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How Elon changed not only coaches, but systems too
‘Physical, smart and fast’
With a new coaching staff and a brand new system, the only recognizable part of the 2011 Elon University football program is its players.
Head coach Jason Swepson joined the Elon Athletics staff in January and has added to his coaching staff to form the leadership on the football field.
“Everyone’s kind of starting over,” junior quarterback Thomas Wilson said. “We’ve got to get to know the playbook, get to know the coaches. It’s been challenging for all of us.”
While the team had to relearn the system, many of the players maintained that it wasn’t difficult, just different.
“Spring was kind of like pulling teeth,” senior linebacker Joshua Jones said, “but now that we’ve gotten further into it, everybody’s gotten to know each other, and we’ve all bonded a lot more. Now we’re on the path to success.”
The new playbook meant a new offense, one that Wilson had to learn.
“We have an up-tempo, fast-break offense,” Wilson said. “It’s a no-huddle type of offense and we are looking forward to it. We have the playmakers to score a lot of points.”
One set of playmakers is at the running back position; a trio of seniors: A.J. Harris, Jamal Shuman and Dontay Taylor.
All three have struggled with injuries in the past, but if they can stay healthy, they can make a difference on the field, Swepson said.
“They complement each other,” Wilson said. “They can all do different things and they all bring different things to our offense.”
This running game is coupled with receivers to attack both on the ground and through the air.
Junior wide receiver Aaron Mellette had 86 catches last season, while senior tight end Andre Labinowicz, junior wide receiver Jeremy Peterson and sophomore wide receiver Kierre Brown each recorded double-digit receptions.
“Our biggest strength will probably be in our passing game,” senior offensive lineman Rodney Austin said. “We have a lot of dynamic receivers and we have a really good quarterback that can distribute the ball.”
Last season, the offense averaged 435 yards per game, ranking No. 1 in both total offense and passing offense in the Southern Conference. Seven of the starters from that season are returning.
But a team doesn’t end with the offense.
“A good offense wins games, but a good defense wins championships,” Mellette said. “As much as people look at the offense to win games, it’s going to come down to the defense to make plays.”
While Elon had a top-ranked offense last season, it had the No. 8 defense in the SoCon. But the team won’t be running that style of defense anymore.
“If we play the defense Coach Pinkham and the rest of the defensive staff is teaching us, then it’s foolproof,” junior defensive back Blake Thompson said. “There are no flaws to our defense if we do what we’re supposed to do with each check and each adjustment.”
One of the focuses of that new defensive system is rush defense — something the team ranked No. 7 in the SoCon last year.
“If we can stop the run, not just contain the run but actually stop it and keep other teams in their tracks, we’ll have a great chance to be successful this year,” Jones said.
While five starters from last season have graduated, five others were freshmen or sophomores.
“We’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of places on our defense that haven’t had too many snaps on this level yet,” Jones said. “We’re going to be counting on those guys to make a lot of plays this year.”
Part of making plays, Jones said, means rushing toward the ball on every play. If everyone is moving toward the ball quickly, players can back each other up on missed tackles.
“One thing we really harp on, really focus on, is relentless pursuit, regardless of the situation,” Jones said. “No matter what, everyone running to the football, regardless of where you are on the football field.”
This new system has pervaded spring and summer practices, as well as preseason camp, and the results will be seen at the first game of the season, which takes place 7: 30 p.m. Sept. 3 at Vanderbilt University.
This is the fourth Football Bowl Subdivision team Elon has played, the third in a row. Because of this, Swepson said the team is prepared to play on the big stage.
In addition, all of the coaches have either played or coached on the FBS level.
“We’re not going to be wowed,” Swepson said. “I think they’re approaching the game like any other game. It’s not the Super Bowl for us. It’s just Game 1.”
And while winning is important, Swepson said he is most concerned with how his team plays the game.
“When it’s all said and done,” Swepson said, “I just hope the opposing team, when they shake our hands, they say, ‘They played the game the way it should be,’ which is tough and physical, smart and fast.”
by Sam Calvert, The Pendulum