsity starter for the Conley baseball team since his freshman year as well when he hit .354 with three homers and 22 RBIs. He followed up by batting .280 with three homers and 23 RBIs last season.
Conner believes Ahlers could play major college baseball, but for now he’s concentrating on football.
That’s a good thing since Ahlers will enter a competitive ECU quarterback picture after his planned early graduation from Conley next December. Gardner Minshew, who finished the 2016 season as the Pirate starter, will have another year of eligibility left. Plus, ECU has two other promising signal callers waiting in the wings with current redshirt freshman Reid Herring and true freshman Kinglsey Ifedi on the roster.
“He knows they’re very high on the freshman coming out of Charlotte (Ifedi) who is already on campus,” Conner said. “I’m not saying he’s going to come in and take somebody’s spot. But he provides a special skill set with his size. He feels he’ll get a chance to go in and show what he can do.”
Click the link below for a first look at the thumbnails page for ECU’s recruiting class of 2018.