Records are made to be broken. When Trevon Brown set the record for most receiving yards by an East Carolina University (3-6, 0-5 AAC) wide receiver on Nov. 18, 2017, current freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson was a junior in high-school on the cusp of posting another 1,500-plus campaign for D.H. Conley.
At the same time, sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers was nearing graduation from Conley, but not before racking up over 3,700 passing yards and 61 touchdowns during his senior season with the football program. Roughly half of those scores went Johnson’s way as the junior posted 31 receiving touchdowns to go along with his 119 yards per game average.
After a senior campaign in which he caught 77 balls for north of 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns, Johnson ended his high-school career with nearly 5,200 total receiving yards (108.3 yards per game) and 79 touchdowns. For his efforts, Johnson landed at his hometown university, ECU, rejoining his former high-school teammate who was named the Pirates’ starter before their season opener.
“I can’t tell you how many balls those two have thrown since C.J. got here last summer,” head coach Mike Houston said.
That work, while it built off their chemistry from high-school, didn’t immediately translate to game action. Through the first three weeks of the season, Johnson caught just five passes for 41 yards, with the longest reception coming on a 13-yarder against Gardner-Webb University (3-6, 1-3 Big South).
Just two weeks later, however, Johnson hauled in a career-best five receptions in the Pirates’ victory over the College of William & Mary (3-6, 1-4 CAA). That mark didn’t last for long as the Conley Connection finally kicked into full-gear during week six against Temple University (5-3, 2-2 AAC).
Having never even come close to a 100-yard game at the collegiate level, Johnson broke out in a big way on “Paint It Black” night against the Owls. Not only did the freshman pick-up his first touchdown as a Pirate, but he also caught eight balls for 100 yards in ECU’s 27-17 loss to Temple.
On the surface, it looked like a breakout game for Johnson, but after repeat performances in the three games that have followed, it is starting to look like the freshman is made for big plays.
“He has really worked hard to develop himself,” Houston said. “I mean the improvement that kid’s made since the beginning of the year is pretty impressive. Just the understanding of the offense, some of the nuances and some of the things we’re doing.”
With that development has come a drastic uptick in Johnson’s production. Through his first five games at the collegiate level, Johnson averaged 21.6 yards on just over two catches per game, never cracking the 50-yard plateau. In the four games that have followed, the freshman has averaged 143.5 yards per game on over eight catches, including two 100-yard games and one 200-yard game.
As Houston mentions, as Johnson, and Ahlers for that matter, continue learning the offense, it will open more opportunities to achieve favorable matchups. On Saturday, tailed by University of Cincinnati junior cornerback Coby Bryant for much of the day, Johnson was subjected to man coverage.
🚨 RECORD ALERT! 🚨Holton Ahlers has achieved the first game of 500+ yards passing in school history.CJ Johnson has now set a school and @American_FB record for single-game receiving (283 yards as of this tweet).#NoQuarter #PirateNation pic.twitter.com/Ev6ZYFr6wm— ECU Football (@ECUPiratesFB) November 3, 2019
“It’s a dream for a receiver to ask for,” Johnson said after Saturday’s loss. “Man coverage, you got to win. I just do what my coaches tell me to do and come out on top.”
Come out on top he did, regularly. Nearly two years to the day that Brown set the program record, Johnson bested it with 283 receiving yards on 12 catches. Against the same Cincinnati squad that Brown achieved his feat, Johnson found himself open time and time again.
On occasion, even when he was not open, Ahlers forced the ball to Johnson just to have the 6-2 receiver make a nifty catch to prolong drives.
At halftime, Johnson was already well over the 100-yard mark with 143, anchored by a 75-yard catch and run from Ahlers that opened the scoring for the Pirates’ offense. Of his 12 receptions on the evening, all of them spanned at least 10 yards including catches of 29 and 17 yards on ECU’s final offensive drive to move into field goal range.
“It means a lot but honestly, I can’t do it without my team,” Johnson said. “If we ain’t got the offensive line protecting for him to throw me the ball, I can’t get the ball. If we don’t got other people running routes that take away defenders, then I wouldn’t be open.”
Indeed, it took a complete effort on Saturday for the Pirates to nearly upset the Bearcats. In addition to Johnson setting an ECU and AAC single-game record as well as a program freshman record, Ahlers busted the Pirates’ single-game mark with 535 passing yards. That included 316 yards at halftime representing a career-best for Ahlers, while his four first half passing touchdowns were the most by an ECU quarterback since Philip Nelson in 2016.
“I thought we saw a little bit of this coming in the Central Florida game,” Houston said. “We obviously did a much better job protecting him (Ahlers) tonight. I do think it’s, all of a sudden, you’re having other guys contributing, it makes a difference. You’re getting all these other guys contributing in the passing game. He’s continuing to evolve.”
Despite junior right guard Sean Bailey and sophomore right tackle Matt Morgan missing Saturday’s game with injuries, the Bearcats failed to sack Ahlers, instead forcing eight quarterback hurries that seemed to only have a minimal impact on his performance.
By Houston’s own admission, Ahlers’ play has been up-and-down at times this season. Entering play on Saturday, Ahlers had matched his seven passing touchdowns with seven interceptions while averaging just over 200 yards per contest. He had yet to throw for more than 313 yards in a game or toss more than two touchdowns and found himself setting on a 55.6% completion rate.
For some additional protection from a banged up offensive line and a more liberal approach to the passing game by the coaching staff, Ahlers was able to piece together what was perhaps the best game of his football career.
“Anytime you get more experience -- offense is kind of starting to click now with the protections, the routes and even me seeing it better,” Ahlers said about his progression this season.
With his huge day on Saturday, Ahlers now ranks 23rd in the FBS with 2,207 passing yards and 40th by averaging nearly 13 yards per pass completion. That is a far cry from earlier in the season when that figure clocked in under 10 yards.
Johnson, on the other hand, leaped up the wide receiver ranking following his record-setting performance. Now tied for 31st in the nation, Johnson is setting on 682 receiving yards this season, needing just 318 yards (106 per game) to carry-on the 1,000-yard receiver tradition at ECU.
Continuing his pace from the last four games would get him to that mark, but he will need an assist from Ahlers.
“C.J. and Holton have a pretty special connection there,” Houston said.
Just how special that connection is, we will see over the final three games of this season. More so, with increased experience and work in their collegiate careers, Ahlers and Johnson have an opportunity to form a relationship that could win the Pirates many games in the future.
ECU will return to action on Saturday when it travels to Dallas, Texas to face Southern Methodist University (8-1, 4-1 AAC). Kickoff between the Pirates and Mustangs is slated for 11 a.m. local time.