The book is still out on whether Scottie Montgomery will continue to be the football coach at East Carolina beyond this season. That probably won’t be determined until the final game is played or a permanent athletic director is hired.
But there is one thing that is certain about the Pirates when looking ahead to 2019 and beyond.
No matter who the coach might be moving forward, the future of the program is a talented teenager named Holton Ahlers.
It’s been that way even before the former D.H. Conley star signed his name on the dotted line of a National Letter of Intent and arrived on campus with great fanfare a semester early last January. The only real question was how long it would be before the Holton Ahlers era of ECU football would officially begin.
Even though the youngster had an impressive spring, winning the award for being the team’s best newcomer, Montgomery was understandably cautious about throwing his prized recruit right into the starting lineup.
But we did get an early glimpse of his potential thanks to new redshirt rules that allow players to see action in as many as four games without losing the year of eligibility.
Ahlers immediately became a weapon as a runner in short yardage and direct snap packages, a role that served as the springboard for future starters Anthony Boone and Thomas Sirk when Montgomery was the offensive coordinator at Duke. Ahlers’ contributions played a major role in the Pirates’ win against North Carolina on Sept. 8 and he is currently the team’s leading rusher with 248 yards and five touchdowns on just 38 carries.
But until Saturday, that’s the only element of his skill set he’s been allowed to show. He had thrown just 10 passes in his first four games, completing two of them for only seven yards.
That changed during the fourth quarter of ECU’s 42-20 loss to Houston. With the game hopelessly out of reach and another loss looming, Montgomery finally opened up the playbook and turned Ahlers loose.
While he was admittedly facing less than the Cougars’ best, with All-American menace Ed Oliver safely on the bench, the kid completed 11 of 18 passes for 137 yards while getting the Pirates into the end zone twice to make the final score look much more respectable than it actually was.
“I thought Holton came in at the end of the game and gave us a tremendous boost,” Montgomery said during his postgame comments. “That’s something that will not go unnoticed.
“It doesn’t matter if we have second-teamers in the game too at that time, it’s very important to recognize who’s in the game when touchdowns are being scored. There have been some big drives and some big gains when certain people are in the game. That’s something we’ve got to look at.”
Presumably Ahlers is the “certain people” Montgomery is hinting at and the thing he and his staff have “to look at” is giving the freshman the keys to their offense and sending him off into the fast lane.
At this point they’ve got nothing to lose.
Ahlers can no longer be redshirted now that he’s played in his fifth game and with all due respect to Reid Herring — the Pirates’ starter in every game thus far and who probably hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since the second half of the South Florida game — ECU can’t do much worse than they have for the past two games regardless of who is under center.
With undefeated defending “national champion” Central Florida coming to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium next Saturday, the infusion of youthful energy could be just what the Pirates need to at least give a respectable accounting of themselves.
And perhaps put a few more fannies in the seats than were there for the Houston game.
There’s also a chance that his dual-threat presence in the backfield will help open up a running game that has all but ground to a halt after a promising start, which in turn would theoretically give him more time and space to find a better-than-average corps of receivers downfield.
Montgomery praised Ahlers during his postgame comments Saturday for being a quick study who takes coaching well and is beyond his years in his ability to understand what he’s told and adjust to changes on the fly.
When asked what the 6-foot-3, 236-pound freshman needed to do in order to take on a more expanded role with the Pirates’ offense moving forward, his coach said simply:
“After tonight, not much more.”
If Montgomery’s future with the Pirates really does depend on the improvement his team shows both in its performance and in the win column from here on out, it would only make sense for him to sink or swim with the best players he has available over these final six games.
Starting with the player universally regarded as the future of the program, regardless of who is leading that program beyond the current season.