This year’s preseason camp for ECU football was void of a battle for the top signal-caller job. Holton Ahlers, the D.H. Conley product and Greenville native, has a firm grasp […]
This year’s preseason camp for ECU football was void of a battle for the top signal-caller job. Holton Ahlers, the D.H. Conley product and Greenville native, has a firm grasp on the job after clearing 3,300 yards through the air in 2019 with 21 touchdowns.
A big jump from the numbers he posted as a part-time starter as a freshman, Ahlers is expected to make yet another jump in his junior campaign. His preparation thrown off slightly by COVID-19 restrictions that knocked ECU out of spring practice, Ahlers was back on the practice field early this summer repping with some of the other local players on the roster.
That extra work, and Ahlers’ overall progression as a college football player, manifested itself into a strong camp for the leader of the Pirates’ offense.
“Holton has had a tremendous camp,” offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Donnie Kirkpatrick told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game last week. “He’s continued to improve from last year on the things he was working on. His accuracy has even increased. I think right now in all the team 11-on-11 drills that we’ve done — whether it’s a thud drill or a total scrimmage drill — he’s been completing around 70-80% of his passes. That was a big thing last year to get that improved and we did, and now it’s really, really increased on a whole other level. I’ve been really, really pleased with his practice habits, he’s just a dream to coach because he’s a guy that loves football and he loves every day of it.”
Ahlers completed a career-best 60% of his passes in 2019, and really settled into a groove during the latter portion of the season. He broke a school-record with 535 passing yards against Cincinnati and tossed a combined 10 touchdowns against back-to-back nationally ranked opponents.
Four of Ahlers’ scoring passes went to former high school teammate turned go-to collegiate target C.J. Johnson. For a couple years at D.H. Conley, the duo of Ahlers and Johnson posted eye-popping offensive numbers, and continued that during C.J.’s freshman campaign in 2019.
Johnson paced the team with 908 receiving yards, including an American Athletic Conference single-game record 283 in the Pirates’ loss to Cincinnati last November.
With their proximity to Greenville, both Ahlers and Johnson were able to work out some on their own during an off-season unlike any other. That helped build timing and further understanding of Kirkpatrick’s offensive scheme, one that Ahlers seemed to mesh well with down the stretch last year. Now, it is about taking a solid preseason camp and applying it toward the 2020 campaign.
“I think C.J. has been great,” head coach Mike Houston said last week. “I think that our offensive skill kids in general have had a really solid preseason camp. I’m excited to see them play, everybody is. You don’t know until you get out there and play, but I think everybody knows the potential that we have on that side of the ball. Hopefully we can see that come together next week. I think if those guys are playing at their level of potential and gelling and playing together well, I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good on that side of the football.”
In addition to Johnson, Ahlers has Blake Proehl and Tyler Snead returning in the receiver ranks. That means all three of Ahlers’ top targets from a season ago are back, eliminating the need for quarterback and receiver to learn each other during preseason camp.
That allowed the Pirates to focus more on timing with routes and unlocking portions of the playbook that might have been off-limits in 2019. With Ahlers and his receivers on the same page during much of preseason camp, the passing game hummed along in the team’s final two scrimmages.
A combined 24-for-29 effort capped Ahlers’ preseason scrimmage work, a number that included 16 straight completions during the Pirates’ second scrimmage. Kirkpatrick said of those incomplete passes, at least one was dropped, one was a throwaway and another was a spike to stop the clock in a two-minute drill.
It is Ahlers’ comfort level with and understanding of the offense that is allowing him to post those kinds of numbers against the best defenses ECU can throw at him. With that extra piece of confidence that comes from good performance, Ahlers has stepped up, not only as the leader of the offense, but as one of the leaders for the team.
“I think his leadership has been really good too,” Kirkpatrick said. “Not only just the offense — which I think he did a great job of last year — he’s kind of becoming the total team leader right now. Really pleased with him.”
Ahlers and Johnson will begin their second year together in purple and gold on Saturday when No. 13 UCF visits Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for noon.
Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Donnie Kirkpatrick that first aired on 94.3 The Game last Monday below: