UNC Beat: Elon Preview

Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell once said Dean Smith was the only coach to win 800 games and be the underdog in every one of them.

Driesell wasn’t suggesting that Smith’s Tar Heel teams were perennially underrated. Instead, he was saying that, if you believed everything the legendary basketball coach would tell the media before each game,  you would think North Carolina would have to play the game of their lives to win the next game.

New football head coach Larry Fedora is apparently not interested in such coachspeak.  When asked Monday if he knew where Elon, the Tar Heels’ opponent to open the college football season, was located, he replied with, “I do not. It’s in North Carolina, I know that.” Real bashful, that Fedora fellow.

Certainly, that quote will find its way into the Elon locker room and be used as “motivation” for the Phoenix in the September 1 opener at Kenan Memorial Stadium.  Of course, most North Carolina fans will not have the first clue about the Phoenix roster (I’m guessing Fedora et al. have at least watched some tape), so I’ve done the research so you don’t have to!  So read up, rub my head for good luck, and get ready for kickoff.

Last year, Elon was 5-6 under first-year head coach Jason Swepson. Swepson played running back and wide receiver for Boston College from 1988 to 1992 and was a running backs coach under Tom O’Brien at both Boston College and NC State before accepting the Elon position. (You know, in case NC State fans needed another reason to cheer on the Phoenix in this game.)

Elon opened against Vanderbilt last season in a battle of rookie head coaches with ACC connections (Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was the offensive coordinator and “head-coach-in-waiting” at Maryland before going to Nashville).  Elon hung with the Commodores for three quarters before Vanderbilt opened up a lead in the final period for a 45-14 win.

In 2011, Elon boasted the best passing offense in the Southern Conference, led by quarterback Thomas Wilson and wide receiver Aaron Mellette. Mellette is garnering attention from the folks who play on Sundays. He has a large frame and an ability to use that to his advantage on jump balls, and is relatively quick for a receiver of his 6-3 stature.  Mellette finished fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award last season, which is presented to the best player in the FCS each season.

Wilson, now a senior, claimed QB1 status over Tyler Smith (who transferred from Maryland) prior to last season.  Seizing the opportunity, he passed for over 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns.  The duo of Wilson and Mellette led the Phoenix to finish 14th in the FCS in passing offense in 2011, and they should only be better with an extra year in the pass-happy Swepson system.

Unfortunately for the Phoenix, Wilson is also the team’s leading returner in rushing yardage, with a whopping 36 yards on the ground to his name.  Three running backs graduated after 2011, leaving a combination of Matt Eastman (switching to running back from tight end), sophomore Karl Bostick (transfer from Akron), and freshmen B.J. Bennett and Thuc Phan to lead the rushing offense.

The weakness for Elon last season was its defense.  While, statistically, the Phoenix pass defense was a top-five unit in all of the FCS, they struggled to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard and allowed nearly 200 rushing yards per game.  Compounding the issue, Elon failed to generate turnovers with regularity, averaging two fewer turnovers per game than their opposition.   Wilson will have to do a better job protecting the football in 2012 (he threw 21 interceptions last season), but the defense will need to also step up if the Phoenix hope to make the FCS playoffs.

For North Carolina, the key against Elon offensively will be to run the ball effectively. Obviously, last season’s struggles don’t guarantee the Elon rushing defense will be awful again this season, but it is certainly not a bad place to start.  If nothing else, it should open up some mismatches in the passing game that result when an FBS team pairs up against an FCS team.

Defensively, expect the Tar Heels to apply ample pressure on Thomas Wilson and whoever Elon throws out there at running back (Eastman is the lead guy, but may have gotten banged up in their preseason scrimmage, per the fine folks at The Pendulum).  If they can force Wilson to make mistakes, North Carolina should be able to easily put away the Phoenix.  The danger will come if Wilson and Mellette are able to hook up with regularity and demonstrate how they were so successful in 2011.

Of course, Elon also knows that North Carolina had one of the worst pass defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season.  This is their glimmer of hope against the Tar Heels: If they can pass successfully and put together a strong defensive effort, they have a shot.  Those are two big “Ifs”: the Phoenix defense will have to show a great amount of improvement over their 2011 counterpart, and Thomas Wilson will have to avoid making the mistakes that hurt his squad last season, especially against a Tar Heel defense that will be looking more than ever to capitalize on those very mistakes.

In summation, it’s not all that surprising to predict a Carolina Victory to open the season, which I am naturally doing.  However, Elon does have some playmakers worth keeping an eye on.  It’s easy to sleep on “no-name” teams, especially at the beginning of the season.  This is simply a reminder that Elon plays football at a pretty high level, too, even if it’s not necessarily what people come to expect from the ACC. Besides, the Tar Heels’ close shaves against McNeese State in 2008 and William & Mary in 2010 should still be fresh in some folks’ memories.

P.S: Elon University, formerly Elon College, is in Alamance County, North Carolina.  Notable alumni include former CEO of Wendy’s Kerrii Anderson, Daily Show writer Rich Bloomquist, baseball manager Jack McKeon, NASCAR driver Ward Burton, and a few ACC names you may know: Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, Georgia Tech radio voice Wes Durham, former Miami basketball coach Frank Haith, and NC State Athletic Director Debbie Yow.

So now you know.


Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC.  Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements.  For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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