If the 2018 college football season began today, Reid Herring would be East Carolina’s starting quarterback.
That was evident from both the division of playing time between the top three candidates in Saturday’s Purple-Gold spring game and from the comments of both coach Scottie Montgomery and offensive coordinator Tony Peterson afterward.
But the season doesn’t begin today. There’s still five full months before the Pirates line up against NC A&T at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Sept. 1.
So while a clear pecking order has been established among Herring, newly arrived freshman Holton Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi during ECU’s now completed spring practice, a lot can and probably will change by the time the players reconvene for the start of fall camp in late July.
That’s actually a good thing, considering that all three untested quarterbacks still have plenty of rough edges to smooth before being ready to face a hostile opponent.
At the same time, though, each showed flashes of ability while easing concerns about the position heightened after incumbent Gardner Minshew unexpectedly left school to be closer to his home in Mississippi — only to enroll as a graduate transfer across the continent at Washington State.
“I’m really happy with the quarterback position,” Montgomery said after Saturday’s action. “That’s a position that can always either make you or break you and finally, we’re at a point where it can make us this year. I think we’ve got really talented guys that did some good things not just today, but throughout the spring. It’s been impressive to watch it.”
As the quarterback that’s been in the program the longest and the only one that has thrown a pass in an actual college game — albeit, only one in mopup action against Cincinnati in last year’s home finale — Herring figured to come out of the spring at the head of the class.
He got by far the most work in Saturday’s scrimmage while taking all but three snaps for the winning Gold team in its 21-14 victory.
Herring completed 12 of his 20 attempts for 191 yards. He showed good arm strength, a calm presence in the pocket and an ability to finesse the ball to open receivers across the middle while leading his squad to three touchdowns.
He also displayed the confidence necessary to be an effective leader.
But while Montgomery acknowledged that Herring is the man to beat for the job at the moment “because of his command of the football and just understanding situations,” there are some subtle signs that he’s not exactly the staff’s first choice for the position.
The most significant of those hints came at halftime Saturday, when Ahlers was presented the award as the top offensive newcomer in spring practice. It also didn’t hurt his chances at looking good in the intrasquad scrimmage that he ended up on the same team as leading receiver Trevon Brown.
Getting the bulk of snaps for the Purple side, the three-star recruit generally considered to be the face of ECU’s football future completed 12 of his 18 passes for 205 yards. Ifedi, last year’s next-big-thing, went 4 of 6 for 90 yards through the air with a rushing touchdown in more limited action.
Although Ahlers had some blemishes, most notably a fumbled handoff on a fourth-and-goal play after failing to get his team into the end zone from the 1-yard line and a couple of overthrown passes, the coaches were glowing in their praise of his performance.
“What he’s able to do as a high school senior that’s had 15 practices right now is really awesome,” Peterson said of Ahlers, who enrolled at ECU early in January. “ He’s able to go in there and run our offense. Yeah, he had his mistakes. That’s how he learns, too.
“He’s never gotten to be in this stadium with some people in here and a little bit of pressure. He just had a great spring. Can’t say enough about him. We’re very excited about him.”
That excitement isn’t lost on Herring, who acknowledged Saturday that he still has “to come and compete every day because the guys behind me are busting their butt to get the job and they’re really good as well.”
The good news for Montgomery and the Pirates is that the team has at least two, perhaps even three capable quarterbacks on its current roster — negating the need to bring in a graduate transfer as ECU did with Thomas Sirk last summer.
Under different circumstances, the most sensible resolution to the situation would be to bring Ahlers along slowly and perhaps even redshirt him while allowing the more experienced Herring to have the first shot at running the offense.
But after consecutive 3-9 seasons, with a new athletic director coming in and his own guarantee of a bowl game in 2018 hanging over his head, Montgomery doesn’t have the luxury of patience. It’s better to go down in flames playing the quarterback generally considered the most talented in the program, rather than having him waiting in the wings to make the next coach look good.
If Ahlers is even in the same zip code as Herring by the time the competition enters its final stages this summer, then the choice on which one starts will be a absolute no-brainer.
And it’s not the guy who’d have the job if the season began today.
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