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1. "Aim High"
There's obviously no guarantee that Old Dominion's move to FBS -- in its first complete, official season in 2014 -- will pay off in the long-term. There's no assurance that head coach Bobby Wilder's defense will ever get up to speed against FBS offenses. There's no certainty that the program, planted in the middle of Norfolk, Va., with minimal room for growth, will be able to accommodate the growing demands (financial and otherwise) of big-time (well, mid-major) football. Obviously.
But it's hard not to be intrigued.
In 2007, ODU hired Wilder to resurrect a football program that had been dormant -- in the literal sense, not the wasn't-very-good sense -- for nearly seven decades. In ODU's first two seasons (2009-10), the Monarchs went 17-5. In their next two seasons, they went 21-5 and twice reached the FCS playoffs. In their provisional FBS season last fall, they went 8-4.
There have been minimal growing pains, but no expansion-franchise struggles. In five years as a football program, ODU has gone 46-14. ODU survived the transition from gestation to FCS with no problem, and initial signs (competitive losses to ECU and Pitt, an easy win over Idaho) suggest that the transition from FCS to FBS might not be particularly painful either.
Wilder's slogan since he took the ODU job has been "Aim high." The Monarchs have certainly done just that. They moved to FBS, they're trying (trying) to get a 30,000-seat stadium built, and in a short amount of time they surpassed a number of well-established FCS programs. But with a full FBS and Conference USA ahead of them in 2014, everything now gets a lot more difficult.
2. This could be fun
You can't say ODU wasn't entertaining in 2013. The Monarchs did only go 1-4 against FBS competition, but ODU games featured a combined 76.3 points and 971.2 yards (614.6 passing) on average. ODU scored at least 38 points seven times and allowed at least 35 six times. The Monarchs allowed 99 points in two FBS games to start the season, scored 201 points in a three-week span against FCS teams, and allowed 80 points to North Carolina in the season finale.
In 2014, ODU's stellar offensive line has some rebuilding to do, but with an experienced quarterback and options galore at receiver and running back, the Monarchs will move the ball. Meanwhile, the defense is deeper and more experienced, but its issues against FBS teams were deep enough that they will almost certainly not be resolved in a single offseason. There will still be points and yards in 2014, plenty of points and yards.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|31-Aug||East Carolina||40||38-52||L||44.5 - 34.6||W|
|7-Sep||Maryland||63||10-47||L||23.8 - 52.1||L|
|19-Oct||Pittsburgh||54||24-35||L||24.9 - 35.4||L|
|9-Nov||Idaho||116||59-38||W||31.1 - 38.5||L|
|23-Nov||North Carolina||38||20-80||L||22.3 - 60.8||L|
|Points Per Game||42.3||N/A||34.0||N/A|
|Adj. Points Per Game (5 games)||29.3||N/A||44.3||N/A|
3. The offense was ready
ODU played five games against FBS competition in 2013 -- three against ACC teams, one against a future conference mate (ECU), and one against a Sun Belt team (Idaho). The Monarchs averaged at least 5.2 yards per play in four of five games and at least 6.1 twice. They also scored at least 24 points three times and at least 38 points twice. They were mostly shut down by Maryland, but it's safe to say the ODU offense was FBS-ready.
The defense was ... less ready. Injuries played a serious role in a late-season fade, but the D certainly wasn't very good at the beginning of the season either. The Monarchs allowed at least 5.9 yards per play in all five FBS games, allowed 8.5 and 47 points to Maryland, then allowed an incredible 10.6 per play and 80 points in the season finale against a red-hot North Carolina team; the UNC game got so badly out of hand that the teams agreed to shrink the fourth quarter to only 10 minutes. UNC scored its 80th point 41 minutes in, then went out of its way not to score again.
The defense was bad, then got worse, in other words.
With new defensive assistants and some (intended) immediate-impact signees in the 2014 recruiting class, the defense should improve. But it could improve by quite a bit and still be quite a liability.
Note: The advanced rankings that exist below are culled from ODU's five games against FBS competition -- obviously not a large sample size.
|Q1 Rk||38||1st Down Rk||60|
|Q2 Rk||61||2nd Down Rk||18|
|Q3 Rk||38||3rd Down Rk||111|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Taylor Heinicke||6'1, 210||Sr.||NR||340||486||4022||33||8||70.0%||8.3|
|David Washington||6'3, 220||So.||3 stars (5.5)||22||31||259||4||0||71.0%||8.4|
|Shuler Bentley||6'0, 195||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
4. Hello, world
He was named the Old Spice Player of the Year for the state of Georgia in high school. As a true freshman at ODU, he threw 10 touchdown passes in two FCS playoff games. As a sophomore, he won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS' Heisman. As a junior, he threw for 4,022 yards and completed 70 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
Taylor Heinicke is really, really good. And as a senior, he will have his largest stage yet to prove it. He's reasonably mobile and insanely accurate, and while his size isn't optimal, he should have quite a chance to make an impression on NFL scouts this fall. And when he leaves after the 2014 season, ODU appears to be in pretty good hands when it comes to a successor, too. David Washington and Shuler Bentley were both rather well-touted recruits, and Washington performed well as an understudy last fall.
ODU's offense is as high-octane as they come. Including sacks, the Monarchs attempted nearly 45 passes per game in 2013 (despite holding leads in most FCS games), and Heinicke was able to complete nearly three quarters of his passes while still taking shots downfield to players like Larry Pinkard and Antonio Vaughan. ODU stretches you wide, then attempts to pierce you vertically. Heinicke appears to be the perfect weapon for Bobby Wilder and offensive coordinator Brian Scott.
|Taylor Heinicke||QB||6'1, 210||Sr.||NR||93||348||5||3.7|
|Cam Boyd||RB||5'6, 175||Sr.||NR||76||450||5||5.9|
|Antonio Vaughan||WR||5'8, 175||Sr.||NR||28||92||1||3.3|
|Gerard Johnson||RB||5'9, 200||So.||2 stars (5.3)||57||372||5||6.5|
|David Washington||QB||6'3, 220||So.||3 stars (5.5)||29||124||1||4.3|
|Malik Moseley||RB||5'11, 190||RSFr.||NR|
|Ray Lawry||RB||5'10, 183||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Vincent Lowe||RB||5'7, 175||Fr.||NR|
|Rivals||Catches||Yards||Yards Per Catch|
|Larry Pinkard||WR||6'0, 190||Sr.||NR||68||1020||15.0|
|Antonio Vaughan||WR||5'8, 175||Sr.||NR||60||843||14.1|
|Blair Roberts||WR||6'2, 195||Sr.||NR||46||560||12.2|
|Zach Pascal||WR||6'2, 210||So.||NR||41||534||13.0|
|Cam Boyd||RB||5'6, 175||Sr.||NR||24||206||8.6|
|Melvin Vaughn||WR||6'2, 240||So.||NR||19||149||7.8|
|Jakwail Bailey||WR||5'11, 185||Sr.||NR||18||127||7.1|
|Kirk Spellman||WR||5'10, 175||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||102||14.6|
|Gerard Johnson||RB||5'9, 200||So.||2 stars (5.3)||6||59||9.8|
|C.J. Bradshaw||WR||5'10, 190||So.||NR||2||13||6.5|
|Nick England||WR||6'0, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Kevin Privott||WR||6'1, 175||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Jusse Yorke||WR||5'11, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Marques Little||WR||5'9, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)|
5. Taylor's got options
ODU distributed the ball wonderfully in 2013, and there's no reason to think that will be any different this coming fall. Nine players caught at least 18 passes last fall, and seven return, including two big-play threats in seniors Larry Pinkard and Antonio Vaughan, who combined for nearly 11 catches and 155 yards per game. Senior Blair Roberts is a solid possession man, sophomore Zach Pascal was exciting for a freshman, and this foursome is joined by FIU transfer Nick England and three-star JUCO transfer Jusse Yorke, who is turning heads this spring.
The receiving corps is loaded with big(ish) and small targets. While leading rusher Colby Goodwyn is gone, it's difficult not to be optimistic about what remains in the backfield; senior Cam Boyd and sophomore Gerard Johnson were bigger-play threats than Goodwyn, and three-star freshman Ray Lawry could quickly play a role.
|Josh Mann||C||6'2, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||23|
|Connor Mewbourne||RG||6'4, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||10|
|Tyler Fisher||LG||6'3, 312||So.||NR||6|
|Troy Butler||C||6'3, 305||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||4|
|Kyle Bottoms||LT||6'5, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Andrew Maddox||LG||6'5, 300||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Tyler Compton||C||6'4, 300||So.||NR||0|
|Ely Anderson||RT||6'6, 290||Jr.||NR||0|
|Davis Farmer||OT||6'5, 320||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Raul Martinez||OL||6'5, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Brandon Tyson||OL||6'1, 320||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)|
6. The line was (past tense) outstanding
Despite a lack of breakaway threat at running back, ODU's rushing numbers against FBS competition were quite strong. That the Monarchs were spreading defenses out and featuring a pretty mobile quarterback certainly didn't hurt, but the blocking itself graded out quite well. Again, this is a small sample size, so we shouldn't draw conclusions too strongly, but in five games ODU ranked eighth in Adj. Line Yards and 35th in Adj. Sack Rate. That's the good news. The bad news is that three of the reasons for the line's success are gone.
At the end of the 2013 season, ODU's line had amassed 143 career starts; those responsible for 100 of them are now gone, including both tackles in a pass-happy offense. The interior line should be solid, anchored by two-year starting center Josh Mann, and three-star JUCO transfer Raul Martinez could be an immediate-impact guy, but it would be a shame if a drop-off up front prevents a loaded set of skill position players from thriving.
|Q1 Rk||119||1st Down Rk||123|
|Q2 Rk||126||2nd Down Rk||126|
|Q3 Rk||125||3rd Down Rk||118|
7. The stats match the anecdotes
If all you knew about ODU's 2013 season was the 80-20 final score of the UNC game (it certainly made headlines, as did the abbreviated fourth quarter), your view of ODU wouldn't be altogether inaccurate; the defense wasn't always that bad, and the offense was often a bit better, but defense was a disaster for the Monarchs in 2013.
And in looking at the players and stats in this piece, it's not difficult to see why. ODU's defense was terribly young and banged up. Its secondary either wasn't good enough to make plays on the ball or was overwhelmed by the sieve in front of it.
ODU was able to rush the passer reasonably well; or at least, middle linebacker Richie Staton and corner Eriq Lewis were able to blitz well. Staton had 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks as a freshman, which obviously bodes well for him when it comes to overall potential. Lewis, meanwhile, chipped in 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks among just 16.5 tackles in nine games.
Unfortunately, any gains that could be made from ODU's 78 tackles for loss were wiped away by a line that got pushed around a bit too much and a linebacking corps that couldn't keep anybody healthy. By the end of the season, ODU was down to two healthy scholarship linebackers, and while Staton certainly made his share of plays, there were too many breakdowns among the front seven for ODU to put up much of a fight against a decent offense. (And to be sure, there are plenty of decent offenses in Conference USA.)
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Terrell Reid||DE||6'2, 265||So.||NR||10||25.5||3.7%||6.5||3.0||0||0||1||0|
|Preston Smith||DT||6'2, 270||Sr.||NR||12||22.0||3.2%||4.0||2.0||0||0||2||1|
|Andrew Everett||STUD||6'5, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||21.0||3.0%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dominique Guinn-Bailey||DT||6'4, 280||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||11||16.5||2.4%||3.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Smith||NT||6'1, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||16.5||2.4%||2.0||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Scott Wiggins||STUD||6'3, 225||So.||NR||12||16.0||2.3%||5.0||2.0||0||2||0||0|
|Galen Evans (2012)||DT||6'3, 310||So.||2 stars (5.2)||11||11.0||1.5%||3.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jude Brenya||DE||6'3, 250||So.||NR||8||9.0||1.3%||4.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Rashaad Coward||NT||6'5, 300||So.||2 stars (5.4)||10||7.5||1.1%||2.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Gary Scruggs||DE||6'0, 260||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||10||6.5||0.9%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|Malik Gumbs||DT||6'1, 295||Sr.||NR||7||6.0||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cullen Casey||DT||6'3, 295||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Bunmi Rotimi||DT||6'4, 295||RSFr.||NR|
|Poncho Barnwell||DE||6'4, 250||Jr.||NR|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Andre Simmons||OLB||6'0, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||63.5||9.1%||1.5||0.0||0||3||0||0|
|Richie Staton||MLB||6'1, 230||So.||NR||12||53.0||7.6%||10.5||4.0||0||1||0||1|
|D.J. Simon||MLB||6'0, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||29.0||4.2%||6.5||0.0||3||0||1||0|
|Anthony Wilson||LB||6'1, 220||So.||NR||10||17.0||2.4%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|TJ Ricks||OLB||6'0, 225||So.||NR||12||13.0||1.9%||2.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Larry Alston III||LB||6||8.0||1.2%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|Kanyia Anderson||LB||6'1, 230||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||4.0||0.6%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Martez Simpson||LB||6'1, 220||Jr.||NR|
|Kohl Adams-Hurd||LB||6'2, 215||Jr.||NR|
|Reece Schmidt||LB||6'3, 240||Jr.||NR|
8. A step forward in the depth department
When Caleb Taylor and Larry Alston III got kicked off the team last fall, any semblance of linebacker depth was washed away. Throw in an injury to walk-on reserve Anthony Wilson, and you saw a unit reaching critical mass. The secondary was too young to make up the difference, and the defensive line just didn't have any play-makers.
Throwing more warm bodies at a problem doesn't automatically solve it -- there has to be actual talent involved -- but we do know that, at the very least, more warm bodies are available in 2014. Sophomore tackle Galen Evans, who showed potential as a freshman in 2012, is back after an injury redshirt; he is joined by a couple of big redshirt freshmen and a beautifully named JUCO transfer at end, Poncho Barnwell. Last year's top six tacklers also return.
At linebacker, Staton and senior D.J. Simon return, Andre Simmons moves to OLB from strong safety, former star recruit Kanyia Anderson has a year to get used to the position after an emergency move last fall, and ODU signed three JUCO transfers as well. At the very least, the Monarchs will be able to fill out a two-deep.
In the back, despite losing Simmons to a different unit, the secondary is still rather experienced. It needs to make infinitely more plays on the ball, but eight of the top 10 tacklers are back, including Lewis and a potentially solid safety in junior Fellonte Misher. Again, we still have to find out how much actual talent is here, but the depth has improved to an infinite degree.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Fellonte Misher||SS||6'2, 205||Jr.||NR||12||74.5||10.7%||0||0||2||5||0||2|
|Malique Johnson||ROV||6'2, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||26.5||3.8%||3||1||0||1||0||0|
|Reggie Owens||CB||6'0, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||25.5||3.7%||1||1||1||3||2||1|
|Sandy Chapman||CB||5'10, 175||So.||NR||11||24.5||3.5%||3||0||1||4||0||0|
|Jevon Neal||CB||5'9, 175||Sr.||NR||12||19.5||2.8%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Rob Thompson||SS||6'1, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)||10||17.0||2.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Eriq Lewis||CB||6'0, 180||Sr.||NR||9||16.5||2.4%||5.5||2.5||0||3||1||0|
|Daquin Moore||FS||6'3, 192||So.||NR||7||15.5||2.2%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Young||CB||5'11, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||4||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Christian Byrum||S||6'1, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Justin Noye||S||6'1, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Taylor Heinicke||6'1, 205||Sr.||13||41.5||1||0||3||23.1%|
|Antonio Vaughan||PR||5'8, 175||Sr.||2||10.5||0|
9. Punter Taylor Heinicke
In 1987, Tom Tupa threw for 2,250 yards and 15 touchdowns as Ohio State's starting quarterback; he was also an All-American punter. Granted, Tom Tupa, Jr., is actually a redshirt freshman quarterback at Miami (Ohio) right now, but Taylor Heinicke has quite a bit of the Tupa spirit in him. He punted four times as a freshman and 13 more as a junior, and while one has to assume the goal isn't for him to punt all season for ODU, if he had to it wouldn't be the end of the world. He averaged 41.5 yards in his 13 punts (so he wasn't just pooch kicking from the opponent's 40).
Seriously, if you like unique talent and prolific stats, Heinicke should probably be your favorite player in the country. Now if only he could also place-kick and return kicks. It might save ODU's special teams unit from being a bit of a liability this year.
|6-Sep||at N.C. State||68|
|25-Oct||at Western Kentucky||91|
10. If the defense holds up...
...the offense will play its part. Losing three stalwarts on the offensive line is a concern, but it's basically the only one on the offensive side of the ball. ODU has a quarterback who can rival Marshall's Rakeem Cato for best-in-the-conference honors, and the Monarchs have a lot of exciting places he can go with the ball. When you look at the schedule above, you see a lot of defenses Heinicke and company can victimize to a large degree.
The likely success of the offense is hard to question; the success of the team as a whole, however, will depend on the defense. There isn't a significant number of dominant offenses on ODU's 2014 slate, but ODU could make plenty of decent offenses LOOK dominant without serious improvement.
What Bobby Wilder has accomplished overall at ODU is stunning. His name has been mentioned with this or that job opening in the last couple of years, but he has remained in Norfolk to oversee the transition of ODU from theory to FCS powerhouse to Conference USA member. He just signed the No. 2 recruiting class in this new conference of residence, too. Wilder has thus far aimed high but reached even higher. Until we know what his and the Monarchs' ceiling actually is, it would be silly to project one.
If ODU has even a top-100 defense in 2014, the Monarchs could challenge for a spot the C-USA title game. I doubt they will, but it's on the table. But even if they fall short of that goal (my guess is something in the neighborhood of a 6-6 or 7-5 finish), they should be entertaining as hell. Watch them if you can.