ECU is rolling into the 2020 season with six scholarship quarterbacks on its roster. While the starting job is locked up by junior Holton Ahlers, the Pirates are filling their quarterback room with young talent to prepare for the years after No. 12’s departure.

With two more years of the Ahlers-era still on tap, the Pirates are hoping he can further capitalize on adjustments made to the offense in the latter half of last year and jump out to a quick start in 2020.

“It took us about half a year to get going last year,” head coach Mike Houston said on Saturday. “The reasons for that, there’s a lot of them. Holton’s first full year as a starter. New offensive coordinator. Learning our personnel, us learning them, them learning us. (Offensive coordinator) Donnie (Kirkpatrick) and Holton kind of getting on the same page. Us making some adjustments about mid-season to be able to help him a little bit more. The second half of the season, played at an extremely high level and certainly we want to build on that.”

In the last four games of 2019, Ahlers tossed 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions while averaging 429 passing yards per game. That caliber of performance nearly led the Pirates to back-to-back upsets of nationally ranked opponents in Cincinnati and SMU.

Despite an extended off-season due to the COVID-19 pandemic that kept players away from their coaches and facilities, Houston said his starting quarterback has looked the part of someone ready to lead an offense at a high level early on in preseason practice.

“The things I’ve seen — I think Holton has looked like the Holton of last year,” Houston said. “He has complete control of the offense, he has complete control of the huddle. Talented player, understands the offense, and he looks like what you would expect.”

Behind Ahlers, the Pirates have an inexperienced group of signal callers that are attempting to find their footing on the collegiate level. Of a group that includes Bryan Gagg, Alex Flinn, Mason Garcia, Taji Hudson and Ryan Stubblefield, only Gagg has seen game action.

Even without tangible in-game experience, the Pirates’ young quarterbacks are getting plenty of reps with the spread out nature of ECU’s practices. With the utilization of three practice fields, all six scholarship quarterbacks are getting the opportunity to show what makes them special.

“The young ones, they’re all over the place,” Houston said. “You’ve got Gagg and Flinn who have a little bit of their feet on the ground, so they are going to be able to at least operate the offense in a little bit of a higher manner. Then you have the three freshmen, and boy we’ve seen some pretty impressive things talent-wise from those three.

“There’s a lot of difference in standing there throwing skelly and being able to run an offense and lead a group of five offensive linemen that are all older than you, and standing in front of them and seeing the bullets start flying as the defense starts coming at you.”

Houston said he and his coaching staff are throwing more things at the young players than they ever had to deal with at the high school level. With that kind of pushing from the coaches and experience in practice, the hope is ECU will have plenty of depth ready to take the field once the season starts.

While that needed depth will be in place, the expectation is for Ahlers to have something of a breakout season in 2020. Up over 3,300 passing yards last year, Ahlers has an opportunity to catapult himself into one of the better quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference, and potentially the country. At the same time, the junior is nearing some ECU program records and should have a chance to eclipse them with two more productive years under center.

Despite the guys behind him being super young, that same youth allows the Pirates to be set at the quarterback position deep into the future.

“It’s a room that has a lot of talent, it’s a room that’s going to be highly competitive and it’s a room that has the depth that this program needs, not just for this year but the foreseeable future,” Houston said.

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