Holton Ahlers delved deep into the playbook during the bye week then practiced Tuesday in preparation for Memphis. East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery likes what he has seen.
“We had a good day at quarterback,” he said of the true freshman Q.B. making his second start. “This was his best practice of the year.”
Then Ahlers, the hometown kid from D.H. Conley who is suddenly the face of the program, pulled off his shoulder pads to a sleeveless T-shirt.
“I got all the No. 1 reps,” he said of working with the starting unit. “It’s good to get a lot more reps in practice. I’ve got more days in the playbook and more days of running with the number ones. I try to make every day my best practice of the year. I just have to keep working in the playbook.”
He met the media after practice in a role that is now part of his routine since his first career start with 406 yards passing and 69 rushing in a loss to Central Florida two weeks ago. He doesn’t appear overwhelmed as ECU (2-5, 0-4 AAC East) meets Memphis (4-4, 1-3 AAC West) at noon Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I’m excited playing in front of our fans; our fans are great,” he said. “That’s one of the reason I’m here -- to play in front of our fans. Any chance you get to play in front of our fans at Dowdy-Ficklin is a special atmosphere.”
The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder answered a question about whether the bye week helped him more mentally or physically.
“Both,” he said. “Mentally, I’m in there getting reps and watching film. Physically, I had a lot of carries and it helped my body recover.”
Ahlers ran 27 times against UCF. Montgomery said the number of carries is a concern, but he clarified all the runs weren’t all designed.
“There were some we’d like him to read differently with handoffs and passes,” he said. “We’ll continue to clean that up and the number will decrease. But if that’s what it takes to win, he’ll run. I can’t control the lanes that open up that allow him to scramble 10, 15 yards.”
Meanwhile, the Pirates’ defense has improved from last in the nation a year ago at 497.2 yards a game to 46th in the nation this year at 362.0. The Pirates are sixth in the nation in three-and-outs per game with 5.71.
Memphis coach Mike Norvell said the coaching job under first-year defensive coordinator David Blackwell is among the best in the nation.
“It’s incredible to see the transformation and what they’ve done,” Norvell said in a conference call. “I think it’s one of the best coaching jobs you’ll see in the country. The way they’re competing and utilizing personnel and the way they’re attacking is impressive to see.
Senior defensive end Nate Harvey continues to lead the nation in tackles for a loss at 2.6 per game (18.5 total) and is third in sacks at 1.21 per game (8.5 total).
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Reid Herring from Millbrook High, the starter for the first six games, returned to practice Wednesday from concussion protocol. He was injured in an Oct. 18 automobile accident that kept him out of his backup role in the UCF game.
On the offensive line, left tackle Brandon Pena is listed as out for his fourth straight game. Center John Spellacy isn’t expected to be cleared from concussion protocol after missing the UCF game.
Wide receiver Tahj Deans, fourth on the team with 18 catches and one touchdown, practiced, but he will have to be evaluated later in the week.