Holton Ahlers has been taking the first-team snaps at quarterback at East Carolina since the latter part of his freshman season in 2018.
As the start of his fourth season in the program approaches, his performance, obviously, will be a key as the Pirates look for better things after six straight losing campaigns.
Donnie Kirkpatrick is going into his third season as offensive coordinator at ECU. He talked about Ahlers’ growth and development at ECU’s media day on Saturday after the team’s final preseason scrimmage.
The Pirates start the season on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m., at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte against Appalachian State.
“Holton has been a fun guy to coach, obviously,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think that Holton came in. Obviously they’ve just kind of let him run, do a bunch of stuff like that, what he had some natural abilities to do.
“I think Holton’s really improved though as a passer. His completion percentage went way up from that first year in year two and it’s still trending upward like last year. I see much more improvement, just more accurate, throwing the ball better, throwing a more catchable ball. I think he’s really developed as a passer.
“But he’s still a dual threat guy. Last year maybe didn’t run the ball as much as he had in some of the years past. That was a little bit due to, I think defense has played for him to run the ball because you run the ball that well your freshman year, they’re going to play you to run the ball. I think we also have better running backs now or more productive running backs I shouldn’t say. You don’t want to always just run your quarterback when you can give the ball to Rahjai Harris, Keaton Mitchell. He didn’t get as many carries that way either.
“And then we were very concerned who was the backup? Last year, after Reid Herring left, we were very thin at quarterback. Didn’t have much experience in the backup, so we did want to protect him a little bit more.”
Ahlers may have the green light to run more in 2021.
“I think you saw (Saturday) in the scrimmage, he can still run,” Kirkpatrick said.. “He pulled down a couple of them, made some big plays. I’m a little bit going to get on him. The one he threw in the end zone to Shane (Calhoun), which he could’ve caught, he probably could have run that. I’m not so sure he wouldn’t have scored if he would have just stayed with that and run. But he’s a dual threat guy.
“He’s a great young man. We’re going to ride him hard this year. In the past, he’s made great plays. At times I think he’s been the best quarterback in the (American Athletic) conference. He’s pressed a little bit. I think he feels the pressure that we have to always score and sometimes he makes some bad decisions.
“All his interceptions have come in games when we were struggling a little bit offensively. And he’s forced things. I think he is doing less of that right now and if he will continue to do that, then we’ll be pretty good this year, I think.”
Preseason camp ended Saturday. Ahlers felt like it was a productive period for the Pirates.
“It went really well,” said the left-hander, who was a multiple-sport standout at nearby D.H, Conley High School. “I mean, I think we’re the most complete team we’ve had in a really long time here. It’s definitely the most complete team that I’ve had. I mean, we have experience, we have depth at all areas of the field, at all stand up positions and in the hand in the dirt, too. So I’m excited about it. I mean, it’s hard not to get excited.”
Thoughts on opener
Ahlers talked about the importance of making a good start in Charlotte.
“Yeah, I mean, we’ve talked about that first game kind of being a statement game for us and seeing where our program is at because App State has got a great program and they’ve had a lot of winning history these recent years, but you know, it’s time to flip that switch and get this program back.
“I mean, you got to play good defense, you got to run the ball and stop the run. You’ve got to prevent turnovers and when the big play is there take the big play and stop theirs. We’re both going to be good teams. We’re going to be good defensively and good offensively. It’s going to come down to who can pull it out in the fourth quarter.
“The next game is always the most important one, but this one’s a little special. Anytime you’re playing in-state school like that it’s just special and in the Panther Stadium too, adds a little bit to it. So a neutral site where the fans can travel and stuff like that. But we’re just excited to get going. I mean this team has been through a lot together and we’re excited to get this thing rolling.”
Ahlers will be throwing to some experienced targets like C.J, Johnson and Tyler Snead. There is depth in the wide receiver room.
“I mean, they’re as talented as anyone in the country,” Ahlers said. “I mean, those guys they’re experienced too. We got three-year starters in every single position and then their backups are young, like you said, but they’re young talents and guys that are learning behind vets, who’ve made a lot of plays here, so they should be a special group. I’m excited about it.”
‘Holt’ or ‘QB1’
The guy his teammates sometimes refer to as “Holt” or “QB1” has undergone significant transformation since joining the program as a heralded freshman,
ECU could have its best offensive line in years to enable the veteran quarterback.
“I don’t love anyone more in this world and those guys right there,” Ahlers said. “The way that they’ve took to heart protecting me in this offseason, developing to become better for the team, but really me. They come up to me every single day and tell me how they’re doing and stuff like that. Those dudes are brothers and guys that I’ll spend the rest of my life being best friends with. So I appreciate those guys more than anything.”
Flipping the switch
“I think when Coach (Mike) Houston got here he always talks about the game when the switch will be flipped and we thought it was going to be the Cincinnati game a couple years ago and stuff like that. It just didn’t go our way,” Ahlers said. “But I think everyone agrees that the SMU game the switch was flipped and that’s what we’re rolling with.”
Ahlers was asked if Big Foot is real.
“He lives in Grimesland and when I was heading home from practice one day, I saw two of them,” Ahlers said. “I sent it to the Discovery Channel and they did not respond. So the channel is fake, not me though.”
Faith and football
Ahlers is a person of faith and that affects all aspects of his life.
“It impacts a lot more than football in my life, but my faith is the most important thing that I’ve carried over since I was little,” he said. “That’s the number one thing. That’s the first thing I do in the morning is pray and the last thing I do at night is pray. And I’ll pray during games, before games and all that. That’s just something that I try to impact other people as well in this team.
“It has really come together in that aspect of it and we went to church all during camp and just some stuff like that. But I mean, faith is always the most important thing. There’s only one thing that lasts forever and that’s heaven and souls and stuff like that. So anytime I can get a chance to impact someone’s eternity, I definitely will try to.”
Dad on public address
Ahlers’ dad, Morgan, does the public address announcing at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“He was my little league coach,” Ahlers said.
Ahlers has wondered about the logistics of Senior Day, when that time comes.
“Will he be down on the field or upstairs doing the announcing?” Ahlers said. “We’ll figure that out.”
The family includes mom, Jill, as well as brothers Jordan, Griffin and Peyton.
Aware of tradition
Growing up in the area has made Ahlers aware of ECU’s football tradition, including Conference USA championships in 2008 and 2009.
“I remember all that,” he said. “I was here for all of it and I mean, this city just wants a winner. They crave a winner and when they do win, man this city is crazy. I’m excited to get back to that this year, but this city just has a different pop to it when we’re winning.
“When I came here I knew it was going to be an uphill battle to sit here and bring this program back, but I devoted my time to it and devoted really my college career to bringing this place back.”