ECU’s second scrimmage of the preseason brought with it an improved offensive showing and seemingly offered a glimpse into what many hope will be a breakout year from junior quarterback Holton Ahlers.

The Pirates’ offensive struggles during the first half of 2019 are well documented, as are the successes they found in the latter half of the campaign. In the final four games, Mike Houston and his staff took the lid off the offense, allowing Ahlers to throw more than 40 times in each of those games.

Of course, the high-scoring nature of those contests warranted that many throws, but Ahlers proved up to the task by throwing a combined 10 touchdowns against Cincinnati and SMU, while breaking the program record for single game passing yards with 535 in a loss to the Bearcats.

Fast forward nine months and Ahlers largely struggled in limited reps during the Pirates’ first scrimmage that was dominated by the defense. It only took a week, however, for the veteran quarterback and his returning weapons in C.J. Johnson and Tyler Snead to show what they are fully capable of.

Reeling off 16 straight completions at one point on Friday, Ahlers completed 17-of-20 passes overall, logging three touchdowns through the air, including scores of 12 and 38 yards to Johnson.

“Holton was very, very good today,” Houston said on Friday. “I thought he did a good job under pressure, because it’s not that the defense didn’t get pressure, Holton just did a really good job of getting rid of the ball on time. Made very good decisions with the ball. He threw one interception late, but he knew it as soon as he let it out of his hand. The first probably five or six possessions, he was on it now. I’d say he was a drastic improvement.”

While the Pirates do not anticipate anyone battling for the starting quarterback position during the preseason, Mason Garcia was perhaps the prized prospect of this recruiting cycle for the Pirates as he garnered four star evaluations from some publications. In addition to him, ECU welcomed two additional freshman quarterbacks in Ryan Stubblefield and Taji Hudson.

Stubblefield is the smaller of the two, but possesses a huge arm that helped him produce gaudy numbers during his time at Foster High School in Texas. His ability to sling the football around the field has impressed the Pirates’ coaching staff and may be enough to move him slightly up the depth chart as a true freshman.

Hudson, on the other hand, lost his final prep season to an injury, and more closely mirrors Ahlers with his 6’3” frame and ability to run the football. On Friday, all six of ECU’s scholarship quarterbacks received anywhere from 25-40 snaps and collectively took a step forward as the incoming freshmen continue to display flashes of talent.

“I thought Mason showed improvement, he got a lot more work today,” Houston said. “Stubblefield got a good bit of work today. I’ll tell you, the one kid we hadn’t talked about a ton is Taji Hudson. He’s very, very raw, but a couple times under pressure, he pulls the ball down and takes off and he is a dynamic athlete. Really excited he’s a part of our program.”

As things stand right now, Houston has not committed to who will join Ahlers on the Week 1 two-deep at quarterback. He has stated previously that he would like to redshirt Garcia this season, and the Pirates have two other quarterbacks on scholarship in Bryan Gagg and Alex Flinn.

Gagg redshirted last season after experiencing minimal action and Flinn has not experienced game action as a Pirate. Because of that inexperience, Houston will likely give all three of his new quarterbacks a shot at filling out the two-deep and No. 3 roles.

With Ahlers’ job secure, finding his back-ups will be the battle to watch at that position this preseason, and it figures to be a good one.

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