There’s no sugarcoating the struggles that the Elon University football team had during the four years that seniors like me have watched.
In total, the Phoenix won just nine of its 46 games — less than 20 percent. Diving into the stats makes it worse. Elon lost more games by 30+ points (10) than it won during that time. The Phoenix also won just one home game in each season, with two of the four home wins coming against non-Division I schools. In total, Elon won just seven games against Division I schools.
The downturn started before my freshman fall of 2013, but the two-win swan song in the Southern Conference for then-head coach Jason Swepson led to a coaching change. When Elon hired former offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky to take over as Elon jumped to the Colonial Athletic Association, Skrosky seemed to understand it would be a rebuild, using ‘Embrace the Grind’ as the rallying cry.
After a 1-11 first season, Elon went 4-7 in Skrosky’s second year using a bunch of underclassmen, an upward trend that many believed meant 2016 would be a continued rise. Elon even found its starting quarterback, as sophomore Connor Christiansen won the job over sophomore Daniel Thompson after the two split reps throughout 2015.
But Christiansen suffered a season-ending injury early in the second half of the first game of the season, forcing Thompson into a starting role without a scholarship quarterback left to back him up. Thompson was able to fill in fine at first, and he even was at the helm when Elon upset the College of William & Mary Sept. 24, a win that felt bigger to redshirt junior defensive lineman Dondre Howell because of all Elon had struggled through.
“On that last play of the game, I threw up my hands and I almost cried,” Howell said after the game. “We’ve been through a lot, with everything going on these last few years. But we’ve trusted the process, trusted [head coach Rich Skrosky], and [assistant coach Gerald Chatman]. I was thrilled about the whole entire day.”
That was the last win of the season for the Phoenix, as Elon went 0-for-October and -November. The offense struggled to score, only reaching the end zone four times in the seven games. The worst of it came at the end, as a 44-14 loss on Senior Day to then-last place University of Rhode Island Nov. 11 was followed up by a 63-14 loss at CAA champion James Madison University Nov. 18 to close out the season.
But when Skrosky looks at the 2-9 record for 2016, he believes that the team was better than the 4-win team of 2015.
“The record wasn’t reflective. I would argue that, in most areas this year, we were a better football team, even though we stepped back in the win column. When I watched the tape, when I watched us practice, when I watched the kid’s ability, I think, in most areas, we were a better football team than last year.”
It’s not as if Elon wasn’t competitive — Elon lost to the University of New Hampshire by three and trailed by just one possession in five of its seven straight games it lost to end the season. Only the Family Weekend annihilation at the hands of Villanova University truly over early (Elon trailed 35-0 at half).
For Skrosky, the key is to make sure his players, “know how hard it is to win,” especially when comparing the close games Elon was able to emerge victorious from in 2015 that didn’t happen in 2016.
“You can look back on any season, and for the steps we took for a 3-win improvement, being pessimistic, I could have easily looked at our [University of] Maine game and the Stony Brook [University] game and say, ‘It isn’t like we blew those teams out,’” Skrosky said. “That’s what football is, though. That’s what competition is. The difference between winning and losing maybe is a missed field goal against UNH.
“What I see our guys do on a daily basis, I think we’re in a better place. We’ve got to get the kids to finish and believe and get their confidence up. Obviously, the success is lacking, but we need them to know they can be successful, and point that out to them and get them to do that for 60 minutes.”
Skrosky is aware that there are some that call for him to be removed or for changes on the staff to be made, but his job is safe and he confirmed that there would be no staff changes coming from him. And while, hypothetically, someone on staff could leave for another job, Skrosky says he is “shocked” that there’s only been one coaching change to occur in his time at Elon.
“It’s really been as consistent as it could be,” Skrosky said. “To only lose one guy, and the reason is because he’s retired, I’m thankful that we haven’t had more turnover. It’s that time of year, but at the present, there’s no staff move.”
Elon’s hoping that its young roster — with more than 70-percent of the roster having at least two years left of eligibility — will continue to mature and start to look like teams of James Madison’s caliber, even as Skrosky admits that Elon’s roster won’t look like the Dukes’ roster.
“You’ve got to grow throughout the season, and I think a lot of guys did improve throughout the season,” Skrosky said. “We will get to that point, when you look at the top teams in our conference, ‘This offensive line is three redshirt seniors, two redshirt juniors.’ You, ultimately, have to build your program to that point.
“I am realistic, though, when I look at our roster and I look at our competition. We’ll be more competitive, I truly believe that. Will we be JMU next year? Probably not. Can we win 10 games? Sure. That’s why you play. Will we be the best roster in the CAA next year? No. But there’s a lot of teams that won a lot of games that maybe didn’t have the best roster in the CAA.”
Having high-quality upperclassmen contributing goes well beyond just recruiting the talent to the school, something Skrosky uses James Madison to point out.
“The team they’re playing with now was recruited two staffs ago,” Skrosky said. “It’s a combination of acquiring the talent, and then developing the talent once it gets there. I think 2017 is a turning point year to some extent, but that takes a long time to build, and that’s the hard thing as the coach.
“A lot of people — fandom — will say, ‘Just get your recruiting classes,’ which … Okay, but I don’t know if that’s all said and done. It’s about acquiring the talent, but then getting on the experience and hitting on the talent.”
Skrosky deserves another year to see if the players he’s recruited to Elon can blossom, especially given that he’s been in one of the toughest conferences at the FCS level. But there comes a time where the growth needs to manifest into points, and points into wins. And that time is here, something Thompson recognizes.
“You throw a long touchdown, then you come out with another good drive, that’s obviously positive,” Thompson said. “But for us, it’s just like everything all year, it’s the consistency. When they score, we’ve got to be able to score again. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’ve got to work on that in the offseason.
“The offseason’s got to be huge for us.”
And, after nearly 30 years of coaching college football, Skrosky knows what needs to happen on the field and on the scoreboard in 2017.
“It’s a results-based business,” Skrosky said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”