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East Carolina’s quarterback position has been a revolving door since the graduation of Shane Carden following the 2014 season.
Between the 2015 campaign with Ruffin McNeill, and the last two-plus seasons under Scottie Montgomery, the Pirates have had six different starting quarterbacks, and that number could swell to seven on Saturday when the Pirates take on Houston at 7 p.m. inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Following a putrid offensive showing that included 196 yards of offense and zero touchdowns in a 49-6 loss to Temple on Saturday, Oct. 6, Montgomery elected to open up the competition in the quarterback room once again. Quarterback Reid Herring has started the first five games behind center, completing 54 percent of his passes for 1,273 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions. Outside of the North Carolina game, Herring hasn’t had a great performance, and he’s been very shaky in both conference games as the offense has combined for only 19 points in losses to South Florida and Temple.
Redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi and true freshman Holton Ahlers split reps evenly with Herring during practice on Tuesday and Wednesday. Ifedi and Ahlers are known as better runners, but have combined to complete just 4-of-15 passes for 20 yards off the bench in game action this season. To help their comfortability, Montgomery said the Pirates are opening up the offense to feature more of their strengths, and not just play toward Herring’s.
“It was a big-time competition,” Montgomery said of the quarterbacks at practice on Tuesday. “It was a lot different because you could see Kingsley and Holton were as comfortable in what we were doing as Reid was, so that’s a huge deal. We kind of moved it a little bit more towards the middle of what they can do. I thought they did a really good job. I thought Reid did a good job as well. But seeing some of the stuff the young guys did was encouraging.”
Montgomery confirmed Wednesday the quarterbacks split reps once again and that’s likely to continue throughout the week. The Pirates likely won’t name a starter until game day.
“I definitely welcome the competition“ Herring said Tuesday. “We’re out here competing every day. We had a really good day of practice, all the guys rotated in. We came out, we competed and we had a fun practice, and we made a lot of plays.”
While an in-season competition to determine a starter might not seem ideal, offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said his room is doing its best to embrace the challenge, and not shy away from it.
“I’m kind of looking forward to it and I told them today we’re going to go out there and practice, and this is like an NFL training camp,” Petersen said. “You guys are trying to make the team every day. I kind of like it. I told Reid today, the most important snaps I’m going to look at you today is what you do with the 2s. How do you function out there with the guys you’re not used to going with? That’s how we’re going to approach it. One play at a time. And I told the guys I’m going to grade them on every play.”
Despite being listed as the backup to Herring all season, Ifedi is the only quarterback who hasn’t gotten a true opportunity to take the job and run with it this season. Ahlers got four series in a row late in the game versus Old Dominion before Herring came back off the bench to win the game late.
“(Practice) was really different,” Ifedi said. “We split it down three ways, we all had the same opportunity to go out there and execute and that’s exactly what we all did today.
“Coach Mo and Coach Petersen have put me in a great position this week to go out there and show my abilities.”
Ahlers, who is unavailable to the media due to the team’s true freshman interview policy, leads the team in rushing touchdowns with four and ranks second on the team in rushing yards with 203. He’s 2-for-10 as a passer this season.
“He and Kingsley are coming along and getting better every day in the passing game,” Petersen said. “A lot of it is protection-based and that’s the hardest part for the young guys to figure out. But we’ve tightened things down a bit so they can go in there and function, and Reid can still go in if-needed and operate at a high level.”
DEFENSE EXPERIENCES STRUGGLE
David Blackwell has never given up 49 points in a football game as a defensive coordinator, but that changed this past weekend in Philadelphia.
Temple jumped out to a 28-0 lead, converted 10 of 17 third downs and rolled up 470 yards of offense in the 49-6 victory. Blackwell said the defense, which still ranks 29th nationally in yards allowed per game (340), has bounced back with a vengeance this week in practice, along with himself.
“Absolutely, they better be mad, because I’m mad as hell,” Blackwell said. “They better have seen it all week, because that’s not the expectation. Ten out of 17 on third down? The amount of yards and points we gave up? Not the expectation. Period. I don’t care who we are playing. I don’t care if you roll out the New England Patriots, we don’t expect to give up those points and yards.
“It’s a different era of college football, I get that. But our standards our are standards and I’m not lowering mine. I know our fans aren’t lowering theirs. Coach Mo’s not lowering his. That was unacceptable last week. It starts with me and trickles down from there. It’s on us to get it done.”
Junior defensive tackle Alex Turner echoed his coach’s sentiments, saying the Pirates need to do a better job of getting off the field in crucial situations. The Pirates rank 33rd nationally in third-down conversion percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert only 33 percent of their opportunities.
“The biggest thing that stood out was we didn’t get off on third downs,” Turner said. “They completed way too many third downs and that’s just something we hadn’t been doing the past couple of weeks, and something we need to do in this game.”
HOUSTON SCOUTING REPORT
If ECU’s defense wants to enjoy a bounce-back performance this Saturday, the Pirates will need to piece together a remarkable performance.
Houston comes to town with one of the most electrifying offenses in America, scoring at a clip of 50 points per game and tallying 582.2 yards per contest. The lone FBS team that’s ranked ahead of the Cougars in total offense is Texas Tech, which is the only team to beat UH this season with a 63-49 victory in Lubbock in Week 3.
Junior quarterback D’Eriq King is one of the best players in the nation. The dual-threat signal-caller has thrown 18 touchdown passes to just three picks, while adding 224 yards and seven touchdowns rushing.
“That’s an electrifying player that they have,” said linebacker Bruce Bivens, a native of Houston. “He’s pretty fast, real elusive and he can sling it. We’ve just got to play our A-game playing against them.”
Despite some struggles on the other side of the ball, Houston’s defense is home to projected top-five NFL draft pick Ed Oliver. The 6-foot-3, 292-pound defensive tackle is disruptive as they come on the interior. Oliver has yet to record a sack this season, but he’s third on the team with 40 tackles and he leads the defense with 6.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.
Houston’s defense is allowing 30 points and 488 yards of offense per game, but teams still have to game plan around Oliver.
“I think the ultimate respect for a player like Ed is knowing that offenses are spending multiple hours in trying to find different ways to slow him down in the run game and in the pass game,” Montgomery said. “It’s not as simple as putting two on him or three on him and getting that, it’s about the strategic details of the game plan as it moves from first quarter to second quarter to third quarter and fourth quarter, and being able to adjust or adapt before Houston gets the chance to adapt or move him to a different spot.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.