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Pirates working wildcat, younger players

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East Carolina freshman Jsi Hatfield runs to the outside against Temple on Oct. 3 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Holton Ahlers is watching some as backups Bryan Gagg and Zach Gwynn, and maybe even Jsi Hatfield, take snaps at quarterback for this East Carolina football team this week.

ECU is using its first bye week, which comes with the Pirates holding a 3-3 record with six games remaining in the regular season, to test players in a variety of ways during different days. This afternoon is when Ahlers — the Pirates’ sophomore starting quarterback — and other starters will watch younger and seldom-used Pirates during game action take center stage on the practice field.

“We’ll have a little bit of a controlled scrimmage with some of those guys,” ECU coach Mike Houston said. “That is usually a highlight for the upperclassmen. They get to kind of be fans and cheer those guys on.”

Hatfield, a speedy rookie and former Southern Alamance High School dual-threat quarterback, was used as a wildcat QB during the fourth quarter of the Pirates’ last game. He carried the ball twice for 6 yards.

He also caught a 37-yard pass from Ahlers to finish second on the Pirates in receiving yards in a 27-17 loss to Temple. C.J. Johnson, also a freshman who starred at D.H. Conley, led the team with eight catches for 100 yards and his first two touchdowns of the season.

Houston said the implementation of the wildcat was part of the offensive staff purposely getting the ball to players in certain situations. Hatfield also was used for an intended receiver reverse pass against Navy on Sept. 14.

“I think most people can notice the past several games that there are several players we have tried to make sure that we got them more touches than maybe they had the first few games,” Houston said. “That (wildcat) is a package we can continue to expand on.”

Johnson’s targets have increased in recent weeks, and he has moved to second on the Pirates in receptions (19) and yards (208), behind Blake Proehl in both categories.

Gagg took over the No. 2 quarterback spot when Reid Herring announced his transfer on Sept. 24. Gagg, a freshman who participated in spring practice behind Ahlers and Herring, has not played in a game.

“When you were the third guy you maybe didn’t get as much attention from the coaching staff, but he is getting coached pretty hard by coordinator (Donnie) Kirkpatrick this week,” Houston said. “It’s because we have to get him ready. He is getting coached and prepared to go in there and play, so we are not treating him any different from Holton or anybody else as far as the demands and the expectations on him. We are throwing a lot at him this week.”

Houston added that a lot of his team’s offensive personnel is still young and developing from week to week. The starting lineup against Temple featured senior receiver Deondre Farrier, but also Johnson and sophomores Proehl, Ahlers and running back Trace Christian. True freshman Demetrius Mauney surpassed Christian in carries during the game to lead ECU in rushing.

Left tackle D’Ante Smith and left guard Cortez Herrin will be seniors in 2020.

“We are not just developing (the roster) for this year, but developing for years to come,” Houston said. “It’s not just on the offensive line, but we’ll have the bulk of our offense back next year. ... The thing that I really challenge some of those players who have multiple years left is that you’re working to get better not just for today, but you are working to get better for next year and the year after. But certainly we have a lot of ball left to play for this year, and I am excited about that.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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