As Elon University football's breakout season rolls on, it seems like the Phoenix's success has been nothing short of magical. After a 9-39 record over the last four seasons, Elon is 8-1 and on track to make the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs for the first time in program history.
What's more, they're doing it all with a true freshman quarterback under center.
Elon's success has largely been because of role players stepping up in unexpected ways, and freshman quarterback Davis Cheek has been no exception.
In the last three games, Cheek has posted 959 yards and completed 67 of his 102 passes. On the season, he’s racked up 1821 yards and completed 63 percent of his passes. That yardage total is the third-most in the conference, and the third-most of all freshmen in the FCS.
His performance has turned heads across the league and across the country. So far this season, Cheek has been named Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) rookie of the week twice, and offensive player of the week once.
To top it off, he’s been put on the watchlist for the Jerry Rice award, an honor given to the nation’s best FCS rookie at the end of the season.
Early in the season, it wasn’t hard to see that junior running back Malcolm Summers was making the biggest contributions to Elon’s offense. As the team’s only option at quarterback had no college experience, Summers quickly became the cornerstone of Elon’s offense, putting up 755 yards through six games, giving him the most rushing yards in all of the FCS at the time.
The Phoenix climbed the national rankings and made a name for itself, and Malcolm Summers was the biggest reason why.
Just as Elon established itself as a national contender, Summers went down with a torn hamstring against the College of William & Mary, sidelining him for the remainder of the season.
Suddenly, the surging team’s future was uncertain. With Summers out, Elon needed to find offense elsewhere to stay on its trajectory. Now, three games and three wins later, the Phoenix is proving they can produce even without the running back that helped the program gain recognition.
In Summers’ absence, much of the weight fell on the shoulders of Cheek, and the young quarterback is proving he can perform in the face of that pressure.
At only 18 years old, Cheek has stepped into a role as a leader of the seventh-best FCS team in the nation, but it certainly hasn’t been easy.
Elon has gone undefeated against FCS teams this year, but that 8-0 record certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.
Nearly every contest that the Phoenix has won has included some late-game drama. Just as an undefeated record has come to define Elon’s season, so have come-from-behind wins and almost-blown leads.
Understandably, Cheek’s performance has been less than stellar at times. He faltered against Albany, completing only 53 percent of passes and racking up 81 yards. Even against Charleston Southern, in a game that challenged skepticism of Elon’s potential in 2017, Cheek struggled. He only completed 47 percent of his passes, looking less than spectacular.
But now, when Elon has needed him the most, Cheek has stepped up.
In the past three games, as Elon’s offensive strategy shifted to include more pass plays, Cheek has had a hand in six of the team’s 10 touchdowns. His poise on the field is impressive for someone who had never played college football before August of this year.
More than just putting up numbers, Cheek has earned the trust of his head coach.
“We have total trust putting the ball in Davis’ hands because he’s a really good player,” said Elon head coach Curt Cignetti. “He studies, and he makes good decisions on the field and he thinks like a coach a little bit.”
While Cignetti has a long history of coaching experience at schools like the University of Alabama and North Carolina State University, this season is his first with Elon, making he and Cheek recent arrivals to the program.
While Cheek’s play has garnered him plenty of attention, he’s gotten help from his receivers along the way.
The team’s leading receiver, Kortez Weeks, is also a true freshman. He’s pulled in 49 catches this year, averaging 13.02 yards per reception and has proven a reliable option for Cheek downfield.
Cheek has connected with senior wide receiver Tre Lennon plenty of times as well, adding 31 catches and 419 yards to Lennon’s name.
The young quarterback has adjusted quickly, finding chemistry with his receiving corps and proving he can play the the college level, but his job won’t be getting easier any time soon.
The Phoenix is in the regular season’s home stretch. Only two regular season games remain and one of them is against last year’s FCS National Champions, the 9-0 James Madison University Dukes.
With two of the hardest games of the season on the docket and the looming challenge of a playoff run in the near future, Cheek still has plenty of work to do. Regardless of how the season ends, though, he’s made his presence a pivotal part of the team that’s begun to redefine Elon football.