As college football teams are managing uncertainty about their schedules and other logistics, one thing East Carolina has comfort in is a veteran starting quarterback returning in junior Holton Ahlers.
The Greenville native, who already has 15 career starts, thrived late in 2019 for ECU to finish with a 4-8 record and rank No. 22 in the nation in passing offense at 288.8 yards per game.
Ahlers is a valuable asset for the Pirates during uncertain times. As the team is preparing to hold its first preseason practice Friday, here are three questions about the ECU offense:
1. Who is the No. 2 quarterback?
Ahlers, a left-hander standing 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds with 12 career rushing touchdowns, is the clear starter. Who is eventually listed as the No. 2 QB for the potential opening game against Marshall will be a preseason camp storyline.
Bryan Gagg is in a solid position after his spring practice experience from 2019 and serving as a backup last season and playing in one game, completing his only pass for a 5-yard touchdown, during his redshirt year. Many eyes will also be on Mason Garcia.
Garcia signed with the Pirates in December as one of the highest-rated recruits in school history. At 6-4 and 218 pounds with powerful running ability, he is built similarly to Ahlers and plays with a similar style as a right-handed thrower. How quickly the Myrtle Beach, S.C, native grasps ECU’s offensive details and meshes with teammates could be a difference-maker.
Behind Ahlers and junior scout-teamer Caiden Norman, all of the other six quarterbacks on ECU’s roster are freshmen.
2. Where is Ryan Jones?
Among the slew of transfers added by the Pirates and coach Mike Houston this offseason, former Oklahoma linebacker Ryan Jones remains as the only expected newcomer who publicly committed to ECU but is not on the official Pirate roster.
Despite starting three games at linebacker as a redshirt freshman for the Sooners’ defense in 2018, he also is slated to line up on offense in some type of tight end role at ECU. He was ranked by ESPN as the No. 2 recruit in the state after playing receiver and safety at Mallard Creek High School.
The best position group for the Pirates is probably wide receiver, led by potential budding star C.J. Johnson and also Tyler Snead and Blake Proehl, but the tight end room is improving and important to Houston and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick. It could be even more explosive with Jones. True TE Zech Byrd (6-7, 265) caught 11 passes a year ago, three of which were touchdowns.
3. How do the linemen handle practices?
Both of the starting tackles from East Carolina’s last game — D’Ante Smith and Noah Henderson — are back and looking to retain their first-team status. The interior spots are more cloudy, especially with the removal of veteran left guard Cortez Herrin from an offseason arrest.
Graduate student Fernando Frye and Peyton Winstead (sophomore) have versatility. Senior Sean Bailey has great size (6-6, 339) and some starting experience.
Atlantic Coast Conference transfers Justin Chase (N.C. State) and Avery Jones (North Carolina) are players to watch as potential starters at guard. Neither has seen much game action since being highly recruited out of high school.
In eastern North Carolina summer heat, especially, some linemen could rise and fall in the preseason pecking order based on their athleticism, stamina and how their bodies held up without spring football while working out remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.