It was difficult to watch the Elon University football team’s defense Oct. 20 in the Phoenix’s 42-31 victory over Western Carolina University. Players seemed to be making injury-related exits every other drive.
Sophomore linebacker Odell Benton. Junior defensive lineman Jordan Jones. Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Spain. All hurt during the game.
And senior linebacker Blake Thompson was already not playing because he had surgery on a dislocated thumb earlier in the week.
It has become commonplace this season, and for head coach Jason Swepson, it is an issue.
“On defense, we almost ran out of guys,” he said. “The story in the second half is that we just didn’t have any depth on defense. Again, that’s something that’s going to be a concern for us.”
This lack of depth has been exposed in the last four games, mostly due to the running attacks of Elon’s opponents. In those four games, the Phoenix has given up 1,185 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, six of those against Wof- ford College Sept. 29. Elon has faced quarterbacks who made a significant impact in the running game — opposing signal-callers have averaged 72.6 rushing yards per game against the Elon defense in those match-ups.
Talk about the injuries heated up after a 35-23 loss to Appalachian State University Oct. 6. The Phoenix held a 17-14 lead early in the third quarter, but let it slip away by allowing big plays from the Appalachian State offense.
“To play this kind of team and that kind of speed, you’ve got to have some kind of depth, and right now, we don’t have that kind of depth,” Swepson said after that game.
The players also see it. Spain, who said he “popped his shoulder out” in the third quarter against Western Carolina but returned to the game, attributed some of that to the schedule the Phoenix faced, taking on “historically the best three teams in the conference,” he said, three weeks in a row. Elon lost 26- 23 to Georgia Southern University a week before the loss to Wofford.
“We’re a little lacking in depth right now,” he said after the loss to Appalachian State. “Our legs might get a little heavy in the fourth quarter as it is, especially with this team. It felt like they had a lot more depth, especially at the speed positions. They’re a fast team, they’re a good team, we just made too many mis- takes.”
The multiple defensive injuries have prompted younger players to step up. Sophomore defensive lineman Gary Coates had 1.5 tackles for loss of yards against Western Carolina and is eighth on the team in total tackles with 21. Sophomore cornerback Akeem Lang- ham has an interception and 20 tackles this season.
Senior linebacker Thonda Taylor replaced Thompson in the starting lineup against Western Carolina and had eight tackles and half a sack, prompting Swepson to say, “Thank God for Thonda.” Junior linebacker Quinton Light- foot played in his fourth game of the season against the Catamounts, playing what Swepson called “significant time.”
“We were able to patch our defense together,” he said.
With the status of starters Benton, Jones and Thompson unknown for next week’s game against Furman University, the Phoenix may need to stitch together a ragtag group of defenders in order to do what arguably must be done to make the playoffs: win the remaining four games on the schedule.
“We’re going to have practice smart, might have to cut some plays down,” Swepson said. “We’re running out of bodies on defense.”
If the Phoenix hopes to survive the rest of the seeason, it will need to keep the bodies it still has.