Elon football book-ended its 2019 season with games against high-quality opponents, decided by three and two points.
The results – a loss to North Carolina A&T on a last-second field goal in Week 1, and Skyler Davis’ kick with 41 seconds left completing a second-half rally to upset Towson on the road – underscore how much can swing on just a few plays.
As the Phoenix hit an important milestone in preparation for the 2020 season with spring practice, the trajectory from its 2019 finish provides the foundation for coach Tony Trisciani in Year 2.
“You’re as good as your last play, and you’re as good as your last game,” Trisciani said. “For our guys, it’s really helpful to go into the offseason to know what they’re capable of and how they’re capable of playing.”
The final 20 minutes of Elon’s last time out demonstrated the Phoenix’s resolve in all three phases. They rallied from a 20-5 deficit, outscoring Towson 20-3 in the last quarter-and-a-half.
The 2019 season – Trisciani’s first as Elon head coach – had its ups and downs. Aside from the opening-week loss on an impossibly long field goal as time expired, the Phoenix also fell in five overtimes to William & Mary, the first FCS game ever decided under new rules that decide games on two-point conversions attempt after four extra frames.
“Toughness and consistency, those are the two areas we want to improve,” Trisciani said. “We had some games last year we were very explosive offensively, and stout defensively, but we just weren’t consistent week-to-week. So that’s an area we’re looking to improve.”
At 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association, Elon finished with marks that are the very definition of inconsistent. However, many of the team’s leading playmakers return for 2020.
With experience comes consistency, and that translates both from autumn Saturdays and spring workouts. Thus, Davis Cheek’s availability for the spring is a huge boost to Elon’s pursuit of consistency next season.
“Last season coming off the ACL injury, he wasn’t himself,” Trisciani said. Cheek sustained the knee injury in October 2018.
He returned last season to pass for 2,175 yards and 15 touchdowns, and extended a streak without throwing an interception to 240 attempts. And he accomplished those marks jumping into the season essentially cold.
“He lost a lot of reps in spring ball and in the summer going into last season,” Trisciani said. “He could move around enough, but he couldn’t move around the way he’s capable this year.
“I expect to see a better Davis Cheek this season, because he’s going to have time to prepare, and he’s going to be healthy,” he added.
Along with a fully prepared Cheek, Elon returns explosive weapons in wide receiver Kortez Weeks and running back Jaylan Thomas. Trisciani cited both as standouts in winter workouts ahead of spring practices.
Weeks emerged in 2019 to catch 43 passes and five touchdowns, both team-highs. Thomas – a breakout performer as a freshman in 2018 – led the Phoenix in rushing last season with 458 yards.
Trisciani expects bigger things from the dynamic Thomas in 2020, thanks in part to a unit he lavished praise upon for its play so far in spring: the offensive line.
The unit features a mix of high-potential youngsters as well as some welcomed returners, including Cooper Cromer. A starter on the 2018 playoff team, Cromer missed the 2019 campaign due to injury.
Flipside, the defensive line loses a star of last season’s team in defensive end Marcus Willoughby, but the unit as a whole reloads nicely.
Upperclassmen Tristen Cox and Destin Flloyd made three and 3.5 tackles for loss in 2019, and Flloyd also recorded a sack and two quarterback hurries. Marvin Pearson, meanwhile, could be a name to remember come fall.
“He’s the next athletic, high-motor defensive end [comparable to what] we’re losing in Marcus Willoughby,” Trisciani said of Pearson, who finished 2019 with three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
Elon’s defensive backline loses plenty of experience and production with the departures of three-year starters Greg Liggs Jr. and Daniel Reid-Bennett. The two combined made for one of the most fearsome pass-coverage duos in the CAA, with Reid-Bennett breaking up 11 pass attempts and picking off three.
Liggs set records with his turnover-creation, picking off an incredible eight passes in 2019 en route to earning 1st Team All-American honors.
Trisciani said Elon is working with a rotation of players in the spring to fill the void. In the meantime, sophomore defensive back Tre’Von Jones has parlayed an impressive debut season into a strong offseason.
And perhaps emblematic of the Phoenix’s trajectory from their season-ending win at Towson, Jones finished that game with two pass break-ups and an interception.