Tampa, Fla. — It would be easy to write off last year’s Elon football season as a fluke. A team that had long served as the doormat of the Colonial Athletic Association suddenly rocketed towards the top behind a true freshman quarterback playing out of his mind.
This season, head coach Curt Cignetti is doing everything he can to make Elon football’s success a routine. After Saturday night's 34-14 loss in Tampa, we've had our first chance to see how he plans to do that.
The biggest strategy move on display at the University of South Florida was Cignetti’s tendency for the run game — or at least his understanding of its effectiveness. He opened the game with nine straight run calls before letting sophomore quarterback Davis Cheek throw a pass.
It’s an unsexy way to win games, but taking the ball up the middle for short pickups might just be what it takes to get past the CAA’s tough defenses.
As tiring as it can be to watch 3-yard carry after 3-yard carry, it’s hard to expect Cignetti to shy away from using his backs, considering the depth he has in that position.
It all starts with senior running back Malcolm Summers. Saturday marked his first game back since a hamstring tear on Oct. 7, 2017, which sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He was brimming with excitement during his first series on the field, jumping up and down after muscling his way to a first down.
Summers produced ludicrous yardage stats before his season was cut short in 2017, and it looked like Cignetti might be trying to position him for similar numbers this year. He took 11 handoffs for 49 yards in the first quarter alone before letting backups take over the latter part of the lopsided affair.
And those backups went above and beyond when Cignetti gave them a chance. Sophomore running back Brelynd Cyphers got his fair share of carries, including a touchdown from point blank range.
True freshman running back Jaylan Thomas showed some flashes of brilliance when he was called to action in the second half. The 18-year-old looked confident on the big stage, averaging 9.7 yards per carry on nine attempts.
The third-stringer can’t expect too many touches given his competition for the position, but his showing in Tampa gives Elon one more option in late-game situations and a whole lot of optimism for what’s to come when Summers graduates. In addition to some postgame praise from his quarterback, he got a compliment from his head coach, who didn’t seem too surprised with what he saw.
“He showed me pretty much what he's been showing me since camp started,” said Cignetti. “It was nice to see him prove it on tape tonight.”
This time last year, there was a two-man battle for Elon’s starting quarterback position. Few were optimistic about a season that would see one of two true freshman quarterbacks lead the charge alongside a first-year head coach. The doubt and confusion that Elon felt after an uninspiring season-opening loss to Toledo last September is hard to empathize with now, given the season that unfolded in the months that followed. All eyes are on Cheek now to see if he can replicate that kind of performance in 2018.
Though he didn’t get a chance to shine on Saturday, that isn’t particularly indicative of the type of season he could have this year. After the Toledo game, nobody knew what Cheek had in store for the rest of the season. He averaged more than 200 yards a game and collected 15 touchdowns in a season that earned him the honor of CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even with a reliable corps of running backs, Cignetti should give Cheek the green light to throw a little more in the coming weeks.
Understandably, Elon wasn’t playing at full capacity against USF. There were times they simply couldn’t get toe-to-toe with the physicality and depth of an FBS team. But it’s not like things will get a whole lot easier heading into league play.
The CAA is considered by many to be the best FCS conference in the land. And that’s not without good reason. The CAA produced four playoff teams last year, and six of its schools start this season in the STATS national top 25. Defending national runner-up James Madison University looks scary at the top of the pile, but the conference’s depth means the Phoenix will run into playoff-caliber competition almost every week.
So while Cignetti may have been hesitant to let Cheek air it out against USF’s menacing backfield, he still saw the game as a learning experience for other parts of the roster. Most notably, Elon’s defensive backs had a chance to run with the big dogs.
“We made a couple adjustments, and then we ended up playing the deep ball much better,” said Cignetti. “I think that's going to be great experience for our corners to have to defend those kinds of guys deep. We probably don’t challenge them enough in practice.”
On more than one occasion, Elon’s corners got scorched trying to keep up with USF receivers, leading to huge yardage pickups on deep balls. If Elon corner backs and safeties can use that as a learning experience and retool their game, there’s reason to believe they can stay locked down on the CAA’s best.
Last season’s record of 8-3 was enough to land Elon a spot in the playoffs, but it doesn’t hint at just how close they often came to befalling a far different fate. Nearly every game last year ended with an almost-blown lead in the second half. The team’s winning margins were so razor-thin last year that the Phoenix were being outscored 223-220 at one point during the season, despite holding an 8-1 record.
To avoid those late-game scares and ensure fewer stress-inducing paths to victory, the Elon defense needs to rise to the caliber of the offense. They’ll have to wait to do that after what USF threw at them.
South Florida’s wideouts were physical, even for an FBS team, and shredded through Elon’s defense with ease. There wasn’t a great chance to see how that same unit might hold up in the CAA.
A lot of the defensive burden will fall on the shoulders of senior linebacker Warren Messer, who brings his experience and leadership to Rhodes Stadium for one final season. He was credited with nine tackles against the Bulls, and his 114 last season set a high bar for him to replicate this fall.
Messer has always been a defensive standout for the Phoenix, and his presence in the middle has helped keep Elon’s slim-margin wins from slipping away into losses. Hard as he may try, though, Elon’s defensive backs will simply need to tighten some screws and limit yards-after-catch from their opponents if they want to hang with the competition.
Cignetti and the Phoenix had a chance to see what they need to fix, but there isn’t much time to let those changes take effect.
“It's not like it's just over and that's the end of our season,” Cheek said. “Elon football is going to be back, and we're going to be a lot better. So the biggest thing is just to get back to it.”
Elon comes back home this Saturday to take on Furman, a team that has been both familiar and frustrating in the past few years. The Phoenix beat them on the road for their first FCS game of 2017. More recently, though, the Paladins handed Elon a heartbreaking loss that put the skids on a postseason run.