Prior to the 2000 season, the Elon University football program unveiled its new mascot, a "Phoenix," which is the mythical bird known for rising from the ashes. Three years after this new image, the Phoenix joined the SoCon, which is known as one of the toughest leagues at the FCS level.
After finishing no higher than sixth place in three seasons, Elon officially fulfilled its mythical mascot’s fate in 2007 by rising from the proverbial ashes of the SoCon cellar to finish third in the league standings.
After advancing to the FCS postseason for the first time in a decade as a Division I member last fall, the challenge now becomes establishing a base foundation upon which to build and foster a tradition.
When Pete Lembo took the reins of the Elon football program in December of 2005, he was faced with quite a rebuilding project, taking over a club that had finished last in the league (0-7 in '05) and had won only three conference games in three seasons as a member. Lembo, who has done more to rebuild the Phoenix football program than anyone, built the program during the offseason, using his skills as one of the FCS’ top recruiters.
Lembo was responsible for bringing in quarterback Scott Riddle, as well as record-breaking wide receiver Terrell Hudgins. Elon went from having one of the worst offenses in the nation to fielding one of the nation’s best in the span of two seasons, doing a large majority of its damage through the air.
The Phoenix saw immediate improvement under Lembo, completing the 2006 season with five wins, which were the most victories for the program since the 2000 campaign, when it finished 7-4. A year later, Elon appeared to be well on its way to garnering the school’s first playoff appearance as an FCS member, getting off to a 6-2 start to the campaign, including a 4-1 start in league play.
However, Elon faltered down the stretch and lost its next two at Furman (52-49) and at The Citadel (42-31) to end any chance of a playoff bid. But there was a strong confidence for Elon heading into the offseason after tying for third place, with traditional SoCon powers Furman and Georgia Southern in the league standings, at a 4-3 league mark.
It was a season in which true freshman starting signal-caller Scott Riddle took the FCS by storm, setting or tying three NCAA standards in his inaugural season under center.
With big expectations entering the 2008 season and starting the season with a No. 15 national ranking (the first time Elon entered the season ranked this high as an FCS member), Elon encountered the pressure of being one of the "top dogs" in the SoCon, beginning the '08 campaign with a 28-10 loss to eventual national champion Richmond.
Despite finishing 8-3, the Phoenix lost crucial league games to Appalachian State (24-16) and Wofford (55-20), but the most damaging loss was a 26-3 one at Liberty in the regular-season finale. That game almost certainly kept the Phoenix out of the 2008 postseason.
Elon again entered the 2009 season with high expectations and were now getting a taste of what Appalachian State’s life had been like at the top of the SoCon pecking order, since its first of five straight league titles and three consecutive national crowns, beginning in 2005.
The question was not so much with Elon’s talent in 2009 but rather more with its psyche. By now, some were starting to label the Phoenix as "underachievers" after the team's play down the stretch in both the 2007 and '08 campaigns.
But the Phoenix appeared to have reversed the trend in 2009 and to many were the strongest team in the SoCon, even surpassing juggernaut Appalachian State. Elon got off to a enviable 8-1 start and posted an unblemished 6-0 mark heading into its late-season clash with Appalachian State. With a win over the Mountaineers on Nov. 14, the Phoenix completed what Lembo’s first recruiting class had started four years earlier, as he believed in them before anyone else could.
However, with the game being billed as one of the biggest showdowns in league history and with the Phoenix’s lack of experience in championship-deciding games, it was clear that the self-imposed pressure that this team had encountered down the stretch in the 2007 and '08 seasons would rear its ugly head once again. Elon was completely overmatched and made three crucial first-quarter mistakes, which led to Elon’s ultimate demise, as it fell behind 21-0 en route to a 27-10 loss to ASU.
In the postseason, Elon would get an opportunity to avenge that 28-10 loss to Richmond from the 2008 season, facing the Spiders in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.
However, Elon’s stay in the 2009 FCS playoffs would be a short one, as the team dropped a heartbreaking 16-13 contest to the Spiders to conclude the season with a 9-3 mark. The nine wins were the most for the Elon football program since its inaugural season as an FCS member, when the Phoenix went 9-2 a decade earlier.
The challenge now for Elon becomes finding a way to maintain its success and build upon its breakthrough campaign of 2009.
The Phoenix will have enough talent to do it, including Riddle (285-of-439, 3,345 YDS, 23 TD, 7 INT) and a total of 13 starters (seven on offense, six on defense). It will be Riddle’s final chance to win a ring, and he won’t have the luxury of being able to throw the ball to Terrell Hudgins (123 REC, 1,633 YDS, 16 TD, 13.3 YPR), who finished his career as the all-time leading receiver in Division I college football (FBS or FCS).
Elon also suffered some significant losses from the offensive line, as the Phoenix must replace three starters—David Harrison, Chris Werden, and Jeff Allen. Both Werden and Harrison were all-league selections last fall. John Rubertone and Ned Cuthbertson are the lone holdovers from a year ago.
Elon will again be strong at the skill positions, returning the likes of Sean Jeffcoat (27 REC, 366 YDS, 3 TD, 13.6 YPC) and Lance Camp (45 REC, 585 YDS, 13.0 YPR) at wide receiver while running backs Jamal Shuman (133 ATT, 677 YDS, 3 TD, 5.1 YPC), Brandon Newsome (105 ATT, 455 YDS, 7 TD, 4.3 YPC), and A.J. Harris (109 ATT, 474 YDS, 2 TD, 4.3 YPC) return to power the ground attack.
The Elon defense was ranked as the top unit in the nation for much of the 2009 season and, despite losing all-league defensive end Andre Campbell (40 TCK, 16.0 TFL, 8.5 SCK) to graduation, the Phoenix have a chance to be pretty good on defense once again. With a linebacking corps that features Dale Riley (75 TCK, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 SCK), Joshua Jones (team-leading 89 TCK, 7.0 TFLs, 2 SCK, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF), and Brandon Wiggins 71 TCK, 3.0 TFL), this unit has a chance to be one of the best in the FCS in 2010.
Elon has the ingredients to win its first league title this fall and begin to establish a new tradition in an already well-established league.