Elon enters its second season under head coach Jason Swepson following the program's first losing campaign since 2006. After coaching alongside former Boston College and current N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien for over a decade, Swepson took over an Elon program in 2010 coming off a six-win season.
After winning the final four games of 2010, Swepson and the Phoenix carried the momentum into last fall by winning four of their first six games. However, the Phoenix (5-6, 3-5 SoCon) lost all but one of its final five games. The lone win came against No. 17 Furman, but losses to Chattanooga and Samford dashed hopes for a winning season.
The Phoenix return enough talent on both sides of the ball to make another run at the playoffs, but the defense must force more turnovers and the offense must limit its own mistakes. Elon ranked dead last out of 120 FCS schools in turnover margin (-2.0) in 2011. Supporters hope the growing pains are over for the Phoenix, who return 14 starters, including seven on offense and seven on defense.
"We worked two huddles in the first half to give the defense the tempo of what we're going to face against Carolina." – Swepson on the final scrimmage of camp to prepare for UNC
"I guess this is [the coaching staff's] second year in the program and [Swepson] did some really nice things last year. They won five games in the transition and so they're going to be a much better football team this year just in year two and understanding the system." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
Elon's Aaron Mellette vs. UNC's Secondary
North Carolina was unbalanced on defense last fall with a rush defense (123.92 ypg) that ranked third in the ACC and a pass defense (241.31 ypg) that ranked near the bottom of the league. The UNC secondary will be tested by an Elon passing attack that returns its 2011 starting quarterback as well as arguably the best wide receiver on the FCS level. Quarterback Thomas Wilson (279-of-411 passing, 3057 yards, 23 TD, 21 INT) and wide receiver Aaron Mellette (113 rec, 1639 yards, 12 TD) teamed up to form the SoCon's top passing offense (281.45 ypg) in 2011.
"[Elon's] got a quarterback that can throw the football," Fedora said. "The kid is about 6-foot-4, 222-pounds and has got a really good arm and understands what they're doing and they take advantage of it.
"And they've got an All-American receiver out there, number three, who is really a good football player. I mean really good. I would say watching film on that kid he could play anywhere in the country. He's 6-foot-4, 220-pounds and he runs and he can make you miss and he catches. He's got great body control, catches the ball in traffic, so that is a problem. That's a problem, so it will be a great test for us to find out where we are defensively."
Mellette led the FCS in yards (149.0) as well as receptions per game (10.27) in 2011. At 6-foot-4, he is three inches taller than any member of the Tar Heels' starting secondary and four inches taller than North Carolina's tallest cornerback, Jabari Price. Even though Elon is an FCS school, Mallette is an NFL draft prospect who looks to take advantage of a secondary that surrendered 100-yard receiving games to six different players last fall.
The 4-2-5 defense installed by the new coaching staff gives North Carolina an extra defensive back with the Ram position. The Tar Heels hold a significant advantage in terms of size and talent along the line, so look for the Ram, senior Gene Robinson (49 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT), to stay back and help keep tabs on Mallette.
UNC's New-Look Offense vs. Elon's Defense With all due respect to Elon's defense, the focus of this matchup rests squarely on the North Carolina offense. Saturday marks the debut of Fedora as head coach and the first look at his up-tempo, no-huddle offense. The introduction of the new system is arguably more anticipated by North Carolina supporters than the game itself.
It will be interesting to see how smoothly the offense operates during live action. Nearly all of the starters were recruited to play in a pro-style offense, so the adjustment was not easy. In addition to learning a completely new playbook, some players, offensive linemen in particular, had to lose weight in the offseason in order to physically keep up with the pace. With all the required adjustments, it is unlikely the offense will run like a well-oiled machine from the start.
Fedora said that the team made "a lot of mistakes" in the mock game last Saturday and that he feels fortunate the team was not playing an actual game. This Saturday, Elon hopes to take advantage of North Carolina's lack of experience in its new offense.
"On the defensive side of the ball, they are not afraid to play man coverage and bring people," Fedora said on Monday. "They're bringing at least one or two every snap so we will have our work cut out for us getting people on hats and covering people up and giving ourselves a chance."
The Elon defense ranked 38th in FCS play in total defense (344.91 ypg) and 100th in scoring defense (32.64 ppg) in 2011. All-SoCon junior defensive lineman Tony Thompson (24 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks) is the most notable returnee for a defense that must stop the likes of North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner (239-of-350 passing, 3086 yards, 26 TD, 13 INT) and All-ACC running back Gio Bernard (239 car, 1253 yards, 13 TD).