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It was a wire-to-wire ECU lead in the recruitment of star quarterback Holton Ahlers, but things still got a little tense in the end for all parties involved.
On the eve of the opening of the early signing period, the D.H. Conley High senior received multiple calls from SEC programs, including an offer from Florida head coach Dan Mullen, and a call from Alabama head coach Nick Saban expressing interest. Having already turned down offers from the likes of Georgia, Minnesota, N.C. State, Indiana and others, Ahlers stuck with his hometown program, and told both powerhouse schools his recruitment was finished, and he was set on becoming Pirate.
Ahlers officially inked his National Letter of Intent on Wednesday morning, sending in his paperwork at 7 a.m. on the dot, just as the early signing period opened. Just as he was the first player to commit in the 2018 class verbally this past January, Ahlers was also the first to sign officially.
“It’s fitting that he was the first guy in,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said after officially inking 19 players to the 2018 class. “That just speaks to the type of Pirate he is.”
Ahlers said sending the letter was a huge weight off his shoulders after a lengthy recruiting process that only became more stressful after his commitment.
“It was hectic,” Ahlers said. “There were a lot of colleges involved, especially the SEC. I was hearing from colleges really all night. It was a lot and it kind of kept me up all night. But I knew I wanted to be a Pirate and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.”
Ahlers had experienced some contact with Mullen dating back to his time as Mississippi State’s head coach earlier this year. But the Gators turned up their intensity on the eve of signing day, extending the offer to Ahlers, who grew up a huge fan of and models his game after Tim Tebow.
“I was excited about the offer, but I grew up here and I want to be a Pirate,” Ahlers said. “I’ve told people that since the day I was committed I wouldn’t change my commitment and I kept my word to that.”
The phone call with Saban, a legendary coach, was also a neat moment for Ahlers in the final stages of his buildup to finally signing with the Pirates.
“He didn’t offer me but he said he’d talk to me Wednesday, and I kind of hinted to him that I was going to be done at 7 o’clock in the morning and go to where I wanted to be,” Ahlers said. “It was cool and kind of weird to hear his voice after seeing him on TV all the time, but I’m glad to be a Pirate and that’s all I really care about.”
Ahlers finished his career at Conley with some of the most prolific numbers in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history. The 6-foot-3, 228-pounder amassed 201 total touchdowns (145 passing, 56 rushing) and 14,784 yards of offense as a four-year starter. He also won MVP of the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas this past weekend to close out his prep career.
Pirates ink 19
Ahlers was just one of many to sign with the Pirates on Wednesday, as ECU landed all 19 of its verbal commitments in the opening hours of the early signing period.
Thirteen prospects alone were from the state of North Carolina, while ECU also pulled two from Virginia and one apiece from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Ohio. Montgomery credited Ahlers and early in-state offensive line commits from Raleigh — Peyton Winstead (Leesville Road) and Donovan Noel (Millbrook) — for leading the charge with this year’s cycle of players.
“We’ve started to become a little bit more strategic in the state in the way that we offer and how we offer,” Montgomery said, “and how we go about our business just because of how many great players we have here and how hard you have to work to get them actually signed. The class was led by Holton Ahlers, Peyton Winstead and Donvoan Noel from the get-go of keeping our commitments together and our recruits together. They did a great job from the beginning.”
Other notable in-state signees include Havelock standout Khalil Barrett, who committed Monday; Jacksonville Northside athlete Jireh Wilson and Southwest Guilford defensive backs Nolan Johnson and Jaren Rainey.
Defensive back heavy
Of the positions signed on Wednesday, none had a greater emphasis than defensive back, where the Pirates added seven secondary performers.
Johnson and Rainey were among two of the top high school standouts at the position, while the only two junior college signees — Michael Witherspoon of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College and Warren Saba of Garden City (Kansas) Community College — will both line up in the secondary as well.
“We needed some physicality to be added but we also needed that physicality to have speed and natural playmaking ability,” Montgomery said. “When you watch these guys, you’re going to see natural playmaking ability by the corners that we brought in, and by the defensive backs that we brought in. Natural playmakers is what came down to taking those defensive backs.”