Holton Alhers
Junior quarterback Holton Alhers sheds off a defender and takes off against SMU.

The East Carolina University football team announced on Apirl 5 that team activities would resume after a brief pause due to the identification of a COVID-19 cluster in the program, and now the focus of the team returns to development and improvement for the 2021 season.

No individual position in football is more important than the quarterback, and ECU is no exception to this rule. If the Pirates want to return to relevance in college football, they need junior quarterback Holton Ahlers to take the next step in his development as a starter.

Ahlers took the reins as ECU’s starting quarterback in the 2018 season as a true freshman. He began the season on the bench behind former Pirate thrower Reid Herring and made his first appearance against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As a freshman, Ahlers saw action in 10 games and started five. He threw for 1,785 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first season, to go along with 592 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns. Those rushing numbers put him second all-time for the program in rushing yards by a quarterback, and his six ground scores led the team that year, according to his biography on ECUPirates.

The statistical output Ahlers managed in year one left a lot of ECU fans with hope for the future. The Pirates built on that success and hired current head coach Mike Houston, which translated to a 4-8 record in 2019 after the team finished 3-9 in three seasons under former head coach Scottie Montgomery.

Ahlers showed improvement in all statistical categories that year, as one would expect from a second-year player. He threw for nearly twice as many yards, as he finished the season with 3,387 through the air and threw 21 touchdowns. He finished with only 359 yards on the ground due to being a full-time starter, but he matched his freshman year total of six rushing scores.

However, the shortened nature of the COVID-19 affected 2020 season makes any realistic evaluation of Ahlers’ development difficult. Since lockdowns began in the United States in March 2020, around the same time spring workouts typically begin in college football, the offseason preparation process was different than what the players are used to.

Ahlers’ numbers went down in 2020, although that can be primarily attributed to a lower number of games on the schedule. He compiled 1,921 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air, while his ground numbers declined even further, as he totaled just 109 yards and one touchdown.

Despite a sharp decline in statistics, there is one metric that says it might not all be on Ahlers. His completion percentage has gone up in each season, from 48% as a freshman, to 60% as a sophomore and 61% as a junior.

Ahlers has a shot to make the most of the 2021 season. This will be his third year in Houston’s offense, which means he has had plenty of time to learn the nuances of the scheme. 2020 would have typically been a make-or-break year for Ahlers as a junior, but COVID-19 has pushed that critical season back.

The presence of a more normal offseason program also can’t be understated. All of the workouts, practices and scrimmages the football team participates in are essential to ensure the team is ready to go in the fall, and for college athletes in particular it is important to get used to the faster pace of college football compared to high school.

Houston has done his best in his three offseasons so far to surround Ahlers with talent and properly plan for each opponent. If Ahlers can put it all together and return to his sophomore year form, the improved team around him should carry the Pirates back to bowl season.

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