After seven years as an assistant, Elson takes the reigns

Danny Schoenbaechler

As the minutes and seconds on the scoreboard slowly melted away, Western football was experiencing pure euphoria.

The Hilltoppers were beating McNeese State 38-14 in the I-AA National Championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With several minutes left, it was defensive coordinator David Elson who was given the ceremonial Gatorade shower, not head coach Jack Harbaugh.

Call it foreshadowing.

Eight months later, Elson is preparing to start his first season as Western’s head coach.

He isn’t faced with saving the program from extinction or rebuilding a program in ruins, as was the case for his predecessor.

No, David Elson is faced with the task of contending for a national title.

Now.

Two days after he turned 32 years old.

As the second youngest coach in Division I football, Elson must take his players and show them the way back to a promise land called Chattanooga.

“One of the biggest challenges is to balance between moving forward and remembering that wonderful experience,” Elson said. “We have to balance it and focus on this team writing our own book.”

Ranked preseason No. 5, the Hilltoppers have a solid core group of returning players, but must compete in the Gateway Conference with a completely new offensive backfield.

Elson is energetic and charismatic, but spends most of practice watching from a distance, completely isolated.

He runs a tightly organized practice as if he’s been doing it for years.

“Scripting for practice takes a lot of time,” he said. “That’s our only two hours of the day where we can get better on the field.”

The scenario Elson is faced with places a true freshman quarterback with two unproven running backs behind him.

Justin Haddix arrives on the Hill boasting shocking high school passing statistics, but no college experience.

When standing behind Western’s mammoth offensive line, Haddix’s listed 6-foot-2-inch height seems a little exaggerated. But Haddix believes that he has the tools it will take.

“I’m looking forward to the (Union game),” he said. “I just want to get on the field and show what I can do.”

He won the job after a three week quarterback battle with sophomore Alex Dukes and redshirt freshman Blake Ladson.

The job was essentially his after going 8-for-8 totaling 161 yards in the final preseason scrimmage.

He will be joined by an assortment of inexperienced running backs who will try and continue Western’s dominant running game.

“We are going to run the ball,” Elson said. “It’s not a new offense. We are going to try and be more balanced, but we are definitely still going to run the ball the majority of the time.”

With everything to worry about on the field, Elson said he is just now starting to think about how being a head coach will feel.

“I’ve started to think about it,” he said. “But I just try and plan and be prepared.”

Planning seems to be his answer to everything.

When things get hectic, Elson can rely on two things: planning and his beloved defense.

“It’s been nice being able to have my hands in the offense, but I do find myself wandering over to the defense a lot,” Elson said.

The linebackers and defensive backs should be as good as any unit in the country.

Erik Dandy, Charles Thompson and Karl Maslowski form a linebacking trio that could strike fear into running backs across the Gateway.

Behind them are defensive backs Jeremy Chandler, Carl Birts, Antonio Thomas and Antonio Veals.

The cornerbacks and safeties may be the only two spots on the team where depth is a plus.

“Our defense is going to continue to be strong and keep people out of the end zone,” Elson said.

If the defense can do just that, they could be in position to make another run through the postseason.

Then this youngster of a head coach may get another Gatorade shower, this time as the man in charge.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]