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1. Pass one test, get ready for another
Norfolk, Va., isn't the worst place to build a football program. It's not the state of Georgia, but the market isn't saturated, and you're close to an awfully big talent pool. You're next to Virginia Beach, you're right down the road from Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, DC, South Carolina, et cetera. Hire a good coach, recruit efficiently, and voila, you can win some football games.
Since its rebirth in 2009, Old Dominion has won a lot of football games -- 52, in fact. After more than six dormant decades, ODU kicked off in 2009 and immediately went 9-2 against a schedule of mostly FCS teams. In 2010, the Monarchs went 8-3 with two tight losses to ranked teams and wins over almost everybody else. In 2011, ODU went to the FCS playoffs and barely lost at Georgia Southern. In 2012, it happened again.
By 2013, the transition had begun. ODU prepared for the move to FBS with a schedule that featured seven FCS opponents (against whom the Monarchs went 7-0) and five FBS opponents (1-4). They weren't ready for Maryland and UNC (combined score: 127-30), but they held their own against ECU and Pitt and beat Idaho. And in 2014 came their full-time debut. ODU started 3-1 and finished 3-0, and despite a midseason funk and a sketchy defense, they finished 6-6. Six years into its second life, ODU still has yet to finish under .500.
Transition accomplished, ODU has a different test to face in 2015: turnover. Gone is quarterback Taylor Heinicke, a four-year starter, 2012 Walter Payton Award winner, and 15,000-yard passer. Gone is all-conference center and three-year starter Josh Mann. And gone are four starters in the defensive front seven and five of last year's top seven defensive backs. The offense still has plenty of exciting options, and thanks to injuries, lots of defenders got experience last year, but the longtime face of the program is gone, and head coach Bobby Wilder might have to craft a slightly new identity to keep the "no sub-.500 seasons" streak alive.
You don't make much money betting against Wilder and ODU, but this will be a different kind of test. Fortunately, depth and a light schedule will give the Monarchs a pretty good chance of passing.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-6 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk: 108|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|6-Sep||at NC State||55||34-46||L||14%||-25.5||2%|
|25-Oct||at Western Kentucky||50||51-66||L||33%||-10.2||30%|
|29-Nov||at Florida Atlantic||100||31-28||W||26%||-14.7||48%|
|Points Per Game||32.7||41||38.0||115|
2. A wretched midseason funk
Basically, for the first four and last three games of the year, ODU was a top-75 team. That's an awfully impressive thing to say about an FBS newcomer (for teams not named Georgia Southern, anyway), and the results backed it up. In this seven-game sample, the Monarchs won at Rice and beat eventual division champion Louisiana Tech at home, lost a competitive game to a decent N.C. State team, and at the very least avoided disaster against FIU and FAU.
And then there were the five games in the middle.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 39% (record: 3-1)
- Average Percentile Performance (next 5 games): 18% (record: 0-5)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 3 games): 40% (record: 3-0)
Hmm. Let's see if we can pinpoint what might have gone wrong.
- ODU Defense (first 4 games): 29.8 points per game, 5.51 yards per play
- ODU Defense (next 5 games): 49.4 points per game, 6.83 yards per play
- ODU Defense (last 3 games): 30.0 points per game, 5.60 yards per play
I think we've pinpointed what went wrong.
ODU's defense was never particularly good, but it completely fell apart in the middle. Granted, the Monarchs' five-game, midseason losing streak featured a couple of prolific offenses; Marshall and Western Kentucky combined for 122 points and 1,192 yards against ODU. But MTSU, UTEP and (perhaps most damning) Vanderbilt all scored at least 40 points and gained at least 465 yards as well. ODU was able to suck two of the slowest-paced teams in the country (UTEP and Vandy) into playing at a higher tempo, but the Monarchs couldn't do anything to slow these iffy offenses down.
A look at the defensive stats below fills us in on what might have happened. Starting nose tackle Chris Smith (hamstring) missed the MTSU, Marshall, and UTEP games, for starters. And the linebacking corps and secondary were both constantly unsettled -- of the 16 linebackers and defensive backs to average at least one tackle per game, only five played in all 12 games. ODU had an absolutely horrific pass defense all year, but without Smith, the Monarchs couldn't stop the run either: MTSU, Marshall, UTEP, WKU, and Vandy combined to rush for 284 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.
During this five-game funk, ODU averaged at least 6.4 yards per play and scored at least 28 points four times. And they still lost by an average of 18 points per game. But when the defense rallied back toward mediocre over the last three games, ODU began to win again.
So in this regard, perhaps a defensive rebuild isn't that big a deal in 2015. ODU was hamstrung by its defense already. But it does mean that the offense can't lose a beat without its best quarterback ever.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.7%||28||Succ. Rt. +||106.8||43|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||32.1||108||Def. FP+||97.0||101|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.0||19||Redzone S&P+||113.8||30|
|Q1 Rk||83||1st Down Rk||59|
|Q2 Rk||33||2nd Down Rk||71|
|Q3 Rk||24||3rd Down Rk||34|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Shuler Bentley||6'1, 209||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8161|
|Joey Verhaegh||6'3, 215||So.||NR||0.7500|
3. Life after Heinicke
Bobby Wilder was producing good offenses before Taylor Heinicke came along. He served as Maine's offensive coordinator for seven seasons (2000-06) under Jack Cosgrove and twice oversaw offenses that helped win Atlantic 10 titles. And in 2009-10, ODU's two pre-Heinicke seasons, the Monarchs did average 34.6 points per game. The loss of a single player isn't going to single-handedly bring down the ODU offense, even if it was an award-winner, a potential pro, and the sixth-most prolific passer in Division 1 history.
It appears that the race to succeed Heinicke will focus primarily on two players: redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley and JUCO transfer Joey Verhaegh. Bentley was a two-time South Carolina Gatorade player of the year and a three-star recruit according to the 247Sports Composite. He chose ODU over offers from AAC schools like Cincinnati, ECU, and Tulane. He has been groomed as the heir apparent, but Wilder signed Verhaegh, a late-bloomer and 2,500 yard passer at Fullerton College last year. One would assume it's Bentley's job to lose, but Verhaegh will make him earn it.
|Ray Lawry||RB||5'10, 205||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8402||134||947||16||7.1||8.9||40.3%||1||1|
|Vincent Lowe||RB||5'9, 175||So.||NR||0.8133||8||30||0||3.8||8.1||25.0%||1||0|
|Brandon Simmons||RB||5'9, 191||So.||NR||NR|
|Latrell Sandifer||RB||5'7, 153||RSFr.||NR||NR|
|Jeremy Cox||RB||5'11, 211||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7917|
|Kaesean Strong||RB||5'10, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8044|
|Kyle Goddard||WR||5'10, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7971|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Zach Pascal||WR||6'2, 217||Jr.||NR||NR||104||59||743||56.7%||24.2%||60.6%||7.1||12||7.3||112.8|
|David Washington||WR||6'3, 209||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR||62||47||599||75.8%||14.5%||72.6%||9.7||47||8.4||91.0|
|Blair Roberts (2013)||WR||6'2, 203||Sr.||NR||NR||N/A||46||560||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Melvin Vaughn||TE||6'2, 248||Jr.||NR||0.7000||47||30||315||63.8%||11.0%||59.6%||6.7||-48||6.7||47.9|
|Vincent Lowe||RB||5'9, 175||So.||NR||0.8133||22||14||69||63.6%||5.1%||68.2%||3.1||-101||3.1||10.5|
|Ray Lawry||RB||5'10, 205||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8402||20||17||155||85.0%||4.7%||60.0%||7.8||-41||7.9||23.6|
|Nick England||WR||6'0, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.6722||19||12||177||63.2%||4.4%||57.9%||9.3||31||9.3||26.9|
|Marques Little||WR||5'9, 180||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8085||11||11||138||100.0%||2.6%||72.7%||12.5||14||12.3||21.0|
|Jonathan Duhart||WR||6'3, 211||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7733||9||7||127||77.8%||2.1%||66.7%||14.1||45||13.8||19.3|
|Kirk Spellman||WR||5'10, 172||Sr.||NR||NR|
|T.J. Boothe||WR||6'2, 223||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8260|
|Travis Fulgham||WR||6'3, 205||RSFr.||NR||NR|
|Adam Swann||TE||6'5, 241||RSFr.||NR||0.8100|
|Will Howard||WR||6'3, 197||RSFr.||NR||0.8100|
|Quintin Reynolds||WR||6'0, 185||RSFr.||NR||0.7983|
|Eri'Reon Hayes||WR||6'2, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7856|
4. Toys in the toybox
ODU had a pretty clear identity in 2014: wing the ball around, then give it to freshman Ray Lawry. The Monarchs had a spread offense that passed to set up the run, and it worked quite well. They ranked 24th in Passing Success Rate+ and 44th in Rushing IsoPPP+ -- they'd extend you from sideline to sideline, then Lawry would carve you up.
With such a prolific, experienced quarterback, this approach made perfect sense. But it will be interesting to see if the run-pass rates change with not only a new quarterback, but also the continued presence of the burley, explosive Lawry in the backfield.
Highlight yards are intended to measure the yards you gain once the line is done doing its job. It is a measure of raw explosiveness. And of the 118 FBS running backs with at least 130 carries in 2014, only five had a higher Highlight Yards per Opportunity average than Lawry's 8.91: Georgia Southern's Matt Brida (10.91), Wyoming's Brian Hill (10.76), Indiana's Tevin Coleman (9.79), Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (9.29), and Marshall's Devon Johnson (8.92). That's pretty elite company.
In a more run-heavy offense, Lawry could have put up numbers to compete with almost any other freshman in 2014, the year of the freshman running back. And in 2015, he might live life in a more run-heavy offense. He'll need some new backups following the departure of both Gerard Johnson and Cam Boyd, but he'll get plenty of touches.
Of course, plenty of receivers have earned some touches, too. Thousand-yard receiver Antonio Vaughan is gone, but last year's most frequent target, Zach Pascal, is back, as is converted quarterback (and possession receiver extraordinaire) David Washington. One of 2013's leading receivers, Blair Roberts, is expected to be healthy after missing 2014 with a back injury. Plus, sophomores Marques Little and Jonathan Duhart thrived when given the chance, and a pair of three-star redshirt freshmen (Will Howard and tight end Adam Swann) could be ready to do some damage.
Basically, the new quarterback will only need to be competent for the offense to click. He'll have a pretty good line in front of him, too.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Josh Mann||C||35||2014 1st All-CUSA|
|Connor Mewbourne||LT||6'4, 287||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||20|
|Tyler Fisher||LG||6'3, 323||Jr.||NR||0.7000||17|
|Darius Garcia||RT||6'3, 311||So.||NR||0.7000||9|
|Tyler Compton||LG||6'4, 297||Jr.||NR||NR||8|
|Troy Butler||RT||6'3, 320||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||6|
|Tyler Burns||RG||6'6, 370||Sr.||NR||NR||5|
|Ely Anderson||RT||6'6, 290||Sr.||NR||0.7000||1|
|Andrew Maddox||OT||6'5, 286||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7910||0|
|Raul Martinez||OL||6'5, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8153||0|
|Eli Kessner||C||6'2, 300||So.||NR||NR||0|
|Eric Hampson||RG||6'5, 284||So.||NR||0.7700||0|
|Davis Farmer||OT||6'5, 331||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||0|
|Cullen Casey||OT||6'4, 288||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8001||0|
5. A clean backfield
Heinicke had play-maker tendencies, and it occasionally backfired -- he threw 14 interceptions in 2014, and he took sacks 10 percent of the time on passing downs. He trusted his ability to hang in and make plays, and it didn't always work out. But despite this, and despite battling injuries in 2014, ODU still ranked 44th in Adj. Sack Rate and 55th in Adj. Line Yards and kept a mostly clean backfield for Lawry.
While the new quarterback will be taking snaps from a new center, he will be protected by a line that is otherwise experienced and proven. Seven players return with starting experience (66 career starts), including Connor Mewbourne and Tyler Fisher, who have started for most of the last two years on the left side.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||50.1%||125||Succ. Rt. +||79.3||127|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.6||115||Off. FP+||109.9||5|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.9||111||Redzone S&P+||83.4||123|
|Q1 Rk||116||1st Down Rk||123|
|Q2 Rk||127||2nd Down Rk||78|
|Q3 Rk||115||3rd Down Rk||123|
6. Future upside
ODU's defense in 2014 was bad, then awful, then bad. There's really no way to sugar-coat it. The Monarchs ranked 127th in Success Rate+; only Army's defense was less efficient. And while things got worse without nose tackle Chris Smith, they weren't particularly good with him. And now Smith's gone.
Recruiting seems to have gone pretty well over the last couple of seasons, and ODU boasts quite a few freshmen and redshirt freshmen with high upside, especially at defensive end and defensive back. So maybe there's hope for 2016 and beyond. But while it won't be hard for this defense to improve on last year's numbers, improvement will probably be minimal.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Poncho Barnwell||DE||6'4, 270||Sr.||NR||N/A||12||25.5||3.5%||6.5||3.5||0||0||1||0|
|Bunmi Rotimi||DT||6'4, 283||So.||NR||N/A||12||21.0||2.9%||2.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rashaad Coward||NT||6'5, 297||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059||11||19.5||2.7%||2.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Terrell Reid||STUD||6'2, 277||Jr.||NR||NR||12||11.0||1.5%||3.0||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Jude Brenya||DE||6'3, 262||Jr.||NR||0.7000||9||10.0||1.4%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Scott Wiggins||STUD||6'2, 237||Jr.||NR||NR||5||2.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Galen Evans||NT||6'3, 299||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||7||2.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Daniel Appouh||DE||6'4, 247||RSFr.||NR||0.8800|
|Oshane Ximines||DE||6'3, 239||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8035|
|Brandon Tyson||NT||6'1, 345||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7994|
|Torrez Wentz||DT||6'2, 281||RSFr.||NR||0.7500|
|Miles Fox||DT||6'1, 270||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8295|
|Casey Bernard||DE||6'2, 222||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8300|
|Mufu Taiwo||DT||6'5, 250||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806|
7. Size is less of a problem (in a different sort of way)
The pass rush was a relative strength for ODU in 2014. Granted, it was only relative -- there's nothing particularly strong about ranking 101st in Adj. Sack Rate -- but it's something. And with last year's "leaders" in this regard (end Poncho Barnwell and OLB TJ Ricks, who combined for 5.5 sacks and, strangely, six forced fumbles) returning, the pass rush certainly won't get worse, especially if redshirt freshman Daniel Appouh can quickly begin living up to his lofty recruiting hype or Oshane Ximines can do to opposing offensive tackles what he's apparently doing to ODU's in spring practice.
Inexperience will be an issue at tackle, but size won't be. And it seems Wilder and his staff thought the tackles were carrying too much of it last year. ODU spent its winter packing weight on just about everybody...but the tackles. Rashaad Coward is down from 319 to 297, Galen Evans is down from 319 to 299, and at the very least, monstrous redshirt freshman Brandon Tyson is down from 350 to 345. ODU had all sorts of size last year, but it didn't work out too well. This year, the focus on the interior is apparently added quickness.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|TJ Ricks||OLB||6'0, 226||Jr.||NR||NR||12||61.5||8.4%||7.0||2.5||0||1||5||0|
|Martez Simpson||OLB||6'1, 222||Sr.||NR||NR||11||51.0||7.0%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Isaiah Worthy||OLB||6'1, 235||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8033||9||14.5||2.0%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Malique Johnson||OLB||6'2, 216||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||11||11.0||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Reece Schmidt||MLB||6'3, 246||Sr.||NR||NR||9||4.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Wilson||OLB||6'1, 221||Jr.||NR||NR||11||3.5||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kohl Adams-Hurd||LB||6'2, 221||Sr.||NR||0.7000|
|Richard Thomas||LB||6'0, 227||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7500|
|Shadow Williams||LB||6'0, 218||Jr.||NR||0.7800|
|Derek Wilder||LB||6'1, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8044|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Fellonte Misher||SS||6'2, 214||Sr.||NR||NR||12||63.5||8.7%||2||0||2||1||1||1|
|Justice Davila||FS||6'0, 191||So.||NR||0.7822||6||27.0||3.7%||0||0||0||4||0||0|
|Christian Byrum||SS||6'1, 186||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8091||9||16.5||2.3%||0||0||2||0||0||0|
|Devon Brown (UAB)||CB||5'11, 182||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600||7||9.0||1.4%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Aaron Young||CB||5'11, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956||11||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Aquante Thornton||CB||5'9, 170||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Rob Thompson||CB||6'1, 182||So.||2 stars (5.2)||NR|
|Justin Noye||S||6'1, 196||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8367|
|Lawrence Holley||CB||6'2, 205||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7544|
|Jamez Brickhouse||CB||5'10, 165||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8321|
8. Wanted: cornerbacks
The back seven of the defense was shuffled constantly in 2014, resulting in poor play and plenty of experience for those that managed to stay on the field. The loss of D.J. Simon, by far ODU's best run defender with 10 non-sack tackles for loss, hurts. But four linebackers with at least 14.5 tackles last year do return, and Ricks does appear to be a strong play-maker at OLB. If either of two JUCO transfers -- Richard Thomas or Shadow Williams -- or incoming freshman/coach's son Derek Wilder can contribute early, the linebacking corps should at least hold steady. That is a grave necessity, as an already shaky secondary is rebuilding.
The good news: athleticism probably won't be an issue. Sophomores Justice Davila and Christian Byrum each showed strong play-making ability in limited opportunities last year, and Byrum, redshirt freshman Justin Noye, and incoming freshman Jamez Brickhouse were all 247Sports three-stars. Throw in UAB transfer Devon Brown, and it appears ODU has some speedy options. The Monarchs also have no cornerback who made more than 9.0 tackles last year. Safety is probably covered with Davila and Fellonte Misher, but there is an enormous void at CB.
(Side note: going by names, Jamez Brickhouse should be the linebacker, and Shadow Williams should be the cornerback. Alas.)
|Jarrett Cervi||6'1, 219||So.||23||40.5||1||9||2||47.8%|
|Ricky Segers||5'11, 206||Jr.||34||58.3||10||3||29.4%|
|Satchel Ziffer||6'4, 206||Sr.||24||59.1||1||0||4.2%|
|Ricky Segers||5'11, 206||Jr.||26-27||2-3||66.7%||0-0||N/A|
|Satchel Ziffer||6'4, 206||Sr.||12-12||2-3||66.7%||1-2||50.0%|
|Vincent Lowe||KR||5'9, 175||So.||10||16.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||122|
|Field Goal Efficiency||117|
|Punt Return Efficiency||16|
|Kick Return Efficiency||112|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||70|
9. Depth bleeds into special teams
When your defense does worse in the second and fourth quarters, as ODU's did, that's a sign of potential depth/quality issues. And when your special teams coverage units also stink, we'll call that confirmation. If you don't have many trustworthy defensive backs and linebackers, you probably won't be able to prevent decent returns, and ODU was one of only two teams to allow two 70-yard punt returns. Throw in a 23-yard average kick return for opponents, and ... well, your team might end up ranking 122nd in overall special teams. And now the only redeeming aspect of last year's special teams unit (punt returner Antonio Vaughan) is gone.
The class of redshirt freshmen hitting the field this fall might be athletic enough to help in this regard. ODU can only hope that's the case.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|5-Sep||at Eastern Michigan||128|
|24-Oct||at Florida International||96|
|21-Nov||at Southern Miss||110|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-14.3% (87)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||91 / 122|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / 2.5|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-1.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (8, 5)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||5.3 (0.7)|
10. Lots of potential wins
There is plenty of reason to doubt ODU in 2015. The Monarchs are replacing a record-setting quarterback with, potentially, a redshirt freshman, and while the rest of the offense seems loaded, any regression could hurt considering the defense is probably still a year away from turning athleticism into competence. Six seasons into this football experiment, ODU still hasn't had a losing record, but that could be a distinct possibility this year.
Then again, the schedule could help to prevent that from happening. Let's say that ODU's offense regresses by the same amount that the defense improves, and ODU again ranks between 100th and 110th in F/+. Better injuries luck could bump that a bit higher, but even at that level, the Monarchs will have plenty of win opportunities in 2015. Four road opponents and five home opponents ranked 90th or worse last year, which means that ODU will likely be in quite a few close games. If the Monarchs win enough of them, another 6-6 campaign is certainly within reach.