Holton Ahlers aims to complete ECU’s turnaround

The veteran quarterback is back for a fifth season in Greenville with the hopes of competing for a conference title

ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers will return for a fifth season in Greenville hoping to help the Pirates battle for a conference title. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

GREENVILLE — As a youngster growing up in Greenville, Holton Ahlers’ childhood memories are filled with the experiences of football Saturdays at East Carolina.

Just not the games themselves.

“Obviously I remember all the big games, the conference championships, beating rivals and stuff like that,” he said. “But my core memories that I really cherish are growing up as the youngest of four boys, tailgating before games and throwing a football in the parking lot like we were the quarterback.”

Alhers no longer has to pretend. He’s been the Pirates’ starting quarterback since the eighth game of his true freshman season of 2018 and is on pace to set several career passing records. He’s also been the face of ECU’s program as it’s begun to inch its way back to respectability under coach Mike Houston.

Considering all he’s accomplished and the relative anonymity in which he’s done it, Ahlers could easily have used his extra COVID year of eligibility to pack up his memories and head to the transfer portal for a higher-profile opportunity. Or even try his luck in an NFL Draft that is considered light on quarterback talent.

But his love for ECU and an unfinished rebuilding process drew the 6-foot-3, 230-pound left-hander back home.

Not that he planned on going anywhere else. That became evident last December when he chose not to be honored during the Pirates’ Senior Day ceremonies.

“I came here because I wanted to bring that culture back to football that everyone loves and knows,” said Ahlers, whose father is the longtime PA announcer at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. “It has been the prime goal of mine first to get us to a bowl game. And I did that last year (leading ECU to a 7-5 record). Now it’s to get us to a conference championship this year.

“That’s a big reason for coming back, so I’m just going to continue to work hard and see where it goes. Being the quarterback here is a blessing, and I couldn’t give up another year.”

Ahlers has thrown for 10,219 yards and 69 touchdowns in his four seasons with the Pirates. A true dual-threat quarterback, he has also rushed for 1,262 yards and 19 scores. He ranks second in school history in passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions and total yards, and is fourth in quarterback rushing.

Because he has nothing left to prove, Ahlers made only a token appearance during ECU’s annual Purple-Gold spring game on Saturday. He led the offense for four first half possessions before turning things over to backups Mason Garcia and Ryan Stubblefield.

Garcia was a standout in the game, which ended in a 40-40 tie using a modified scoring system that awarded points for offensive scores and first downs along with defensive accomplishments such as turnovers and third down stops.

He went 23 of 35 for 239 yards, a performance offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said was the direct result of the lessons he learned from watching Ahlers over the past two seasons.

“Anything Holton Ahlers is involved in, you’re going to be better,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s a tremendous teammate. He’s taken an interest in the whole team and helped Mason. He’s been a great role model in the way he studies, looks at film and analyzes stuff.”

ECU wasn’t the only state school to hold its spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Young quarterbacks were also the center of attention at North Carolina, where the competition to replace star Sam Howell heated up in a game that also ended in a tie. Jacolby Criswell completed all six of his passes for 104 yards and a touchdown while Drake Maye went 9 of 12 for 113 yards and two scores on the way to a 14-14 deadlock.

NC State, meanwhile, showed off its veteran offensive unit in a 50-7 victory by its first team, highlighted by a 355-yard, three-touchdown performance by quarterback Devin Leary.

The Wolfpack will open the 2022 season at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, where Leary will face off against Ahlers in what promises to be a high-scoring shootout. The game will also be a showdown between teams motivated by high expectations and the disappointment of having last year’s bowl games canceled because of COVID issues among their opponents.

ECU’s Military Bowl cancellation against Boston College was especially painful since it was the Pirates’ first postseason trip after seven straight losing seasons. As a reward, Houston presented his players with rings to commemorate their bowl selection following Saturday’s spring game.

It’s a gesture Ahlers said he appreciates, although he’s anything but satisfied.

“My goal was to bring back football to a bowl game,” he said. “It’s been a five-year grind for me trying to bring this place back, but every second of it has been worth it. This town deserves it, this school deserves it. To be part of the class that changed the culture, that brought this place back … I’ll cherish that forever.”

He’s even more appreciative of the memories and dreams last season’s success has helped to create for a new generation of young Pirate fans throwing a ball around in the parking lot before games at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“When I grew up, I put a few football players on a pedestal. I thought they were cooler than everybody else,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy to think that kids are now going up to me doing the same thing. So it’s come full circle in a way. That’s probably the coolest thing that I’ve done.”