Will Holton Ahlers and ECU's offense explode this year?
Maybe it's the curse of Ruffin McNeil. Since ECU let the former head coach go, they've finished 13-35 in the past four. Luckily for them, their newest leader hs them believing things will be different going forward. Head coach Mike Houston and his star quarterback, Holton Ahlers, are back to lead this team to a bowl game. Since joining the AAC, this team hasn't been a factor, but that could change quickly.
It all starts with Ahlers. In a conference that features a number of explosive offenses, possessing an elite offensive attack proves extremely valuable. Ahlers and the passing attack showed why they're a dangerous group last year, especially in the second half of the season. Something clearly clicked for Ahlers after the sixth game. It might have something to do with him understanding the playbook better, but whatever it was had a great positive effect. He averaged 190.3 yards passing per game in the first six, and then took off averaging 374.2 to finish the season. That drastic improvement leads to excitement for the fan base. What makes that exciting? His best games came against elite competition.
His two best games last season came against Cincinnati (535 yards passing) and SMU (498), who combined to go 21-6 last year. Granted, ECU lost both of those games, but it wasn't because they offense couldn't get the ball moving. In fact, Cincinnati needed to kick a field goal as time expired to win 46-43 over the Pirates, and SMU needed two late touchdowns to pull away from ECU in their 59-51 win. Avoiding a slow start will be the biggest concern for Ahlers and the offense, but the chemistry he has with his receivers along with a potentially improved rushing attack should help avoid that.
Ahlers' top three receivers return this year, and all are capable of going off at any moment. CJ Johnson, Tyler Snead, and Blake Proehl return a combined 174 catches for 2,337 yards and 13 touchdowns. In that same Cincinnati game, Johnson caught 12 passes for 283 yards. The following week, Snead went off with 19 catches (!!) for 240 yards and three scores. Proehl is the son of Super Bowl champion Ricky Proehl, and is one yard shy of 1,000 yards for his career. All three caught at least 54 passes last year, indicating that they have chemistry with their quarterback. Give them a full offseason to dive into the playbook and work on their timing, and this group has the potential to be one of the best in all of college football.
The scary part about ECU is that they finished 22nd in passing yards per game and didn't have a single receiver with more than 1,000 yards. So a group that's already proven to be dangerous can get even better. Throw in an improved rushing attack and the Pirates won't be a team that others want to see on the schedule.
While ECU finished with its highest rushing total since 2014, they ranked 93rd in yards per game. Given the talent they have in the backfield, that must improve to aid the passing game. There were only two games in which a Pirates rushed eclipsed 100 yards and seven in which the leader had under 60. Chase Hayden, Darrius Pinnix, and Demetrius Mauney all return, and freshman Rahjai Harris will push for starting time. Given that Mauney led the team in rushing with 446 yards, the starting job is essentially wide open.
Will ECU's offense be explosive in 2020? The answer to that is a strong yes. A slow start last year had more to do with the team still learning a new system and growing chemistry and trust with the new coaching staff. Houston's had an entire season and offseason to get to know his players and get them familiar with the schemes they're running. Slow starts are inevitable for any team, but it will take the Pirates less time to get going in 2020 than it did last season. The same can be said for Ahlers.
Throwing a quarterback into a new system always comes with growing pains. Ahlers had to learn his second playbook in as many years, and we saw what happened when he was finally comfortable with it. The games against Cincinnati and UCF are key because of the talent he faced. Both the Bearcats and Knight boast some of the best defensive backs in the country, and ECU tore them apart. The last six games are more of indication of what to expect from the Pirates offensively, and the results should be a little different.
Ahlers and the offense put other teams on alert for 2020, and for good reason. Seemingly the only saving grace for opponents early on last year was that ECU was still getting to know each other and learn the playbooks. Now they're prepared, healthy, and as loaded as ever. For those who remember the Shane Carden days, this team has the potential to recreate that magic and explosion. ECU might not be a contender for a conference title yet, but Ahlers and the offense are at the top of their game and ready to shock the AAC.