PirateIllustrated - East Carolina Quarterback Holton Ahlers Hitting His Stride
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East Carolina Quarterback Holton Ahlers Hitting His Stride

Holton Ahlers is playing perhaps the best football of his career with two important AAC games approaching.
Holton Ahlers is playing perhaps the best football of his career with two important AAC games approaching. (James Guillory/USAToday photo)

East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers is playing some of the best football of his career at the moment. The Pirates hope that continues when they take on Navy this Saturday in Annapolis.

ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick says he wants to get four or five good runs out of the quarterback per game to go along with the solid Pirate passing game and he likes what he is seeing from the former D.H. Conley star heading into the weekend.

"He is definitely throwing the ball the best I've seen him throw the ball. Part of that is the decision making. He's making decisions and he's playing faster because he's making decisions quicker and he's throwing it on time,” said Kirkpatrick, “He's believing in the receivers. He's always believed in Snead, so whenever Snead is able to get loose, he has always played pretty well. (Tight end) Ryan Jones is really helping things because now he's gaining a lot of confidence in him. He has gained confidence I think in Audi (Omotosho). He's always had that chemistry with (former D.H. Conley teammate) C.J. (Johnson). C.J. is really playing well."

The Pirates enter Saturday’s game having won their last three straight including wins over South Florida, Temple and last weekend at Memphis in a 30-29 overtime victory. Memphis has lost just three games at home since 2017 and the win puts ECU in a position to contend for the AAC title if things bounce the right way.

A relieved Holton Ahlers expressed his excitement after getting the Pirates back to six wins for the first time in six years.

“I can’t even explain it, this is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” said Ahlers, “I’m just so blessed to be a part of this program and be a part of Greenville and this team. They’re just a bunch of fighters. To be part of this and be a part of the change, I’m just so blessed and all of these guys are.”

“I knew that once we got five (wins) that we weren’t going to not get six, so we’ve just got to go on from here. It’s a huge one, but 8-4 sounds a whole lot better than 6-6 or 7-5 so we’ve just got to keep winning, keep fighting and I’m so proud of this team.”

The first thing is ECU needs to beat Navy this week and then if Cincinnati falls to 8-2 SMU it will up a showdown next Friday in Greenville for the AAC east division title. Ahlers is guiding this team’s turnaround this season and things seem to be getting better on a weekly basis.

"He's playing at a much different level, so I think he's playing with confidence. We've got a little bit of momentum. The running part of it, we're still not calling a lot of quarterback runs. It's more him pulling it down on passes and taking off with it. Sometimes we do call some quarterback draws, but a lot of those are just him taking off,” Kirkpatrick told PirateIllustrated.com, “I think he's just got to the point where he's saying I'm going to do whatever it takes to win and he's not worried about anything else and he's just playing wide open like that and it's helping us a lot. He's just freed his mind a little bit."

No one knows if Ahlers will stick around for another season after getting a free year due to the Covid crisis. He had a tough go of it for awhile earlier this season, but seems to be hitting his stride and improving every game. The hope for ECU is that he sticks around for next year but if not, ECU has several quarterbacks waiting in the wings.

"Holton is just jacked up about life right now, not that he isn't always jacked up about life, but I've just seen a whole new enthusiasm about Holton Ahlers," said Kirkpatrick, "This is what he loves to do and he is seeing some success, he is playing some terrific football himself and he is having fun and he is really enjoying this part."

As he readies to complete his fourth season with the Pirates, Ahlers enters this week's game having thrown for 9,442 career yards with 64 touchdowns, a 59.1 completion rate and 31 career interceptions. Ahlers has also rushed for 1,241 yards. Last week at Memphis he threw for 313 yards with a pair of interceptions in a 30-29 overtime win over the Tigers in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

It was Ahlers' 12th career game with 300-plus yards. He also rushed 18 times for 46 yards to move into fourth place on ECU’s all-time QBs rushing list passing David Garrard (1,209 yards/1998-01). He scored on a two-yard run in the first quarter for his sixth rushing touchdown of the season (19th career) and accounted for one touchdown and now has 20 TDs (14 pass, 6 rush). For his career he has accounted for a total of 84 TD's (65 passing, 19 rushing) and added his first career receiving TD at Marshall of 27 yards against Marshall.

"We all know it's going to come to an end at some point in your life. I don't think it's coming to anything quick, but it's coming and so you start counting your blessings and you're glad that you got this opportunity to do this and I think he just loves winning," Kirkpatrick stated, "I've never seen anyone who wants to win anymore than him. I think it was very evident last week. The second play of the game he runs those guys over. That's your starting quarterback out there, so I was cringing a little bit, but it fired the team up. That's the way he's practicing and the way he's playing."

Behind Ahlers is promising quarterback Mason Garcia who can throw and run along with sneaky good Ryan Stubblefield out of the state of Texas. Both have great upsides with ECU. With a little patience the tandem could prove to be the future under center at ECU once Ahlers is done.

"Now Mason has had an interesting week because we've watched a lot of the film from last year’s game and Mason is so much better right now,” said Kirkpatrick, “He knows so much more about what he's doing than he did at that time and he's just cringing and saying gosh Coach I was just awful last year and I'm like, but that's not important now. What's important now is you're ready to go and if you had to play or you get to play this Saturday I think you can go in there and do the job and I think he thinks that too."

So the backup quarterback's life is interesting in that you want your team to win, but you want to play and he doesn't want anything bad to happen to Holton, but he's dying to play, so you have to kind of balance that. You've got to keep working, knowing that his time is definitely coming and we'll find out when."

ECU at 6-4 and 4-2 in AAC play heads to Annapolis this Saturday to take on an ever improving Navy team that stands at 2-7 and 2-4 in league play. Game time is set for 3:30 pm on CBS Sports Network.