There’s a saying around the East Carolina University campus: “Nobody loves Greenville more than Holton Ahlers.”
Well ok, it’s not a saying exactly – more like a sentiment. A romanticism really, but we believe it to be true.
When the fifth-year quarterback made a definitive decision to come back to ECU for one more year, it wasn’t about raising his draft stock or being nominated for a bunch of pre-season awards (which he was). It was about his team and leaving Greenville better than he found it.
“I came here with a mission to get this place back to where it’s supposed to be, where I grew up seeing it and I couldn’t give up that for anything in the world,” Ahlers explained to Underdog Dynasty. “I mean this is every kid’s dream that’s from Greenville, to be the quarterback here. So for me to live that these last five years has been a blessing. I couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else.”
Ahlers led the Pirates to a 7-5 record last year, their first winning season since 2014, with big wins at Marshall and Memphis. He finished the season 256 of 414 for 3,126 yards and 18 passing touchdowns. He also rushed for 202 yards and six more scores. Plus, he caught a pair of passes for 27 yards including his first ever receiving touchdown in Huntington.
This year, Ahlers is on pace to break several school and AAC records.
“He’s extremely experienced,” said head coach Mike Houston. “I think he’s like 500 yards off of becoming the all-time leading passer in American Athletic Conference history. Barring injury he’s probably going to be the all-time leading passer in conference history before he leaves here and he’s a couple thousand yards from being the all-time passer in East Carolina history.”
But the signal caller isn’t worried about padding his stats. He has a more communal goal in mind. There is no “I” in team, but there is one in “champion.”
“I think our goals this year are set on winning the conference, being one of the top dogs in the conference and I definitely think we are capable of that with the guys that we have returning,” admitted Ahlers. “I wouldn’t have returned if I didn’t believe in this team and this place.”
There is a lot to believe in – the offensive line has a career 63 FBS starts, running back Keaton Mitchell led the league last year in total rushing yards (1,132) and all-purpose yards per game (115.83), plus a bigger and stronger defensive line that will make opposing quarterbacks quiver.
But there will always be non-believers. Being the leader of the pack, Ahlers takes the most heat, receiving criticism for his passing efficiency and completion percentage (61.8), his consistency (he averaged 7.6 yards per attempt last year) or even the fact that he’s been in the program so long.
“I know there will be people who say ‘yeah well he had five years’ but he only played half of his freshman year and he did not play a full slate during the COVID year so he’s going to set those school records in the same number of games as a four-year starter.”
None of that matters though because the 6’3”, 230-pound, “thiccest” quarterback in the AAC belongs to the technique.
“For me it’s always just about tightening up technique, getting better at footwork, stuff like that,” shared Ahlers. “Getting better in the film room and on the board. But personally, I just try to be a good teammate, try to be available to the guys. I’m a Christian so I try to lead those guys to live a better life. Just knowing that this is my last go-around...just little things like that make you think about how you treat people.”
Ahlers started the brand Built When Broken after the loss of his best friend in high school. He hopes to “remind people of where they come from, but also where they are going.”
At the end of the day, Ahlers is a man of the people – the people of Greenville.
“Our fans are super loyal – they compare with the SEC’s of the world. When you come to Greenville, there’s ECU and ECU sports and that’s kind of it. So, the people here – they live for it. That’s what makes this environment so special; people wait year-round for Saturdays in the fall.”
In six home games in 2021, the Pirates average attendance was 36,059 which ranked Top-60 in the country, trailing only UCF (40,427) and Cincinnati (37,338) in the AAC. That home attendance average was higher than 12 schools that play in Power Five conferences and higher than 16 schools in Power 5 conferences based off percentage of stadium capacity.
Dowdy gets rowdy, making it hard for AAC teams to win on the road against ECU. But if Ahlers couldn’t play on Bagwell Field, what American environment would he choose to be in?
“I’d have to say UCF, they always have a really good environment and honestly that’s probably my favorite place to play for away games too just because I love the big crowds and I love the fans yelling at you before games and all that” said Ahlers.
The Pirates host the Knights this season right before they head to BYU. ECU’s home slate is electric, with four straight home games to start, and Memphis, UCF and Houston all coming in. Houston walked us through the schedule earlier this summer.
So, does anybody really love Greenville more than Holton Ahlers?
“I don’t know, that would be doubtful,” chuckled Houston.