GREENVILLE — East Carolina’s quarterback competition won’t be decided until the fall. But no matter who wins the position between Reid Herring, Holton Ahlers and Kingsley Ifedi, his job will be significantly easier because of Trevon Brown’s presence on the field.
The senior wide receiver showed off his full range of skills Saturday by catching virtually everything thrown in his direction during the Pirates’ annual Purple-Gold spring football game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Although his Purple team lost the intrasquad scrimmage 21-14, Brown’s contribution helped both Ahlers and Ifedi make positive first impressions by catching nine passes for 169 yards.
“There were plays with the Purple team that we were just going to do play action and we were going to get 88 the ball,” offensive coordinator Tony Peterson said. “Obviously he’s our best receiver. Usually if he’s one-on-one, he’s going to come down with it as long as we don’t overthrow him.”
There were a few overthrows on this cool, cloudy early spring day. But there were also enough accurate passes from all three untested young quarterbacks to help coach Scottie Montgomery feel more comfortable about his offensive leadership heading into the long offseason.
ECU was left without an experienced quarterback when Gardner Minshew left the program in January and subsequently enrolled at Washington State as a graduate transfer.
Herring, as the only player on the current roster to have thrown a pass in an actual game, established himself as the early frontrunner for the starting job with a solid spring, capped by a 12-for-20, 191-yard performance Saturday.
The sophomore led the Gold team to three touchdowns, all of which were scored on runs by redshirt freshman running back Trace Christian, including a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Christian finished with 97 yards on 15 carries, the final 22 coming on a burst off left tackle for the decisive score.
Prized recruit Ahlers was 12 of 18 for 205 yards while taking the majority of the snaps for the Purple team while redshirt freshman Ifedi completed four of his six passes for 90 yards.
Ahlers, a true freshman from Greenville who enrolled early in January, was named ECU’s best newcomer in spring practice and earned praise from Montgomery for the speed with which he picked up the offense over the course of just 15 spring practices.
The teams were chosen in a draft among captains Herring and offensive lineman Garrett McGhin (Gold), and defensive tackle Alex Turner and linebacker Bruce Bivens (Purple).
“I’m really happy with the quarterback position,” Montgomery said. “That’s a position that can always either make you or break you and finally, we’re at a point where it can make us this year. I think we’ve got really talented guys that did some good things not just today, but throughout the spring. It’s been impressive to watch it.”
While the quarterback competition has generated the most interest, it is hardly the only area of uncertainty for the Pirates, who are looking to improve on back-to-back 3-9 records in Montgomery’s first two seasons.
Of even greater importance is the growth of a defense that ranked dead last in the FCS in both points and average yards per game allowed last season. In order to address the problem, Montgomery made several changes to his staff, including the hiring of new coordinator David Blackwell.
Although Blackwell spent the spring concentrating on the installation of his team’s base packages and estimated that only about a third of the playbook was available Saturday, there were already noticeable differences in the way ECU defended.
Especially the physicality with which it played.
Sophomore defensive tackle Raequan Purvis led the Purple team with six tackles and Bivens — who won Most Improved Player honors — had five, including two for losses. Defensive back Colby Gore was the top tackler for the Gold with six.
“I told coach I haven’t had this much fun playing football since my 10th or 11th grade of high school,” said Gore, who was named the Most Valuable Player in spring practice both on defense and special teams. “We’ve got guys flying around, knowing where they send the ball. That’s the biggest difference.”
The defensive highlight of the day came on the Gold team’s second possession, when defensive back Devon Sutton put a crushing hit on tight end Anthony Whatley, causing a fumble that was picked up by linebacker Cole Nigro and returned for a 30-yard Purple touchdown.
“That was a big hit,” Montgomery said. “I hadn’t seen many of those since I’ve been here. I think we tackled better today than we have in a long time, especially in the open field. But that was a big hit on the scoop and score. I’m positive I haven’t seen a scoop and score like that. It did give some juice to the defense.”
Not everything went smoothly Saturday. The Pirates two missed field goals, one each by Jake Verity and Caleb Pratt, had problems in the punting game and were unable to get into the endzone on four straight plays from the 1.
But for all the rough edges the Pirates still have to smooth out between now and their 2018 opener against NC A&T on Sept. 1, there were just as many positive takeaways from the competitive spring game.
“I think it shows that everybody is competing their butt off,” Herring said. “Everybody’s in there trying to win whatever job they’re competing at and there’s a high level of energy. That’s good for us and it showed on the field.”