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Veteran McGhin on Ahlers' blind side

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East Carolina's Holton Ahlers, top, is lifted up by Garrett McGhin after Ahlers scored a 49-yard touchdown run against Old Dominion on Sept. 29.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Saturday night will serve as the first-career start at East Carolina for true freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers, a Greenville native, and it will be the 29th for senior right tackle Garrett McGhin.

Ahlers is left-handed, which puts the right tackle McGhin in charge of protecting the rookie’s blind side.

Opposing McGhin, a team captain and 6-foot-6, 302-pounder from Tallahassee, Fla., Ahlers and the rest of the Pirates will be 10th-ranked Central Florida (6-0, 3-0 American Athletic Conference). The 7 p.m. game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be broadcast on ESPN2, only adding to the spotlight on the quarterback and ECU (2-4, 0-3).

“Mine was Western Carolina at home, 2016, and honestly I remember the night before just going through my playbook and I couldn’t sleep and I was on edge,” McGhin said of his first start with the Pirates. “At the end of the day, that is something you dream about. It’s definitely a big deal for him and I know being a Greenville kid he has dreamt about this all his life, but at the end of the day, he is focusing on going out there and beating a top-10 team.

“What a hell of a way to start your career.”

Snapping the ball to Ahlers could be another true freshman, Peyton Winstead. He is the team’s backup center, and he relieved starter John Spellacy last week when Spellacy left the Houston game during the second half with an injury.

Spellacy did not practice Tuesday.

“Peyton is in there right now and he’s a freshman, so we are young,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “We need to get old and stay old, but we are not right now and that’s what we got. He’ll do a good job and we just have to get him ready to go this week.”

The 6-3, 236-pound Ahlers, a former three-sport standout at D.H. Conley, will enter the UCF game as the Pirates’ leading rusher with 248 yards and five touchdowns.

He had served as a short-yardage running specialist and backup to Reid Herring, who started ECU’s first six games.

“He isn’t fired up about it, and I wouldn’t be when I played,” Petersen said of Herring, a sophomore from Raleigh. “I told him that you are still one snap away from being the starting quarterback, and you have to approach it that way. It is going to take a few days to kind of get it out, because kids are kids and they want to be in there and be the guy.”

Head coach Scottie Montgomery and the Pirates reopened their QB competition last week between Herring, Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi. Herring started and threw two interceptions, along with losing a fumble, and Ifedi threw a third INT against the Cougars.

Ahlers led two touchdown drives during the fourth quarter, creating the final 42-20 score for a Houston win, and those drives helped seal his standing as the new starting quarterback.

His first-career TD pass was a 13-yard fade route to senior receiver Trevon Brown on fourth-and-3.

“I know that was a joy for him,” Brown said. “For me, it was about just building his confidence and showing him that he can play out here with these guys. He was a great athlete coming out of high school and now he is starting to really notice that he can come in and help this team.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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