Head coach Rich Skrosky can’t help but recite one of his favorite stats about the Elon University football team.
“We’ve talked about these two classes — last year’s freshman class and this year’s freshman class — that’s the bulk of this team,” Skrosky said. “We have 73-percent of the roster with three or more years of eligibility.”
The youth movement was in full effect in 2015 for the Phoenix, with freshmen starting the majority of games at quarterback, wide receiver and three positions of the offensive line. The leading rusher was a freshman, as were the top two kick and punt returners.
With 2016 around the corner, Elon brings in another large class of freshmen — there were more than 30 in fall camp, with more enlisting as walk-ons on the first day of classes — to join a group of a lot of sophomores and juniors with plenty of playing time already.
And, with that, the depth chart battles continue to rage on.
“Camp has gone well. There’s so much more internal competition than we’ve had in the first two years,” Skrosky said. “We still have light years to go, but when you have that internal competition, it keeps everybody on their toes and it gets guys motivated. You can’t take a day off or a practice off — you have to come out and go.”
Picking a quarterback
The most important in-camp battle was finally decided last Friday, when Skrosky informed sophomore quarterback Connor Christiansen that he would be Elon’s starting quarterback. Christiansen and fellow sophomore quarterback Daniel Thompson had been competing for the gig since February 2015, when Thompson enrolled early at Elon.
“It really was a hard decision, because both have improved immensely,” Skrosky said. “At the end of the day, we needed to see Connor minimize his turnovers, and he really did that during camp. He had two interceptions, one of which was on a deflected pass, and he’s understanding the offense better.”
Christiansen and Thompson split the starts in 2015, with Christiansen getting the nod when Thompson was unable to play because of spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, a neurological condition. But Thompson ended up starting more games — six to Christiansen’s five.
But Christiansen has been taking snaps with the first-team offense for the majority the 2016 offseason, and Skrosky announced the decision Saturday. Christiansen felt relief that Skrosky named a single quarterback as start.
“A lot of confidence comes with that,” Christiansen said. “He doesn’t want me looking over my shoulder. He doesn’t want me playing scared, like if I were to make a mistake, he’d pull me. Some of the situations were like that last year. It was good to hear, because what I wanted was freedom to go out and play, because that’s when I play my best — when I’m loose and having fun. That was probably the best thing I could have heard coach say.”
Both Skrosky and Christiansen reiterated that they have immense trust in Thompson to take over if the situation ever required, with Skrosky saying that, when looking around at the quarterback play in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), he “feels really good about our two guys.”
Christiansen added, “I’ve had a long history of injuries. Like coach said, if something were to happen to me, god forbid, he wouldn’t bat an eye. Daniel is so devoted to the playbook and the offense that it would be a seamless transition, which is comforting for me, because I don’t have to worry about it being me or nothing. There’s a very capable quarterback right behind me.”
Replacing a lot on defense
While nearly every contributor on offense is returning to the team, the defense has had a good amount of turnover, losing six of 11 starters. The last departure stung the most, as linebacker Corey Mitchell ’16 left the program early in the summer and transferred to New Haven.
But Skrosky still has been impressed by his linebacking core that returns, as senior John Silas leads the squad and sophomores Warren Messer and Matt Baker have stepped up in camp.
“Mess, he’s arguably been our best defensive player throughout camp,” Skrosky said. “John’s adapted well to the weak side position. Our depth is developing — Matt Baker’s had a really good camp and John Jackson at the outside spot has improved immensely.”
As a captain, Silas makes sure he lets his teammates know the commitment needed in order to succeed.
“It really depends on how hard we work and how consistent we can be. We just have to come out here 100 percent of the time and work hard,” Silas said. “We can’t come out here 70, 75, 80, 85 or 95 percent. We just have to come out 100 percent of the time and to work hard and keep getting better. We can’t take any steps back.”
Looking up to the top
As Skrosky enters his third year at the helm, no one in the program believes Elon will take steps back. In fact, for junior offensive lineman and captain Ikenna Nwokeji, there is no limit to how Elon’s expectations have gone.
“I really don’t think that there’s a ceiling [for this team],” Nwokeji said. “The record for the past couple of years don’t reflect the heart and the passion that we’ve put into this team. I think there are a lot of other factors going into this season — the work that we’ve put, the faith that we have in each other — that’s going to lead us into the playoffs.”
And while getting to the playoffs would seem like a successful season to many fans of Elon, Christiansen said he wouldn’t be satisfied with just a playoff berth.
“As crazy as it is, you want to win a national championship,” Christiansen said. “In the long run, you would be able to look back and be proud of a lot of things if you made the playoffs, because we were 1-11 a year ago. That would be something to be very proud of, but not satisfied with.
“I think, in order to be successful, you’ve got to win. You’ve got to win every game ... So would [the playoffs] be successful? I would say, no. But would we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to build off of? I would say, yeah.”
But for Skrosky, results aren’t indicative of something that’s already true to him: This football team is vastly improved.
“I don’t know what the results will be, and I don’t know where we’re at on the scale,” Skrosky said. “I know we’re a better football team. What the results are going to be? It’s a funny game, and a funny season. You’re not going to put a number on it, but I know we’re a better football team than we were in 2015.”