Mike Houston did a lot of talking during East Carolina’s media day on Saturday. He just didn’t say much, especially when it comes to providing insight on the battle for the starting quarterback job.
His most definitive statement on the subject was that he and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick will have to decide between sophomore Holton Ahlers and redshirt junior Reid Herring at some point before the Aug. 31 opener at N.C. State.
That doesn’t mean they’re going to wait that long.
In fact, it’s likely that they’ve already settled who their offensive leader is going to be.
With all due respect to Herring, who has been a good soldier during his time in Greenville and put up decent numbers under difficult circumstances in the seven games he started last season, it would be the first big upset of 2019 if Ahlers doesn’t take the majority of snaps — if not all of them — against the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium.
There were a number of subtle hints in that direction on Saturday.
One of the most telling came in the form of two seemingly innocent comments from the men with the most input into the decision.
First there was Houston, who said that what he and his staff have to “evaluate is which one gives us the best chance to win on game day and which one is going to do the best job of leading us out of the tunnel.”
Sitting at a different table a few feet away, Kirkpatrick inadvertently gave an assessment as to which quarterback most fits that description. Or in this case, which one doesn’t.
Answering a question about Herring’s progress this summer, the veteran quarterbacks coach and coordinator said the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Raleigh native has “made a lot of strides on trying to maybe come out and be a little more of a leader, playing maybe with a little more confidence.”
Confidence is something in which Ahlers certainly isn’t lacking.
At 6-3 and a more solidly built 236 pounds, with his closely cropped blond hair and a personality that draws others to him, the product of Greenville’s D.H. Conley looks the part of a player the program can build around and become the “face of the franchise.”
And that’s what he was recruited by former coach Scottie Montgomery to be.
“He’s like a lightning bolt,” outside receiver Mydreon Vines said. “He’s so fast and he can throw. He’s so smart.”
Though Ahlers got off to a slow start while being used primarily as a runner during the four games Herring started to begin last season, he showed flashes of the talent that was pursued by the likes of Florida, Georgia and N.C. State after being handed the keys to the offense in Week 7 against Central Florida.
His most impressive contribution, besides leading the team in rushing, was that he was intercepted just three times while throwing for 12 touchdowns in 263 passing attempts. There are still areas in which he needs to improve, most notably a completion percentage of just .483.
While some of that can be attributed to a porous offensive line that offered him only minimal protection and forced him to run for his life far too often, he said he’s learned from the experience and has worked hard during the offseason at becoming a more accurate passer.
“I’m just not going to force anything, force any runs, force any throws and let the game come to me,” Ahlers said. “Last year I was a true freshman, but I didn’t think of myself like that. I knew I had to come in and compete, and that’s what I did. This year with a year under my belt, I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that hopefully people will see I’ve gotten better at.”
One thing that should help Ahlers is the new offensive scheme being installed by Houston and Kirkpatrick.
It’s a system that puts more of an emphasis on a physical running game than in the past and involves run-pass options that allow the quarterback to make decisions based on what the defense is giving him.
It’s a system that’s clearly a better fit for the dual threat Ahlers, who rushed for 592 yards and six touchdowns in 2018, than a more traditional pocket passer like Herring.
That’s not to say that Herring isn’t capable of leading the team and playing well if called upon.
If last season proved anything, it’s that you never know when a second or even third quarterback will be needed. So its good to have more than one ready and available to run the offense and lead the team.
But as Kirkpatrick pointed out in explaining why he’s not a fan of a two-quarterback system, only one can play at a time.
Perhaps the only reason the “competition” has gone on for as long as it has is a promise Houston made to Herring when the quarterback decided to remain in the program once the coaching change was made.
“I sat down and talked with him the first week he was hired and he told me that if I was going to stay he would give me my fair shot,” Herring said of Houston. “And he’s done that. I’m very grateful for that. It’s been a great offseason and preseason camp.”
But now preseason camp is about to transition into game preparation, which means that it’s almost time for Houston to make the most important announcement of his young tenure at ECU — that he’s turning the offense over to Ahlers, the quarterback that gives the Pirates their best chance to win.