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Ahlers, Houston see promise in each other

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East Carolina's Holton Ahlers runs against Connecticut at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Nov. 17.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Coach Mike Houston didn’t leave James Madison for East Carolina because of Holton Ahlers, but he is aware of the Pirates’ talented quarterback.

Ahlers, a left-hander standing 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, was one of the top freshman QBs in the country this year even during a third straight 3-9 record by the Pirates that led to coach Scottie Montgomery’s dismissal.

“It is definitely a positive, but it did not cause me to choose or not choose East Carolina University, based on one player,” Houston said after his introductory news conference on Tuesday. “But once I took the job, you have a quarterback who has some ability and has some experience and tremendous potential, certainly that makes you sleep a little better at night. I look forward to working with him and developing him, because he had some good days this fall and some bad ones. We all do.”

Ahlers was quick to point out that in dissecting Houston’s 80-25 career record at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and JMU combined, there is only one losing season. That came in 2014 when The Citadel went 5-7, which was followed by a 9-4 mark the next year in a season that included a win at South Carolina from the Southeastern Conference.

“I think if you just look at his track record, he has always had success with quarterbacks,” said Ahlers, who in the fall of 2017 as a star at D.H. Conley High School in Greenville finished second in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history with 14,784 career yards of total offense. “He’s always had quarterbacks that lead and do it the right way. I’m excited to work with him.”

Ahlers added that any hesitation with a coaching transition from Montgomery to Houston should mostly be quashed with Houston’s history of winning. The coach took JMU to consecutive Football Championship Subdivision national championship games — winning in 2016 — and ECU’s 2017 season began with a 34-14 loss to the Dukes in which James Madison totaled 614 yards in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“We are going to buy in to him, because he knows how to win football games,” Ahlers said.

The Pirates’ rookie QB finished as the team’s leading rusher this season with 592 yards (second-most in ECU history by a quarterback) and six touchdowns. He passed for 449 yards in a game against Memphis, part of his 1,785 yards through the air and 12 touchdown passes with three interceptions.

For all the positives that Ahlers brought to the program — especially as a Greenville native — his freshman year did play out well on a team that finished 0-5 in road games and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference. Ahlers was 1-4 as the starting QB.

ECU started nine seniors in its final game at N.C. State, a 58-3 loss. Four were on offense in receivers Trevon Brown and Terrell Green joined by right tackle Garrett McGhin and running back Anthony Scott.

Houston described his desirable offensive style as a balanced spread offense built around running the football with physicality. He added that an effective offensive line is key to thriving with that style, which could put pressure on the Pirates’ linemen to progress greatly this offseason.

“We’re going to try to spread the field sideline to sideline and attack vertically in the passing game, and we’re going to try to get downhill on people in the run game,” Houston said. “I think the identity of your football team is built by your offensive line. That is very important, and it will be important the way they train this spring and during fall camp.”

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

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