Discussing a quarterback from the American Athletic Conference is not something that happens often. There is always an exception if a team has a remarkable season that catapults them into the national conversation. What makes this next prospect even more unique is that his team, East Carolina Pirates, did not even have a good season in 2019, finishing 4-8. However, their quarterback Holton Ahlers does make for an interesting case study and is someone who could see his draft stock rise in 2021.
Before we dive into the traits that Ahlers possesses, it is worth noting that he will be entering his junior year in 2020, and there is no guarantee he enters the NFL Draft in 2021. Despite it being possible that we do not see Ahlers heading for the draft until 2022, this up-and-coming gunslinger is a player worth keeping an eye on this upcoming season.
East Carolina’s draft history
The Pirates do not have a strong history of players selected in the NFL Draft. Since 2011, the school has only seen three players selected, Dwayne Harris (No. 176 in 2011), Justin Hardy (No. 107 in 2015), and Zay Jones (No. 37 in 2017).
The last quarterback drafted out of East Carolina was David Garrard, who was chosen with the 108th overall selection in 2002 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In total, only three East Carolina quarterbacks have heard their name called during the draft, Garrard, Jeff Blake (No. 166 by the Jets in 1992), and Carl Summerall (No. 80 by the Giants in 1974).
Ahlers will be looking to make that number up to four, but he needs strong performances in the next year, or two, to make that a reality.
Ahlers’ football career so far
Ahlers brought a strong arm and some high school history with him to East Carolina. He finished his high school career as the third-highest all-time leading passer in the history of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (11,198 yards) as well as ranking second all-time in total offense (14,784 yards). Additionally, he finished third in both total touchdowns (201) and passing touchdowns (145). He was a three-star prospect out of high school and chose East Carolina over several schools, including West Virginia, North Carolina State, and Minnesota.
In his freshman year, he played in 10 games, starting five. Ahlers finished with 1,785 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions. He demonstrated his effectiveness running the football in his freshman year, with over 500 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. In his sophomore season, he became the full-time starter and threw for 3,387 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. While he was not as effective in terms of rushing yards (359) in 2019, he once again added six touchdowns on the ground.
What are Ahlers’ best traits?
Size: Ahlers is listed at 6’3″ and 235 pounds and carries his weight well.
Athletic Ability: Ahlers is very athletic and gets the tag of being a dual-threat quarterback. He displayed excellent rushing ability in high school, and East Carolina is fully utilizing that strength in their offense with plenty of run-pass options. When he is asked to carry the ball, he is still using his feet well and running the ball effectively.
Arm Strength: Ahlers does a fine job looking to push the ball downfield. He also does a good job of quickly getting the football to his receivers on the various levels of the field, and he is not afraid to take chances.
Accuracy: Ahlers is a reasonably accurate passer. While minor adjustments to the ball are often unavoidable, there is no real concern over his receivers routinely having to make significant adjustments to get the ball.
Decision Making: For the most part, Ahlers makes good decisions. He’s not perfect by any means, however. There were a couple of interceptions thrown in 2019 that could have really hurt the team. A stand out example came while he was scrambling in the game against North Carolina State, where he threw an ill-advised pass on the run to a receiver that had a defender draped on him. It resulted in a turnover for the Pirates, and ball security is undoubtedly an area he can look to improve in 2020.
Competition: East Carolina stumbled to a 4-8 finish in 2019, but they did face a solid group of teams. The American Athletic Conference had several teams that were ranked at one point or another during the season, including Memphis, who played in the Cotton Bowl against Penn State. While Memphis was not a part of East Carolina’s schedule last year, they did come up against Cincinnati, Navy, and SMU, as well as a non-conference road trip to North Carolina State.
Ahlers’ draft stock and overall outlook
Ahlers has plenty of room to grow as a prospect, but he has that all-important upside as a dual-threat quarterback. He needs more consistency pushing the ball downfield and in his decision-making if he is to garner attention on the first two days of either the 2021 or 2022 Draft. Ahlers is certainly an intriguing name to keep an eye on, and with the potential of two more years developing in college, Ahlers’ draft stock could skyrocket. He deserves the tag of a sleeper NFL prospect right now.