2022 Elon vs New Hampshire

Elon Football Preview: Phoenix Move On Post-Cheek, Look Toward Top Of CAA

Elon Football Preview: Phoenix Move On Post-Cheek, Look Toward Top Of CAA

Elon football likes to punch above its weight, but there were foes it just didn't quite have the strength to vanquish last season. Hopes are high for 2022.

Aug 8, 2022 by Briar Napier
Elon Football Preview: Phoenix Move On Post-Cheek, Look Toward Top Of CAA

Elon football likes to punch above its weight, but there were some foes it just didn't quite have the strength to vanquish last season.

Long the Colonial's smallest football-playing school (until Hampton and Monmouth were added for this season), it hasn't stopped the Phoenix from making three FCS playoff appearances since 2009 and overall consistently putting out a tough team to beat in recent years.

Still, after a 2021 season that was solid, yet perhaps not quite what it wanted with the talent it had, Elon is looking for more to achieve. With some new names on the roster and some exciting returning faces, however, it could mean that the Phoenix are on the come up as a squad to watch for during the 2022 CAA campaign.

Here's a look at what Elon football will bring to the gridiron this season, as

FloFootball previews every CAA football team ahead of this season's kickoff:

2021 season review: James Madison and Villanova clearly were the cream of the crop in the CAA football world a year ago, but Elon earned the title as the "best of the rest" as the league's third-place team, posting a 5-3 record in conference play. 

Still, considering the Phoenix made back-to-back FCS playoff appearances in 2017 and 2018 and had one of the CAA"s best quarterback-receiver duos last season in Davis Cheek and Jackson Parham (plus an offense that averaged over 350 yards per game), there's likely a bit of a sour taste in their mouths in wondering what could've been. 

Blowouts on consecutive weekends to the Dukes (45-21) and the Wildcats (35-0) made for the death kneel toward any chance of Elon making the postseason, and for fourth-year coach Tony Trisciani, the pressure on him to perform is clearly mounting, considering that he has a 12-16 overall (and 9-11 CAA) record in his tenure with the Phoenix. 

Offense: Offensive coordinator Drew Folmar has proven to be a shrewd hire for Elon since he was brought on to the Phoenix's coaching staff in 2017, being heavily responsible for developing Cheek, who was a freshman in Folmar's first year in the role, into one of the best signal-callers in school history. 

His next challenge? Finding someone else to mold into a star quarterback. 

Only one 2021 pass attempt didn't come from Cheek, though the position is far from devoid of veteran experience. Montana State transfer Matthew McKay, who threw for 2,021 yards and 16 touchdowns to three interceptions with one of the top programs in the FCS last season, has the chops to be a frontrunner for the starting job, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the North Carolina native under center in Week 1. 

Parham, a first-team All-CAA pick a year ago, is back in the mix again, too, hoping to find the endzone a little more with a new quarterback. He caught 57 balls (for 820 yards) but had just one for a score last season. 

Elon averaged the fewest rushing yards per game (90.4) in the CAA a year ago, and with top tailback Jaylan Thomas gone, redshirt sophomore McKinley Witherspoon (247 yards, six touchdowns in 2021) likely will be the favorite to be the premier back.

Defense: Many of Elon's major malfunctions last season came on the defensive end, as the Phoenix allowed an average of 379 total yards and 26.1 points per game, both marks of which ranked in the bottom half of the CAA. 

Constant shootouts, no matter how good the Elon offense may be, won't cut it in a league full of explosive attacks. 

New defensive coordinator Dovonte Edwards is an internal hire. He was the Phoenix's safeties coach last year, helping defensive back Cole Coleman to a first-team All-CAA nod thanks to his team-best 71 tackles and an interception. 

Now, Coleman is back in the secondary for his fifth year at Elon, hoping to help motivate and improve a unit that gave up a league-high 23 passing touchdowns in 2021. 

Devonte Chandler and Jamir Malone make for a solid senior pairing at linebacker, having combined for 124 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last year, but Elon's tendency to get gashed, having given up an average of 5.77 yards per play last season, indicates a bigger problem with the strategies as a whole, rather than just one position group in particular. 

If there was one major positive from last year, however, it's that the Phoenix were the best in the CAA in terms of red zone defense, with teams only managing to score on 70% of trips to within Elon's 20-yard line. The fact that Elon often let teams get that far down the field in the first place is the more pressing issue that the coaching staff will need to address.

Wild card: Elon hasn't fallen into the recent college football trend to raid the transfer portal for talent, as only four new additions from other schools are listed on the 2022 roster. However, the names the Phoenix managed to add could be very, very important to their success. 

McKay is unquestionably the biggest name to FCS fans, having taken the Bobcats to a 9-2 record last year and as high as No. 3 in the national polls, before losing his starting job following a loss to rival Montana. 

The newcomer, who also had a stint as a starter with NC State in 2019, entered the transfer portal a short time later and eventually found his way to Elon, where on credentials alone is likely the clear-cut favorite to be the starter to begin the 2022 season. 

A trio of FBS transfers in outside linebacker/defensive end - Shon Brown (Coastal Carolina), wide receiver Cornell Hendrick Jr. (Old Dominion) and running back Jalen Hampton (Virginia Tech) - bring some high-level college football experience to the Elon roster in some much-needed areas. 

How the new faces mesh with the returning talent could prove to be a critical component in the Phoenix's push back to the FCS playoffs, but there is some definite pedigree to go along, as well.

Game To Watch: Vs. William & Mary, 3:30 p.m. (Eastern) Sept. 24 (link above)

The resumption of Elon's in-state rivalry with North Carolina A&T will have to wait another year, as the Aggies prepare for a move to the CAA in 2023. For now, attention will be drawn to a rematch from a thrilling 2021 game. 

The Tribe and Phoenix put on a barnburner during their meeting last season, with William & Mary skating by in a 34-31 shootout. Elon nearly came back from a 21-point deficit in front of its home crowd. 

Considering what happened to the Phoenix later in the year (back-to-back defeats to James Madison and Villanova), it's a result they likely wish they could've gotten back. They'll get a chance for revenge right away in their 2022 CAA opener. 

Elon and William & Mary were the only two teams (besides Villanova and Delaware) to receive first-place votes in the CAA preseason poll released last month, so perhaps the winner of this early-season meeting will be the dark horse to root for in the 2022 league season going forward. 

Expect plenty of fireworks on the offensive ends of each team.