Veteran Pirate squad looks for big things in Ahlers finale

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, August 17, 2022

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It seems like a long time ago when Holton Ahlers decided to stay home to play college football at East Carolina University.

Five years later, he’s accomplished almost everything he said he wanted to do-except actually playing in a bowl game.

Ahlers charged himself with bringing the fans back to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to re-create the raucous atmosphere he remembered when he attended games in his youth. He also wanted to be part of a consistent winner and lead the Pirates to a bowl game.

Fast-forward to the fall of his redshirt senior year and most of the boxes are checked.

ECU officials say they are close selling a record number of season tickets with a sell-out expected for next month’s opener against North Carolina State.

The Pirates posted their first winning season since 2014 with a 7-5 record that included four straight wins to end the year.

Morale was very high as they headed to Annapolis for their first bowl trip since that season, only to have the air let out of their sails when Boston College pulled out because of COVID-19 issues within their team.

Technically, ECU has been to a bowl game, but the final step for Ahlers is to actually play the game.

“This is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here, so our expectations are high,” Ahlers said during the American Athletic Conference media day recently. “I knew there would be pressure on me to perform when I committed, so it’s really good to have so many guys around me who can help us get to where we want to go.”

Since Mike Houston arrived after the 2018 season ended, he’s emphasized running the football to be successful.

Last year Keaton Mitchell (1,165 yards) and Rahjai Davis (612) formed a potent one-two punch that gave the Pirates their best running game in years.

Consequently, Ahlers had his best passing year and the offensive balance paid off with a winning record.

“We’re returning two of the top running backs in our conference — really in the country, I’d take those guys over anyone — the running game is a quarterback’s best friend,” Ahlers said. Any time you can hand the ball off and let those guys go to work, we’re going to. They’re the workhorse of our offense.”

The ECU defense is also the most experienced of the Houston-era squads. Coordinator Blake Harrell is in his third year and senior linebacker Myles Berry is one of many experienced returnees.

“We have a lot of confidence in his (Harrell’s) gameplans and we’re experienced enough to know where everybody is supposed to be on every play. Iron sharpens iron and we are getting better every day.”

Only four players on the 2022 rosters played for Houston’s predecessor, Scottie Montgomery. He’s spent the last three seasons recruiting his type of player and likes the way the roster shapes up.

““With the experience, we have back — this was the first time we’ve had experience like this — I expect us to look like a really good football team day one,” Houston said during the AAC media day. “There’s no excuses not to. We have commitment, stability, talent and experience. Our offensive and defensive fronts have good size, depth and athleticism. We can legitimately go two-deep on both lines for the first time. I really like our roster going into the season.”

The opener against the Wolfpack has been on Pirates fans minds since the schedule was announced.

Quarterback Devin Leary is the ACC pre-season Player of the Year and is expected to lead N.C. State to a successful season.

“We’re really excited we have it here at home. We expect a full stadium, so 51,000 Pirates here to greet them,” Houston said. “We’re just really excited about the matchup.”