Year two of the Charlie Strong era for USF Football will begin on Saturday at 6 p.m. when the Bulls officially kickoff the 2018 campaign against visiting Elon.
With a new starting quarterback stepping in for Quinton Flowers, major spots to fill on the defensive line, and, well, who the hell knows with special teams, there’s several questions about how this team will look and operate heading into a brand new season.
The Bulls will get its first chance to answer some of those questions against an FCS opponent that’s trending upwards.
Let’s meet Elon...
Opponent: Elon Phoenix
2017 Record: 8-4, 6-2 Colonial Athletic Association (FCS)
Head Coach: Curt Cignetti (2nd season)
Date/Time/Location: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL
Series History: These teams have met three times in the past, Elon won 41-13 in USF’s inaugural season in 1997 before the Bulls returned the favor with a 35-7 the following year in Tampa.
Elon had served as a proverbial doormat in both the SoCon and CAA prior to 2017, suffering losing seasons for six straight years from 2011-2016.
Enter new head coach Curt Cignetti last year, who had previously served as Nick Saban’s wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator at Alabama from 2007-2010 before turning Indiana University at Pennsylvania (yes, that’s a thing) into a Division II contender.
His impact was immediate as the Phoenix started the season off 8-1 reach as high as No. 7 in the FCS rankings.
That early season run was defined by them being able to grind out close wins with all eight victories coming within eight points, five of them coming within a field goal, and their Nov. 4 fistfight with Towson going to double overtime.
They would eventually drop their final two regular season games before losing to Furman 28-27 in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
For his quick turnaround job in getting the program back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Cignetti would be named CAA Coach of the Year.
The Phoenix are ranked 12th in the preseason FCS STATS poll.
Elon’s offense as a whole generated 4,438 yards on 5.3 yards per play last season. They would be slightly outgained on average with their opponents averaging 5.5 yards against them.
Returning under center to guide the Phoenix offense is sophomore quarterback Davis Cheek. As a true freshman last season, the Matthews, N.C. native completed roughly 59% of his passes for 2,413 yards and 15 touchdowns to be named CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’ll be throwing to third-team all-conference receiver Kortez Weeks as a primary target.
Toting the rock will be first-team all-conference running back Malcolm Summers. The senior rushed for 755 yards on 5.6 ypc and four touchdowns before injury ended his season.
Leading a veteran offensive line as a now fourth-year starter is preseason All-CAA left tackle and incredible name haver CJ Toogood.
Operating out of what appears to be a 3-3-5 base, Elon’s defense gave up 381.1 yards per game last year on, as mentioned before, 5.5 yards per play.
Anchoring the entire Phoenix ‘D’ is senior linebacker Warren Messer, whose 114 tackles, 11 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks earned him All-American status and 10th in voting for Buck Buchanan award. Also, take time to read up on his backstory.
Up front, Marcus Willoughby, Tristen Cox, and Daniel Everett return with starts under their belts.
The secondary will be a tad bit inexperienced after the departure of all-conference cornerback Chris Blair. Daniel Reid-Bennett and Tyler Campbell are the only returnees with a full seasons worth of starts under their belts.
Elon will turn to true freshman Skyler Davis as its primary kicker. Averaging 39.7 yards per punt a year ago, Hunter Stephenson returns as the starting punter.
Tyler Campbell and freshman Jaylan Thomas will handle kick returns while Kortez Weeks and Corey Joiner will handle punt returns.
Cignetti has his program heading in the right direction quickly and while they did manage to win nearly every close game they were in last year, you could flip that around and say that their season could’ve been drastically different had a few bounces in those games gone the other way. Especially with the -5 turnover margin they finished with.
Their offense got the job done but wasn’t necessarily explosive and even with the presence of an All-American linebacker like Messer, the Phoenix defense still finished as a below average unit in FCS.
I’ll say USF 41 Elon 20.