The slate has never been fresher for Elon.
After a tough 2-10 season in 2013, the Phoenix return to the gridiron with a new head coach in Rich Skrosky and will be playing in the Colonial Athletic Association for the first time. When Elon—an FCS team—travels 40 miles to Durham Saturday to play Duke, a sense of excitement will undoubtedly come over a team that is looking for a new identity.
“We are definitely a work in progress," Skrosky said. "Being a first-year coach back to Elon, there is a reason that we’re here. We had a tough year last year, going 2-10. The personnel and the overall numbers are not where they need to be. But I have said this to every constituent I have met with since I have been hired, that every day we are going in the right direction."
The two teams have only met once since 1920, with the last meeting coming Sept. 4, 2010, when the Blue Devils rolled 41-27 behind a 31-of-39, 350-yard and two-touchdown performance from current Atlanta Falcon reserve Sean Renfree. The win against the Phoenix would be one of only three that season for Duke.
But fans on both sides have seen their respective teams change since then. 2010 was the last time Elon finished with a winning record, while the Blue Devils would soon begin an ascent toward the top of the ACC.
Skrosky, still evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of his own team as a first-year head coach, had only admiration for the transformation David Cutcliffe has overseen at Duke.
“What Coach Cutcliffe has done there, it has really been unbelievable," Skrosky said. "I was an assistant [at Elon] from 2006 to 2010 and my last year we had the opportunity to go over there and play them. It was a good game, a competitive game, we didn’t play our best at that point in time. Knowing what they have done, following the game, it is really unbelievable. He has that program headed into a direction that a lot of people prior to him have not been able to accomplish.”
The Phoenix return experience at quarterback with fifth-year senior Mike Quinn. The Wayne, N.J., native threw for 2,618 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, and posted a Southern Conference record by throwing 210 consecutive passes without an interception.
Quinn had to get used to a new playbook this offseason, as Skrosky is expected to incorporate some of what he learned in three years as an offensive coordinator at Ball State into the Phoenix system.
Elon will look to put the ball in the hands of last year's team MVP, Kierre Brown, the Phoenix's do-it-all player on offense and special teams. Last season he hauled in 50 receptions for 448 yards and two touchdowns, and has the potential to take any punt or kick to the house.
"You know they’re going to be running Ball State’s offense and what they did at Elon before under Coach Skrosky," Cutcliffe said. "You feel like you’ve got some idea and you just kind of put your gameplan together schematically."
But there is concern for Elon along the offensive and defensive lines. Matching up with 300-pound giant Blue Devils Laken Tomlinson and Matt Skura could present a problem for a much smaller Phoenix defensive line. Elon's offensive front, consisting of a number of young players anchored by senior lineman Austin Sowell, faces similar issues.
"We are going to be a young team, particularly in the offensive line," Skrosky said. "We do have some players that have experience on their record, but as everybody knows, as you are going in and they are learning a new system it does take time.”
Playing the Blue Devils will be a unique experience for Elon, as Duke is the only FBS opponent it will face this season. Although the FCS is becoming stronger, with teams such as Old Dominion and Massachusetts having enough success to move up to the FBS in recent years, there is controversy surrounding games that cross divisional lines.
Skrosky said he thinks games with local FBS opponents such as Duke this year and Wake Forest next year are beneficial to his team, but he would prefer not to schedule a top-10 opponent in return for a big check.
“It is mixed, all we are going through in college athletics today," Skrosky said. "It has changed, we know what it is: the amount of money and power the Big 5 conferences now have. If they are going to pass rules that we don’t have any real say over, it is what it is, and we’ll play the hand that is dealt to us. The good thing about Elon that has made it nice is we are funded well enough where we don’t need to rely on a huge check. But we feel like a game with Duke, a local school, that there is a lot of people in our central North Carolina area that will be excited about it.”