After the 24-18 loss to the Tulane University on Saturday, East Carolina University was officially eliminated from postseason contention, something head coach Scottie Montgomery promised the fans after last season ended.
Now the Pirates will surely fall short of that goal this season, sitting at 2-7 with three games left and needing at least six wins to make a bowl game. Montgomery could not publicly say if ECU’s leadership has given him an indication about his job status one way or another after this season.
“Do I have conversations with people? I have conversations with people,” Montgomery said during his weekly Monday press conference. “Most of my time, 99 percent of it, is making sure we put the best players on the football field, keep our kids healthy and give our offense, defense and special teams the best chance to win."
Montgomery has had back-to-back 3-9 seasons in his first two years at ECU. The Pirates are on track for a similar finish this year has all made Montgomery’s job status public scrutiny. His future remains unclear with no director of athletics yet at ECU.
ECU has been operating without an Athletic Director since Jeff Compher’s tenure officially ended on May 1. Former ECU AD Dave Hart has been serving as a special advisor to Chancellor Cecil Staton and headed the search which hired Joe Dooley as men’s basketball coach. Hart and Staton are among the 13-person search committee actively trying to find a new AD by the end of the football season.
Without the motivation of trying to reach postseason play this season, Montgomery said he isn’t worried about keeping the players motivated, saying the locker room is different than in his first two seasons at the helm. He said the biggest focus for the Pirates moving forward will be the development of players and keeping them healthy.
“The one thing I have to do is I have to make sure that I'm making the biggest investment for our football team and our players throughout the time here. Just time spent with each of these guys,” Montgomery said. “The locker room is completely different. It would have been motivating these guys. But we practiced on Sunday, the day after a huge game for us where we didn't come out victorious, and we practiced extremely well.”
One of those key players for ECU’s future is freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers, who started his third straight game Saturday and threw for 350 yards, totaling more than 1,200 yards in his three starts. Ahlers went just 21-for-67 on pass attempts however. Montgomery said Ahlers still took a step forward and that many of those incompletions were a result of good decision-making by Ahlers to throw the ball away instead of being sacked or throwing while hit.
Ahlers has progressed quickly this season. After starting the season as a run-only special situation quarterback who rarely passed the ball and didn’t have much success when he did, Ahlers is now thriving passing the ball.
Despite that, Montgomery said looking back he would not have started Ahlers at the beginning of the season even if he knew Ahlers would progress this quickly. ECU went 2-4 in the six games Reid Herring started at quarterback, but the offense has played well against tougher opponents under Ahlers. Montgomery said Ahlers would not understand line protections against defenses early on and would have taken too many hits.
“If you look around our state, there have been a couple of guys that have started quarterbacks early and they've taken some hits that you would like to have back,” Montgomery said. “I just can't put a guy out there that really wasn't ready to protect himself in that situation.”
Ahlers has three straight games of 350 or more passing yards and plays better each passing week, but is 0-3 as a starter against stiff competition. Montgomery said he has not been surprised at all at the growth Ahlers has shown at quarterback since taking over as the starter.
“Talent-wise, he has it all. If there was a situation where we could have him download the whole playbook and know everything in that playbook as soon as he went out there, talent-wise I've been saying I think this kid is special,” Montgomery said. “There's a lot of things that we did to bring a little bit of the playbook to him which has made it a little bit easier for him. We're really excited about where he's going and the direction.”
Without a bowl game being a possibility anymore, Ahlers and ECU get to play for their seniors this Saturday against the University of Connecticut at 7 p.m. in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. ECU opened as an 18-point favorite over the Huskies.