Most college students would love more down time. But for rising sophomore quarterback Connor Christiansen, all the down time meant he couldn’t be on the field for the Elon University football team.
And now, after four months of workouts, he gets to get back out there.
“I don’t know how many weeks of winter workouts we had, but it felt like it would never end,” Christiansen said. “We had way too much down time — obviously down time is nice — but everybody was itching to get back out here and compete. We had full 7-on-7s after workouts.”
The Phoenix started spring football practices last week, with the first practice taking place March 30. For some, like rising sophomore wide receiver Corey Joyner, having Spring Break right before the start of practices was difficult.
“I ran one time, thinking it was going to be enough,” Joyner said. “That morning coming back, it was terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible.”
As head coach Rich Skrosky begins his third season in charge, he’s pleased with the progress the program has had with recruiting, especially with the volume of student-athletes he’s brought to Elon.
“This’ll be another big class — we haven’t solidified all of the walk-ons yet, but we’ll be in the 30s again,” Skrosky said, noting that last season’s class brought in 39 players. “My goal in the spring is somewhere between 72 and 76. That’s ideal numbers. We’re at 67 right now. Last year at this time, we were at 64. Our very first class was small by design. Our first year, we had four walk-ons. Last year, we had 18.”
And while there have been a few injured players, including two key contributors last season, the Phoenix comes into practices as a tighter unit and carrying a lot of hope for the next season.
Honoring a lost teammate
It’s been almost five months since the death of Demitri Allison, and the Nov. 11 tragedy is ever-present in the program.
“It certainly is with us and will always be with us,” Skrosky said. “It’s not gone away, and it won’t go away.”
Skrosky doesn’t want to generalize the way the team as a whole has dealt with it, stressing that each individual deals with tragedy in the way that is best for the individual.
“You think about it. Every day, something comes up and you’re like—” Skrosky pauses, then sighs. “That’ll be forever. That won’t change.”
The players say they have grown closer as a group through the tragedy, and the guys are more willing to talk about personal feelings and other things that aren’t typically discussed in a football locker room.
“This isn’t a typical locker room — not a whole lot of teams in the country can say they’ve gone through what we’ve gone through,” Christiansen said. “We were very weak and numb to each other because it hits you in the face. It’s a realization of life and how precious it really is. People were really down, and seeing grown men cry … you don’t see that in locker rooms.”
The team continues to end practices by huddling together and breaking on the word “Family,” and many players still use LLD — “Long Live Demitri” — on their football gear and social media.
“We’ve really cherished each other and cherished our relationships,” Christiansen said. “When we were down, we brought each other up. Now, it’s, ‘What can we do to glorify Demitri Allison’s name?’ He would want us to play great and give our best effort.”
Earning the reps
Christiansen has been the first quarterback on the depth chart, and has consistently been playing with the first team. After last season’s back-and-forth between Christiansen and rising sophomore quarterback Daniel Thompson, Skrosky said Christiansen earned the top spot — and Joyner can see why.
“He relaxes. Last year, I think he took a little too much to heart,” Joyner said. “I did it. Everyone does it. And now he knows that, ‘That last play doesn’t matter, just relax, go back in there,’ and he throws a dart.”
Christiansen believes his focus on improving little by little each day has helped him, as has his workout regiment from the offseason.
“A big thing for me was putting on weight, and I worked with [Director of Strength and Conditioning Ryan] Horton to draw up how many calories I should have,” Christiansen said. “He’s helped me a lot, and I was able to put on a good six pounds.”
But Skrosky is quick to object to the notion that Christiansen is going to be the starter for Elon, who opens against Gardner-Webb University Sept. 3 at Rhodes Stadium.
“It’s an open competition, but he’s been good,” Skrosky said. “I’ve said this a dozen times, and I mean it. I can’t think of two better representatives, as kids, for this university. They’re working hard, and their relationship is good.”
A tight competition at wideout
Elon’s deepest position on offense appears to be wide receiver, where the top four receivers all return and have two or more years of eligibility left. The amount of players returning, plus the addition of redshirt freshman wide receiver Tre Marsh, is a big change from last season for Joyner.
“I came early last year in the spring, and I knew then that I was going to have a shot,” Joyner said. “But this year, it’s completely different. Everybody’s a shark. Everybody wants every rep, and no one’s walking. The coaches don’t need to coach effort as much as they needed to last year. Every drop counts.”
Joyner is pleased that the coaches aren’t treating the group like underclassmen, and thinks the wideouts are acting like veterans. The mix of youth and experience is especially exciting for Christiansen, who has built a good rapport with them already.
“It’s special because we are the same age and we came into it young,” Christiansen said. “Last year, playing with Corey and [rising sophomore wide receiver] Tereak McCray, it was their first time out there also. All of the guys are getting better. I can’t think of one who is standing out from the rest. All of them have a great mentality right now, and that’s all I can really ask of them.”
Rising junior wide receiver Tre Lennon got hurt in the first practice of the season, but the team is optimistic it is a minor injury. In his place has stepped the other Tre — Marsh has made an instant impression since stepping onto campus in February.
“One of the biggest surprises is how well he knew the playbook and adjusted to it quickly,” Joyner said. “When I came, I struggled with the questions and meeting stuff, but that’s not what Tre struggles with. He handles the way that coach is getting at him well, because they’re trying to break him. I think he’s a lot better than where I was last spring.”
Christiansen added, “In the offseason, he was out here with all of us. He does the right thing, like ask questions. That’s what you have to do when you’re new in the system, especially when he knows he’s going to play. He’s attacking it the right way.”
An optimistic start
After two years of teaching the student-athletes how to practice the way Skrosky wants them to practice, the coach finally feels as if the team can focus on the fundamentals.
“We’re through with all of the mundane stuff, like the procedure,” Skrosky said. “Most of the guys have been in it a while, they’re on board. We’re by all that stuff. Now you can teach details, nuances — the older guys are doing that, having been in the same system for three years now. That’s the biggest difference, you can coach the detail.”
Skrosky said his staff went around the country to learn from other staffs and are ready to implement the tweaks into the offense. But initially, his defensive backs and linebackers have impressed him, led by rising senior linebacker John Silas and rising junior cornerback Chris Blair.
“Those guys got to find a way to elevate everyone else’s level,” Skrosky said. “They got to say, ‘Here’s the bar. It’s really high. Come on up and get on the bar.’ John Silas — for a guy who doesn’t like talking — he’s doing it, which is a good thing.”
There are two players — rising sophomore offensive lineman C.J. Toogood and rising sophomore defensive lineman Nic Johnson — out for the time being, recovering from surgeries in the offseason. But other than them and Lennon, the team is at full strength as spring practices get underway.
And it has everyone in the program excited to get back to practice.