Spring awakening for football team strikes fast, early

The siren on the megaphone went off, and almost the entire 2012 Elon University football team came together for stretches, led by one of the coaches. Once he was done, rising senior linebacker Blake Thompson took the middle of the pack to lead the team to chant “EU! You know!”

It was similar to any collegiate orientation weekend, but head coach Jason Swepson said his second go-around at the first spring practice Tuesday as the main man for Elon was different.

“The will and want to be successful is there, whereas last year it was more about the guys trying to please the coaches, so that’s been exciting to see,” he said. “We’re at a different mental level than we were last year because our players tasted the chance to have a winning season after being a minute or so away from it.”

Last season, the Phoenix finished 5-6, losing four of five to drop from a pleasing 3-1 start to a mediocre 4-5. After a victory over then-No. 17 Furman University Nov. 12 to pull themselves to a .500 record, the Phoenix let an early 21-0 lead over Appalachian State University slip away Nov. 19 and lost 28-24.

But it was Swepson’s first season at the helm, and he said the difference in all his players knowing “what they’re doing” is key, especially in the technical part of the game.

“Our technique looks better than it did a year ago,” he said. “We’ve taken major steps forward and had a great winter conditioning program. Now it’s about being physical and controlling the line of scrimmage.”

Jason Swepson is in his second year as the head coach of the Elon University football team. File photo by Al Drago

The line of scrimmage is an area where there is going to be some major competition during the spring. Losses of current senior starters Ned Cuthberson, Rodney Austin and Logan Hardin opens up three spots for players like rising sophomore Austin Sowell, who was a coaches’ all-freshman Southern Conference pick last season. Swepson also said former defensive lineman and rising junior Tevin James will move to offensive line.

Another player moving to cover losses is Thompson, who was a starting safety last season and the team’s second-leading tackler. Graduating senior linebackers Zach Henderson and Joshua Jones leave two openings in the linebacking corps coached by new linebackers coach Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay. Also, former linebacker starter and would-be fifth-year senior Dale Riley will forego his final year of eligibility and graduate this May, according to the Burlington Times-News’ Bob Sutton.

Swepson will look to players like Thompson for an important attribute in any sport.

“We need some leadership,” he said. “We lost some great leaders last year.  We have a lot of veterans who have played some football. I’m excited. I think we’re going to have some good leadership.”

Despite the defense losing four players who have started (cornerback Jonathan Conner will also graduate), Swepson sees an intuitive group.

“The defense has been sharp,” he said. “The terminology, they’re spitting out the calls a lot sooner than last year. (Spring practice is) a lot more technique teaching than play teaching like it was a year ago.”

Overall, Swepson is happy with the early results from spring practice.

“We were able to get a lot of work in, both teaching and technique wise,” he said. “I have a feeling that this team is going to want to hit and be successful.”

Quick Hits

  • Rising sophomore Odell Benton, who played six games last year, practiced on the top linebacking unit with Thompson and rising sophomore Jonathan Spain on Tuesday.
  • Rising sophomore transfer quarterback Tyler Smith will most likely sit out all of spring practice with shin ailments, according to The Times-News’ Sutton.
  • Swepson said the team may implement some trickery into the playbook this next season, speaking specifically about wide receivers. “We’re going to do some things with those inside receivers,” he said. ”We’ll have them line up at running back.  We may dabble in the wildcat a little. (Rising senior) Jeremy Peterson, (rising sophomore) Kierre Brown and (rising redshirt-freshman) Andre Davis, we’re going to do a lot of things with them.”
  • Having morning practices has been an adjustment for the players, but Swepson said they are coping well. “The kids came out and were wide awake, in fact they were out here 10 minutes early (on Tuesday),” he said. “I think they’re excited about the morning practice and I think it will be beneficial for us.”
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