With all the questions that need to be answered and holes that need to be filled by the East Carolina football team, there was at least one position coach Scottie Montgomery and his staff could feel good about heading into next season.
And it’s the most important position on the field.
But that changed last Tuesday with the announcement that starting quarterback Gardner Minshew has withdrawn from school.
Despite a buzz on social media suggesting that Minshew’s departure was not entirely his own idea, there’s no reason to question the official explanation that he left to “devote his full attention to a family matter in his home state of Mississippi.”
In fact, Montgomery left the door open for Minshew to return to the team in the event that circumstances allow it before the start of fall camp.
But that’s a long shot at best.
Although Minshew is hardly the second coming of Tom Brady — or even Shane Carden, for that matter — he is an experienced leader who knows the offense and has enough ability to give his team a chance to win games when coupled with a reasonably competent defense.
He threw for 2,140 yards and 16 touchdowns with only seven interceptions while splitting time with graduate transfer Thomas Sirk.
Minshew’s loss is a major blow to a program that needs all the help it can get after two straight 3-9 seasons.
With Minshew, Montgomery had the luxury of being patient with highly touted incoming freshman Holton Ahlers. Without him, the Pirates suddenly find themselves in scramble mode as they prepare to begin spring practice just two weeks from now.
Here are the options they have available:
◼ Ahlers — A pure passer from nearby from D.H. Conley High, Ahlers was already being looked upon as the future of the program. Thanks to his early enrollment, he may well have won the job even if Minshew had stayed. A lot will depend on how quickly he picks up the offense and performs in spring practice and fall camp.
At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Ahlers has all the qualities you’d want in a quarterback. He’s got size. 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.
Ahlers threw for 11,198 yards and 145 touchdowns in his four-year high school career, including 3,763 yards and 61 scores with only four interceptions as senior last season. He tied an NCHSAA record by passing for nine touchdowns in a game against Winterville South Central last month.
But despite those gaudy numbers, he’ll still be a true freshman and regardless of all that talent, there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready in time for opening night against N.C. A&T on Sept. 1.
◼ Reid Herring — A former three-star recruit who was recruited by former coach Ruffin McNeill, Herring is the most experienced quarterback left in the program. Of course, experienced is a relative term, since he’s seen mop-up action in only two games and thrown just one pass as a Pirate. That pass went for a 20-yard touchdown to Trevon Brown in a Senior Day win against Cincinnati.
A 6-3, 180-pound pro style passer, Herring set school records with 6,307 yards and 88 touchdowns while earning all-conference honors for three straight seasons at Millbrook High in Raleigh. While his three years in ECU’s program are a plus because of the familiarity he has with the system and his surroundings, the fact is that he was third string for a reason.
He’s got a lot of improving to do to win the confidence of his coaches and the starting job.
◼ Kingsley Ifedi — He’s the wild card in the suddenly wide open quarterback competition. Ifedi is a physically gifted dual threat athlete who had the role of savior-in-waiting until Ahlers signed his name on the dotted line of an NCAA letter of intent.
Ifedi threw for 4,052 yards and 47 touchdowns as a senior at Charlotte’s Vance High while rushing for 1,092 yards and 17 scores. He was the first player recruited and signed by the current coaching staff, so Montgomery might be motivated to get him onto the field and see what he can do after a redshirt year in which he learned the playbook while adding some bulk to his slender 6-3 frame.
There was some talk that Ifedi might eventually be moved to wide receiver. But that probably won’t happen now, unless one or both of the other returning candidates stand out this spring.
So what happens if none of the three show they’re ready to lead?
It’s a doomsday scenario the coaches are almost certain to be addressing already by doing their due diligence on potential graduate transfers.
It’s a strategy that didn’t turn out especially well with Sirk last season. And it’s the last thing ECU needs as it looks to lay a foundation upon which to build for a future beyond next season. But given the circumstances created by Minshew’s unexpected departure, Montgomery might not have any other choice.