When the Elon University football team took to the practice field Saturday afternoon, there was a hint of rustiness as the start of fall classes loomed ahead.
But first-year head coach Curt Cignetti wasn’t using it as an excuse.
Plenty of yelling and up-downs ensued and the young 2017 Phoenix team was back on its usual pace set under a new coach.
Following a disappointing 2016 campaign and the departure of former coach Rich Skrosky, Elon begins a new era this season. New coaches, new quarterbacks, even a new logo on the helmet will all make their debut at 7 p.m. Thursday against The University of Toledo With the youth present on the roster, Cignetti understands that the team is a work in progress. But that hasn’t stopped his daily expectations of improving from the last practice.
“I’m really confident that we’ll improve daily and weekly and become a much more competitive team,” Cignetti said. “We’re just focused in on doing things better every day and I see progress. I think the staff has done a great job developing these guys.”
In the spring Cignetti set an early tone that some fans were able to see firsthand.
Midway through the team’s spring scrimmage, the new head coach summoned his players to take a knee. After berating them for their effort, the team ran 20 40-yard sprints.
It's all part of a new mentality emphasizing toughness and pushing players past their comfort zones. For those unfamiliar with him, the new Phoenix coach is known to have quite the pedigree.
He coached at the University of Alabama from 2007-2010 under legendary head coach Nick Saban. There, he specialized on the offensive side of the ball — specifically wide receivers that included National Football League and Atlanta Falcon superstar Julio Jones.
Seven years later, Cignetti is now revitalizing an Elon offense which averaged only 11.3 points per game last season.The offensive facelift will include two new players at quarterback. Last year it was juniors Connor Christiansen and Daniel Thompson. This year it will be freshmen Davis Cheek and Jalen Greene.
A starter between the two has yet to be announced as Cignetti said both will split reps against Toledo.
But the young guns will have some experience behind them in the backfield.
One of those faces in the backfield is last year’s leading rusher sophomore De’Sean McNair. The tailback says he’s been impressed with what they the new coaching staff has brought to the team.
“Cignetti brought the passion for football and the will to want to win,” McNair said. “I think it’s translated and we’ve become a lot better team since he’s arrived. We have a recurring motto for our team this year that’s, ‘Be fast, be relentless, and be physical, and finish every play.' You can expect to see relentless football play this year.”
McNair joins junior Malcolm Summers as the veterans at running back. Both of whom will likely be the workforce of an offense with two freshman competing for the starting role at quarterback.
And on he defensive side of the football there's nowhere to go but up.
A unit that gave up a whopping 30.7 points per game is looking for improvement. Senior defensive back and three-year starter Chris Blair says he’s already seen drastic changes from this team compared to last year.
“Our heartbeat,” he said of what has improved the most this offseason. “That relentless, that tough, relentless play in and play out. You’re going to see eleven guys doing their job.”
Honored as the team’s most outstanding defensive player, Blair said the transition from Coach Skrosky to Coach Cignetti was one that went smoothly. Typically at the college and professional ranks, new head coaches bring staffs that make transitions difficult with new schemes and different ways of communicating to the players.
That was sorted out quickly in the spring and over summer.
According to Blair and McNair, summer workouts brought the team closer together as the players found ways to push through their own comfort zone in an offseason that was different from years prior.
“It was a lot more intense and it was a lot more based on becoming better football players,” McNair said. “[The fans] can expect a much improved offense as a whole.”
“It’s a totally different program than they’re used to,” Cignetti added. “We’re in a good place, guys are feeling good about themselves. ”
With a full spring and summer behind them, the 2017 Elon football team are more prepared than they were four months ago. A schedule that includes six top-25 FCS teams doesn’t spell an easy first year under this new coaching staff, but like the hint of rustiness on a Saturday practice, Cignetti isn’t using it as an excuse.
“We’re in game week now, and school is getting ready to start so now they have to balance academics and football,” he said. “We have to be mature about that and do a good job.”
As for the players, Chris Blair isn’t prepared to make his last season another disappointing run. All those on this year’s roster have never experienced a winning season. In fact, no team has posted a winning record since 2010.
Cignetti’s staff is ready to change that record whether it’s this year or next. Those in attendance at home games will see a much different Elon team.
“I expect the fans to see good football,” Blair said. “We just want to bring that excitement back to Rhodes Stadium.”