Holton Ahlers was a living legend as a 12-year-old.
He was a modern day Babe Ruth, setting a Greenville Little League record with 27 home runs in a single season. He hit a total of 40 home runs if you count the post season that year.
Many of those home runs came just up the street from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at Elm Street Park. Some Pirate fans tailgate in the parking lot at Stallings Stadium before coming over for the East Carolina football games.
Ahlers was first a standout in three sports at Chicod before entering high school at D.H. Conley in Greenville. He started at quarterback for the Vikings as a freshman and ended his career as the state’s third all-time leading passer and second all-time leader in total offense.
Holton threw for 11,198 yards in his prep career and ran for 3,568 more. He threw 145 touchdown passes and ran for 56 more.
Now the Little League baseball standout and All-State performer at Conley is set to start his first game as the quarterback of the school that he grew up cheering for. Ahlers will make his first start for ECU on Saturday night against undefeated and 10th-ranked Central Florida on ESPN2.
Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery says Ahlers will get the full shot.
“Holton does not have a leash this week,” said Montgomery at his weekly news conference on Monday afternoon. “I am taking it off. He will play as long and hard as he can. With Holton, we all have to realize that there will be some bad plays in there but also some really good ones. We will have to work through it, as he is a true freshman starting at quarterback. I am looking forward to him playing a lot.”
Ahlers gets his shot after a strong showing late in ECU’s 42-20 loss to Houston on Saturday night. Though it was in a mop-up role, Ahlers was 11-18 for 137 yards and a touchdown through the air, and he ran the ball 5 times for 45 more yards and a touchdown.
That late success was vital to the plan, according to Coach Montgomery.
“I will spend the majority of my time this week making sure he feels comfortable,” said Montgomery. “I really started to move toward him playing more last week. One thing I did not want to do was bring him out in a situation under the lights without him having a couple of significant drives.”
It is East Carolina’s policy to keep true freshman away from the spotlight of the media until at least halfway through the season. That’s why you haven’t seen any interviews with Ahlers. Holton has proven over the years that he can certainly handle the media spotlight and will no doubt do a great job with that part of being a quarterback down the line.
So far the game certainly hasn’t been bigger than what Holton can handle. He got his first work as a Pirate in the North Carolina game and stunned the Tar Heels with a couple of touchdowns in ECU’s 40-19 win.
Pressure, from all sides, is Coach Mo’s biggest concern.
“The biggest thing will be how he deals with the pressure of starting,” said Montgomery. “Knowing him, I think this is exactly what he is looking forward to. I like his personality during games and practice. I thought he was really focused Sunday night not knowing what we were going to do. I really like where he is right now.”
UCF comes to town with a 19-game winning streak including a Peach Bowl win over Auburn on New Year’s Day. That’s the longest current streak in the nation. The Knights escaped the upset bid of Memphis this past weekend, slipping by the Tigers, 31-30.
For the Pirates, it’s a second straight week against not only one of the American’s top teams, but one of the league’s best players.
Houston featured defensive standout Ed Oliver. UCF brings star quarterback McKenzie Milton to Greenville.
“McKenzie Milton is the ultimate general of a college football team,” explained Montgomery. “He is doing things out there that seven, eight and nine year professionals don’t have the understanding to do. He understands the clock as well as anyone and does a lot with his cadence. He is very, very talented.”
Montgomery hopes teams around the league are saying similar things about his quarterback in the very near future.
“In a few weeks, I am hoping you all ask me questions in regard to what it is like going against Holton Ahlers and I can tell you that it’s not good (for the opponent),” Montgomery said.
I’ve followed Holton’s path for a long time and I can’t wait to see him take the field on Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen.