Interception underlines journey for Elon QB turned defensive back
ELON — As he went out on defense last week for the series that decided the game, Connor Christiansen said an earnest prayer of thanks for the chance to be on the field in such a crucial position, and also allowed himself the briefest of flirtations with the absurd.
With visiting Elon leading after scoring the go-ahead touchdown and just 1:12 remaining for James Madison to answer, he would seal one of the most significant football achievements in school history by grabbing an interception and taking a knee — and then prancing off on a victory lap, parading around with the streamer-tossing, trash-talking Bridgeforth Stadium crowd silenced.
“Just to go be obnoxious and rub it in,” Christiansen said this week, grinning at a thought that runs so contrary to his character.
Reality became exponentially better than fantasy.
Christiansen did come up with the clinching interception in the final 30 seconds, cementing Elon’s conquest of James Madison, the three-time Colonial Athletic Association champion that had been unbeaten in the league since Halloween 2015, and whose then-No. 2 status in the Football Championship Subdivision made the Dukes the highest-ranked team Elon ever has defeated in 20 years on the FCS level.
But rather than sprinting into celebration, Christiansen fell down on the spot, wrapping both arms around the ball and ending up flat on his back. A flood of appreciative tears suddenly poured from the former quarterback, who reinvented himself in the middle of his Elon career as a defensive back.
“I just started bawling,” he said. “It was very surreal and very emotional because of how far I’ve come. I never thought I’d be making the game-winning interception against the No. 2-ranked team in the nation, a team that had killed us the last four years. It was unbelievable.
“And here I am laying on the ground with the ball. I almost didn’t want to get up. I almost didn’t want that moment to end. I kind of looked up into the sky and I wanted to take it all in, because that’s why you play the game, to be in a moment like that.”
The fifth-ranked Phoenix (4-1 overall, 2-0 CAA) plays Saturday at Delaware (3-2, 1-1) and the last time the teams got together, three years ago in the 2015 regular-season finale, Christiansen was Elon’s redshirt freshman starting quarterback.
Now, he’s a fifth-year senior and backup safety, a competent piece in Elon’s defensive backfield coming off a victory that he calls one of the most gratifying experiences of his life, after having navigated injuries and unkind circumstances and the challenge of a position change, a path that has endeared him to his teammates.
“He did it with the right attitude,” Elon receiver Corey Joyner said, “and I think that’s a testament to the kind of person he is. To work your whole life at one thing and then to no longer be able to do that, to have to do something else, you can create so many different things in your mind, ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not this, I’m not that.’
“But instead, he immediately started to learn. The process of him learning to become a defensive back started that day he wasn’t going to be a quarterback anymore, and I don’t know many people who could put their pride aside or put their ego aside to do it like that. I think that’s the biggest reason that’s made him successful.”
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The left-handed Christiansen made it a little more than half a game into 2016 as Elon’s quarterback. During that season opener, a Gardner-Webb defender landed on him with his arm in an awkward position after a throw and his left shoulder popped out of place, a problematic and painful recurring situation for him since suffering a torn labrum in high school.
“I had kind of known my shoulder wasn’t going to hold up forever,” he said. “I had problems with it throughout that (preseason) camp, and I just knew it was kind of like a ticking time bomb when it was going to get to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Christiansen had season-ending surgery and Elon struggled to a 2-9 finish, its last of six straight losing seasons before coach Curt Cignetti’s arrival.
In the spring of 2017, Christiansen couldn’t throw without his shoulder hurting. Furthermore, the Phoenix’s influx of talented freshmen at quarterback — standout Davis Cheek, who quickly blossomed into an accomplished passer and eventually the Offensive Rookie of the Year in CAA, and Jalen Greene, the athletic backup to Cheek — was undeniable.
Cignetti and defensive coordinator Tony Trisciani met with Christiansen about the idea of switching to safety, a possible move that would help Elon’s depth at defensive back, while also potentially not leaving him parked on the sideline during games.
“For it to work he had to want to do it, I wasn’t going to force him to do it,” Cignetti said. “There’s been a history of quarterbacks being good safeties, and I thought he had the skill set. He’s intelligent, an agile athlete, got really good ball skills. He thought about it and took a stab at it, and really from the first day on just improved daily.”
Christiansen called it a bittersweet time, letting go of playing quarterback, a responsibility he loved and the job he had been recruited to perform. But he was intrigued by what Cignetti and Trisciani presented, the opportunity to apply his knowledge of offense as a defender.
Christiansen responded by working in and snagging a collection of interceptions during that session of spring practices and the training camp prior to the 2017 season, marking the beginning of his second act as an Elon football player — and a healthy obsession.
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The evolutionary process of becoming a capable backup in Elon’s base defense and a starter in its passing-situation packages has driven Christiansen into his cell phone on most weeknights.
There, using an app uploaded with clips of game video compiled by Elon defensive backs coach Ryan Smith, Christiansen dives into an immersion of film study on the opposing offense and quarterback that the Phoenix is preparing to face that particular weekend.
It has grown into something of a personal quest for the former quarterback.
“What I’ve become obsessed with is trying to be smarter than the other quarterback,” he said. “It’s like a chess match. All week I try to find out what he’s looking for and what he wants to see in the defense. I think that’s been my favorite part about playing defense, taking what the quarterback wants to see and using it against him. That makes it fun for me, and for my playing style, I need to have every mental advantage that I can.
“So third downs are like my baby, because I quickly realized third downs would be the way I can make an impact on this team.”
Elon’s shutout of Albany in September of last season fully gave birth to that understanding for Christiansen, who previously had detected habits distinguishing Albany quarterbacks Will Brunson and Neven Sussman, especially on certain passing downs involving four-receiver sets.
With those tendencies that he discovered playing out in front of him in real time, Christiansen picked off two passes late in the game. Each could’ve sewn up victory for Elon, but neither interception stood. Video replay denied the first, the officials ruling Christiansen didn’t properly secure the ball, and a roughing the passer penalty on Elon wiped out the second one.
Still, it was a light-bulb moment.
“Him playing quarterback has enhanced his defensive abilities,” Elon defensive back Greg Liggs Jr. said of Christiansen. “He knows the route concepts. He knows what he’s good at, how to fit in. He knows where to be, and part of being good at playing football is knowing where to be at a good time. Good stuff happens when you’re in the right place.”
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A most-satisfying backdrop emerged last week, as Christiansen hugged senior running back Malcolm Summers on the field and soaked in Elon’s triumph at James Madison, the special scene he helped deliver, where the host Dukes had won 19 straight home games, the best run in the FCS.
Christiansen took delight in the heartfelt reactions of Elon’s veterans, fellow seniors such as defensive back Efrim Borders, offensive lineman Alex Higgins, linebacker Warren Messer, offensive lineman Oli Udoh and Joyner, whose emotions mirrored Christiansen’s and illustrated the meaning attached to the victory.
Back in the locker room, Christiansen cried some more.
“Very rewarding,” he said. “It was a different kind of jubilation that we had. The guys who have been around here for a year or two, all they’ve known is success. We’ve been on the other side of it.
“But I think if I could go back and change things, I don’t think that I would. It’s changed who I am as an individual and, obviously, as a football player. I’ve learned some of my greatest lessons going through what I’ve gone through, so yeah, I don’t think I would trade it or these experiences or my relationship with Coach ‘Trish’ and the defensive guys. This has been perfect for me.”