Holton Ahlers has ECU’s starting quarterback role locked up, and for good reason. Over 3,300 yards passing last season moved him into the national spotlight and gave fans a glimpse of how good the junior signal-caller can be in his second year under offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick.

While the quarterback battle last preseason was between Ahlers and Reid Herring for the starting job, this year’s competition is raging behind Holton for the back-up spot. In 2019, Bryan Gagg held that distinction after Herring entered the transfer early in the campaign. The true freshman tossed a touchdown pass against USF in his only game action and subsequently redshirted.

With little experience behind Ahlers entering this season, head coach Mike Houston has kept the back-up quarterback battle open throughout the preseason. In the last couple weeks, however, separation has begun to take place in the fight for that top back-up role.

“Right now, Mason Garcia and Alex Flinn are the two that are maybe a touch ahead of the others as far as working for that back-up role,” Houston said earlier this week. “(Ryan) Stubblefield has done some good things here in the last week or so as well. Taji (Hudson), out a little bit and just not coming back. Things are shaping up there, got to figure it out.”

Neither Flinn or Garcia have suited for the Pirates in live game action thus far in their careers. Flinn, a redshirt freshman, guided ECU’s scout team in 2019 as the third quarterback on the depth chart behind Ahlers and Gagg. Garcia is a highly-touted freshman who passed for over 2,100 yards during his senior season at Carolina Forest High School in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina en route to a Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas appearance.

In Friday’s final scrimmage of the preseason, Houston used many of the 73 offensive plays to prepare his back-up quarterbacks for the season. Ahlers was lifted after three possessions and a 7-for-9 effort passing, leaving 10 combined drives for Flinn and Garcia to command.

“Holton got a good bit of work at the beginning,” Houston said post-scrimmage. “Holton has had plenty of work, so we got him out of there. Alex Flinn and Mason Garcia, we really tried to get them a lot of work today. I thought both of them played well.”

Flinn has a slight edge in experience over Garcia given he already has a year in the program. In his time on the field on Friday, Flinn found Terrance Copper Jr. for a 41-yard pass completion and also hooked up with Audie Omotosho for a 29-yard pass. One of the drives engineered by Flinn resulted in a 12-yard touchdown run by Keaton Mitchell.

“I thought Alex probably handled — he had a lot of pressure now — I thought he handled it pretty good, played pretty composed,” Houston said. “I just saw him outside just a minute ago and I said ‘I know coach Kirkpatrick is going to just chew you out unmercifully on Sunday,’ but I thought he handled everything out there on the field well.”

The combination of Flinn and Garcia went 15-for-22 in the passing department for 190 yards. Garcia found a chuck of his yardage on a 31-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Johnson while completing a handful of passes that displayed why some recruiting outlets listed him as a four-star prospect coming out of high school.

“Mason made some throws that just you’re like ‘wow,’” Houston said. “His talent is special. Some of the throws he made, the way he stood in the pocket today, he’s getting there. Still young, but he’s getting there.”

Houston and his coaching staff have two weeks to lock-in on who their back-up quarterback will be before UCF visits town to kick-off the Pirates’ season. While Ahlers will see the vast majority of reps under center this season and for the foreseeable future, it is important the Pirates identify a capable back-up. Last year, ECU had to elevate an unprepared Gagg to that role, but this season, Houston feels his quarterback room is deeper and more talented than it was this time last year.

“It’s critical, it’s what we’re going to have to be to be competitive,” Houston said about having a capable back-up quarterback. “You’re always one play away at any position, and certainly the quarterback position is probably the most critical for that, because it’s the general of the offense. The good thing is, we’re in much better shape right now than we were last year. We have plenty of talent in the room, we just got to get that talent some experience.”

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