With the offense sputtering in losses to Temple and Houston, East Carolina announced earlier this week that true freshman Holton Ahlers would start at quarterback as Central Florida brings a 19-game winning streak to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday for a 7 p.m. kickoff. The Knights are ranked No. 9 in the Coaches Poll and No. 10 by the Associated Press.
Ahlers was a national recruiting target as he passed for 11,198 yards during his high school career at D.H. Conley. His dad, Morgan, is the public address announcer in football and basketball for the Pirates.
ECU coach Scottie Montgomery talked about the recruiting process that kept Ahlers close to home.
“It was a relationship that we got to see him a lot early on as a young player,” Montgomery said. “The things that I kind of remember about his recruitment, he had a huge basketball game and we were right in the middle of the hardest part of recruiting with him. I sent our coaching staff over and I had them take the No. 12 jersey over, a Pirate jersey, and kind of have it on and around their shoulders during the game. We were just trying to get his attention. . . .
“Another thing I would say is that he got so much better between his sophomore and junior year, and junior and senior year. His throwing motion, . . . he just progressed. Coach [Nate] Conner over at Conley, he just did a really, really, really good job of developing his talent.
“I realized that we started to get really close in the relationship. … The process of trying to get a big-time quarterback in college ball can set you up for years and years and years. We really wanted to make sure that he understood that it was about his development first and then trying to get him in the game. I didn’t want him to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was fine with that part of it. The whole process kind of ended. He signed in December. I had a huge Thanksgiving dinner at my house. . . . He was still in high school at the time. My kids were all over him because they knew who he was by that time. My family was there. It felt good. It felt like family.
“We’re excited for him. We know that there are going to be some challenges ahead. He’s not just going to get in there and everything go exactly right for him. We’ve prepared him for that. Before last week, I don’t know that he would have said he had 100 percent confidence in understanding everything that was going on. In last week’s practice, he started getting a lot better, but in the game those last three drives really boosted his confidence in the protection part of it. I’ve told people he can throw it. He can make plays. It’s just a lot that you have to do at the line of scrimmage at the quarterback position. He’s been able to get a lot of it done to this point in time. We’ve still got a long, long way to go, but he’s made some plays for us.”
Ahlers led the Pirates to two touchdowns in the 42-20 loss last week to the Cougars, stopping a streak of seven straight quarters during which ECU had not gotten into the end zone. The scores he generated came with the issue decided and Houston starters on the sideline, but nonetheless created some optimism going forward for the Pirates (2-4, 0-3 American Athletic Conference).
“Those are the things when I say he listened from the sideline,” Mointgomery said. “I wanted scrambles toward the line of scrimmage, not away from the line of scrimmage. We coached that really hard. The real time that you see whether quarterbacks will do that or not is in games because you can’t hit quarterbacks in practice. You can’t let your defensive ends hit them, so in games is when you really find out — will your quarterback scramble toward the line of scrimmage and throw it? Will he scramble toward the line of scrimmage and run it?
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“That attacking mold will put a lot of pressure on guys, not just the guys he’s playing with but the guys we’re playing against because you’ve either got to stay in coverage or you’ve got to come tackle him. … He gets out in space and does some good things. He’s very, very aggressive and we’re going to try to use him to attack this weekend.”
Corey Seargent questionable
The ECU defense played well for extended periods against Houston and did so without senior corner Corey Seargent, whose interception at Temple is the only turnover generated by the Pirates in the last two games.
“Right now, he’s nursing a little bit of a hamstring,” Montgomery said. “We hope that he’ll be a lot better for tomorrow. He did not practice [Tuesday].”
Montgomery was hopeful that Seargent would respond favorably to intense treatment for the ailment.
Offensive guard Brandon Pena, who went out late in the first half of a 37-35 win over Old Dominion, is not expected to be back this week.
ECU run game missing of late
The Pirates managed just 76 yards rushing in a 49-6 loss at Temple on Oct. 6 and were limited to 41 yards by the Cougars last week. Montgomery said ECU had to abandon the ground attack after trailing 35-3 at halftime against the Owls.
“I think that was a little bit different this past week,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t think we got down to a point where we had to lose the run game. To be honest, we got dominated by a really, really good player (2017 Outland Trophy winner Ed Oliver).
“We didn’t win the double teams versus him. They positioned him a lot of times away from D’Ante Smith and Cortez (Herron) together. Of course, because of our injury at the right guard position, they did a good job of continuing to move because we were adjusting how we were trying to go get him on a double team. They kept moving him around and stunting him, not necessarily with alignment but the stunting of the defensive line. It gave us a hard time, but what really made it hard for us, too, we were trying to get the ball to the perimeter, but he’s so fast. He plays so hard and so aggressive. You usually don’t have to worry about (defensive linemen) tackling you on the perimeter, but he was making plays on the outside and the inside. Thank goodness, we don’t have to play against him again.
“The other part of it is we have to be much more aggressive running the football at quarterback. There was some opportunities to run the football. … Just Holton’s overall presence in this game will give us a lift in the run game. It won’t be all the answers but it will be a huge answer because he can throw it. He’s going to understand his protections really well. He can run it but I’m looking forward to our backs’ big days this week because of what Holton can do pulling the ball and they’re going to have to have a quarterback player out there, which will weaken the box.”
Running back Chris Johnson was back at ECU for the Houston game for his induction to the hall of fame.
“I got to see him a little bit before the game and got to see and meet his fellas so it was a special time,” Montgomery said. “Then we got to spend a little more time together so he could see, of course, the lounge. He’s done a really good job of giving back as a Pirate. The CJ2K Juice Lounge is downstairs and he made that possible. He was one of the guys that was in the locker room and our guys identify with him being a great football player and giving back to this university and this football program.
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“I can’t say enough about him. That has just been so special for our guys. It doesn’t happen all over the country. Sometimes, that’s very unique to certain places. A guy so young, be willing to give back just speaks to what type of people we have here that have come through these doors, the coaches that coached them. I think that’s a big deal, especially individual coaches that coached them. They get them to understand how important it is to be here. I think it was important that Junior Smith was there to be coaching him, a former Pirate. I just think that those things help guys understand how important it is to give back.”
The Pirates would prefer that Jake Verity finish drives with conversions rather than field goals, but the junior kicker has been effective regardless of the circumstances.
“He’s been really, really good,” Montgomery said. “At this point, you have to say he’s playing ‘A’ football. . . . We’re going to have to force our way in there to go get some touchdowns. We’ve got to be able to keep some drives going. I’m not taking him off the field by any means. I feel very comfortable with him at long distance, but with the type of offense that we’re going to have to be able to put together and play with the next two months, we really have to get going offensively. With Holton back there, he’ll do a good job.
“I’ll just say that Jake has done a great, great job. He’s been very disciplined and detailed. Kirk Doll (special teams coordinator) should get a lot of credit for that.”
The Knights have big play capability, especially with a fresh set of downs.
“They do a really, really good job of creating explosive plays on first down,” Montgomery said. “That juice is the momentum that this team has been running on. McKenzie Milton (UCF quarterback), he makes you pay on first down. You hear RPOs, run-pass option, and you think they’re like 6-yard gains, 8-yard gains. His RPOs are down the field. He doesn’t have as much to worry about on 1st-and-10, run-action pass, because he’s going RPOs down the field. He’s doing a lot of reading at the line of scrimmage so we have to be very good on 1st-and-10.
“Offensively, what we’ve got to be able to do is we’ve got to continue to find ways to get our best players the football. You’re going to see a lot more formations, a lot more of things where we’re putting guys in situations to make plays. We’ve just got to continue to push that forward.
“Special teams, keep the energy where it was last week and get better and better and better.
“I have a good feeling that our explosive plays will now start to go up quite a bit. If we can limit their explosive plays and create some explosive plays, we’ll be in good position.”