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Old Dominion football improves annually, so what’s next after 2016’s breakthrough?

Bobby Wilder’s Monarchs slowly built toward a 10-win season and now return a bunch of exciting pieces.

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NCAA Football: Old Dominion at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published on March 24 and has since been updated.

This is the 24th preview of the 2017 preview series, the eighth about a team that didn’t exist 20 years ago. (That number goes to nine if you include UAB, which did exist 20 years ago...but didn’t last year.)

Each has had its own unique story and level of success.

  • Charlotte is probably still at least a year away from a breakthrough.
  • FAU has worked backward, finding nearly immediate success and then backsliding.
  • FIU has struggled to find an identity, or wins, despite residing in some of the most fertile recruiting ground. It's the same with UTSA, though the Roadrunners may have begun to turn that around.
  • Coastal Carolina hired a former Wall Street CEO and rose to prominence.
  • Georgia State has basically had a single good month.
  • South Alabama has produced high highs and low lows.
  • UAB limped along for two decades, hinted at a breakthrough, gave itself the death penalty for dumb reasons, then resurrected itself.

Compared to a story like UAB’s or Coastal’s, ODU’s has been downright boring. But boring isn’t bad. All Bobby Wilder’s Monarchs have done is grow, piece by piece, almost every single year.

The improvement has been nearly linear since ODU’s FCS debut in 2009. The Monarchs went 9-2 against a piecemeal schedule and ranked 199th in the Sagarin ratings (which grade both FBS and FCS programs). From there, they moved to 168th (8-3), 123rd (10-3, second round of the FCS playoffs), and 117th (11-2, FCS quarterfinals). After a brief reset in 2013 (133rd, 8-4), the Monarchs made their FBS debut at 116th (6-6).

In those six seasons, ODU took only one step backward, and it was minor.

The more you rise, the more tempting it is to continue. For the coach of a hungry football program, that could mean taking on transfers or character risks. But tasked with replacing an awesome quarterback (Taylor Heinicke, a four-year starter and Walter Payton Award winner) and upgrading a defense that had lost its way, Wilder — the only coach ODU has known — elected to take his time. He brought in only a few JUCO transfers and continued his process with five-year recruits, even if it meant a setback.

It meant a setback. ODU fielded a freshman quarterback, a sophomore running back, and a mostly first- or second-year receiving corps. He redshirted as many players as he could. ODU's win total dropped by only one game, but the setback in quality was obvious: The 2015 Monarchs ranked 164th in Sagarin and 110th in FBS-only S&P+.

Panic? Change the script? Nah. Wilder did move QB-turned-WR David Washington back behind center, a move that helped to rejuvenate the run game a bit without doing any damage to the passing game. He made a couple of staff changes on defense and moved athletic lineman Bunmi Rotimi from tackle to end. And he let a load of sophomores and juniors mature.

The result: ODU fielded its best team ever. The Monarchs improved from 108th to 62nd in Off. S&P+ and from 109th to 80th in Def. S&P+. More importantly, the win total doubled. They tied for the C-USA West title with WKU, the only C-USA team to best them. They went 9-3 in the regular season, with only losses to S&P+ top-40 teams (WKU, NC State, Appalachian State). They both qualified for, and won, their first bowl game.

Following their first true setback, Wilder’s Monarchs responded with their best performance yet.

So now what happens? The Monarchs return most of their best defenders, most of their offensive line, and a duo of running backs (Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox) that combined for 1,987 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns last year. But there will be another first-year starter at quarterback and a new No. 1 receiver. Is that enough to derail hopes of immediate further improvement?

ODU is making this program-building thing look easy, but how far can Wilder go?

2016 in review

2016 ODU statistical profile.

Two results threw us off the scent early on. After a season-opening 54-21 win over Hampton, ODU got shoved around at both Appalachian State and NC State by a combined 80-29. The Monarchs responded with easy wins over UTSA and bad Charlotte and UMass teams, but they got mauled by WKU, too.

All told, there were really no ebbs and flows. The primary factor behind each result was, "Is ODU playing a top 40 team, Y/N?"

  • ODU vs. S&P+ top 40 (0-3) — Avg. score: Opponent 46, ODU 18 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.2, ODU 5.3 | Avg. ODU win expectancy: 0%
  • ODU vs. S&P+ No. 41+ (10-0) — Avg. Score: ODU 40, Opponent 22 | Avg. yards per play: ODU 6.7, Opp 4.9 | Avg. ODU win expectancy: 96%

That's a little misleading, though. ODU didn't play anybody ranked between 40th and 78th, so it's hard to know where that line was. Regardless, the Monarchs took down EMU in the Bahamas Bowl to cap off a 10-win season.


ODU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

For all intents and purposes, Wilder is Old Dominion football. He technically isn’t the only coach the school has ever known — the Monarchs played small-school ball in the 1930s before discontinuing the program — but he’s the only one of the last 70 years.

He’s had the same right-hand man the whole time, though. Offensive coordinator Brian Scott came to Norfolk with Wilder in 2009, and he has been a rousing success. At two different levels, Scott’s Monarch offense has averaged at least 32.6 points per game almost each time. And the one time they didn’t was in 2015, when they replaced Heinicke, redefined the offense to more of a run-first attack, and still averaged 32 points per game over the last five contests.

Scott, a Maine grad and former Maine line coach, has proven he will mold the offense to fit the talent. In 2016, that meant following the Mobile Quarterback Blueprint of balance on standard downs (59.5 percent rushing, 70th in FBS) and lots of draws and scramble opportunities on passing downs (44.1 percent rushing, 15th). It worked well with David Washington at QB; the former receiver didn’t rush that many times per game, but the threat was there.

ODU moved at a rather plodding pace, and with a couple of physical runners, their plays involved fewer solo tackles than almost any offense in football. Only LSU and Marshall forced fewer solo tackles, in fact.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Marshall
Ray Lawry
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Monarchs return both Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox (and since 6’0, 215-pound running back Casey Perkins was one of the stars of the 2017 signing class), one assumes ODU will run quite a bit again in 2017. But how much depends on who wins the quarterback job. Washington graduated, and 2015 starter Shuler Bentley transferred, leaving mostly unknowns.

Your primary candidates behind center:

  • Sophomore Blake LaRussa. Washington’s backup in 2016, the former walk-on saw sporadic action, mostly in blowouts. He was 2-for-5 for 21 yards in September, 5-for-10 for 45 yards and a pick in October, and 7-for-9 for 74 in November. LaRussa is only 5’10, 185.
  • Redshirt freshman Drayton Arnold. The three-star recruit from Myrtle Beach was categorized as a dual-threat by recruiting services but was mostly a passer in high school. He threw for 8,636 yards and 104 touchdowns from 2013-15. He’s listed at 5’11, 190.
  • JUCO transfer Jordan Hoy. Wilder doesn’t go after many JUCOs, but the importance of the position is obvious. The 6’1 Hoy threw for 37 touchdowns and only six interceptions at Fullerton College last year. Based on the combination of experience and recruiting profile, he could be considered the favorite, though he won’t report until the summer.
  • True freshman Steven Williams Jr. The most QB-shaped player in the race, Williams stands at 6’4 ... but he’s a true freshman. Wilder started Heinicke for four years and doesn’t mind going with a young guy. But one figures a redshirt is in store here.
NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Florida International
Jonathan Duhart
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever wins will have one of the most experienced receiving corps in the country; 900-yard receiver Zach Pascal is gone, but that’s it. Seniors Jonathan Duhart and Melvin Vaughn (a tight end) and juniors Travis Fulgham and Isaiah Harper return after catching 113 balls last year, and Lawry and Cox pitched in another 22.

In all, 10 returnees were targeted at least four times last year, and all are either juniors or seniors.

It will be interesting to see how quickly an exciting set of redshirts can crack the rotation. Wilder redshirts everybody he can, and in 2016 that meant sitting three different three-star freshmen: Noah Ellison, Scott McCluney, and tight end Marcus Joyner. Throw in three-star true freshman Amari Colbert, and you’ve got the future of the receiving corps.

Duhart and Fulgham should lead the way in 2016. While Pascal was the leader, these two each averaged at least 15 yards per catch and scored at least eight touchdowns. Duhart (56 percent success rate) was the steadier of the two, while Fulgham (46 percent but at 16.5 yards per catch) was more all-or-nothing.

[Update: starting tackle Devin Hannan and line contributor Manuel Matiarena were suspended indefinitely in June.]


ODU defensive radar

Wilder’s background is on offense; he was an all-conference quarterback at Maine in the 1980s, and he served as Maine’s coordinator for six years.

It would make sense, then, that the offense has typically been ahead of the defense at ODU. But loyalty and patience have been huge for Wilder, and despite slow growth, he’s stuck with defensive coordinator Rich Nagy since 2012, but made a couple of changes further down on the coaching totem pole. And in 2016, tinkering instead of wholesale changes paid off.

The improvement was comprehensive.

  • Rushing S&P+: 111th in 2015, 69th in 2016
  • Passing S&P+: 97th in 2015, 42nd in 2016
  • Standard Downs S&P+: 111th in 2015, 56th in 2016
  • Passing Downs S&P+: 81st in 2015, 24th in 2016
  • Adj. Line Yards: 123rd in 2015, 82nd in 2016
  • Adj. Sack Rate: 79th in 2015, 31st in 2016

ODU was always better at capitalizing on passing downs than at forcing them, and that remained the same in 2016, but the Monarchs’ defense was a rising tide last fall. And your view of how it will fare in 2017 depends on your view of how important their linebackers were.

The front is exciting. ODU must replace Rashaad Coward but returns four junior tackles with experience (including 2016 starter Miles Fox) and boasts plenty of size with guys like juniors Pat Toal (311 pounds) and Brandon Tyson (337) and sophomore Mufu Taiwo (304). And at 6’4, 277 pounds, end Bunmi Rotimi could move inside, if need be.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Southern Mississippi
Brandon Addison
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Rotimi was a revelation on the outside, though. He and end Oshane Ximines made for not only one of the best-named end duos in the country, but one of the most successful. They combined for 21.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks, and they still gave backups Tim Ward and Daniel Appouh enough opportunities to rack up 11 TFLs and seven sacks. This is a fantastic set of ends.

At the back, almost everyone returns as well — 10 of last year’s top 12 defensive backs, in fact. ODU must replace an active cornerback in Aaron Young, but senior Brandon Addison returns as the No. 1 corner, and safeties Sean Carter, Justice Davila, and Kane Miskel are steady. Plus, as is the case at receiver, a load of five redshirt freshmen awaits.

So that leaves linebacker, where either four or five of last year’s top five tacklers must be replaced. (The status of junior Isaiah Worthy is uncertain at the moment.) [Update: and backup Derek Wilder, the head coach’s son, was suspended for an arrest.]

From a statistical standpoint, it is easier to survive turnover there than in the secondary or on the defensive line. But it could still be tricky if departed linebackers were standouts, and Anthony Wilson and TJ Ricks were quite good. They combined for 15.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, and nine breakups in 2016. Ricks was first-team all-conference last year, Wilson honorable mention.

If Worthy doesn’t return, ODU brings back only one linebacker who recorded more than 2.5 tackles a year ago. And here is where a set of exciting redshirts might have their first opportunity. Three-stars Lawrence Garner and Zach Lackman and high-twos Brent Priester and Jordan Young will all get the chance. And despite his pro-redshirt lean, Wilder might find it hard to keep three-star freshman Keisean Wilson off the field.

Special Teams

Receivers Darrell Brown and Kesean Strong haven’t yet made significant impacts on the offense, but they were one of the steadier return duos in FBS last year. ODU ranked sixth in kick return efficiency and 21st in punt return efficiency, and that, plus Brad Davis’ mostly steady place-kicking, helped to drive a top-60 ranking in Special Teams S&P+ despite mostly inefficient punts and kickoffs. Everybody’s back [update: except potential kicking game contributor Chris Kirtley], so expect something in the No. 50-70 range once more.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Albany-NY NR 14.4 80%
9-Sep at Massachusetts 111 1.7 54%
16-Sep North Carolina 38 -11.7 25%
23-Sep at Virginia Tech 25 -21.2 11%
7-Oct Florida Atlantic 99 3.9 59%
14-Oct at Marshall 101 -0.8 48%
21-Oct Western Kentucky 51 -9.3 30%
28-Oct at North Texas 106 0.9 52%
4-Nov Charlotte 127 14.8 80%
11-Nov at Florida International 104 0.2 51%
18-Nov Rice 120 9.1 70%
25-Nov at Middle Tennessee 89 -3.3 42%
Projected S&P+ Rk 93
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 87 / 95
Projected wins 6.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.2 (73)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 118 / 99
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 11.6
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 60% (51%, 69%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.6 (0.4)

So much will depend on quarterback and linebacker, and more the former than the latter. Because of the QB turnover, the S&P+ projections are somewhere between conservative and skeptical, forecasting a drop from 73rd to 93rd this year.

Wilder and Scott have done one hell of a job of replacing one exciting quarterback with another, however, and if the Monarchs have their act together behind center, a repeat of last year’s awesome run could be in the cards. ODU probably won’t be ready to take down either North Carolina or Virginia Tech in September (though UNC does come to Norfolk), but with WKU visiting, every other game on the schedule is winnable.

The range is pretty wide, based on QB, but few teams in C-USA can match the star power of guys like Ray Lawry, Jonathan Duhart, and ODU’s stable of awesome defensive ends. ODU’s upside is strong, and if Wilder’s proven anything in Norfolk, it’s that he knows how to turn upside into wins.

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