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Old Dominion football’s unexpected youth movement should reap dividends in 2018

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Youth and injuries held the Monarchs back in 2017,

Old Dominion v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

It’s amazing what confidence and a patient boss can do for you. Over the last 10 years, Bobby Wilder has overseen a pretty incredible transition from FCS startup to steady Conference USA resident. His team doesn’t move backwards often, and when it does, it responds with significant steps forward.

In last year’s ODU preview, I called Wilder’s tenure almost boring in its orderliness.

Compared to a story like UAB’s or Coastal’s, ODU’s has been downright boring. But boring isn’t bad. All 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, [and] 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 (Raw 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?

As it turned out, that wasn’t the end of the obstacles. When senior quarterback Blake LaRussa struggled and Jordan Hoy didn’t fare any better, Wilder turned to a 17-year-old true freshman, Steven Williams. Meanwhile, big-play receiver Jonathan Duhart got hurt almost the moment the season began, which meant that the Monarchs were replacing 50 percent of 2017’s targets.

Add in youth and uncertainty on the offensive line and a whole bunch of injury-related shuffling on defense, and you had a recipe for a pretty dreadful start.

2017 ODU trend

ODU lost by 30 to a rebuilding UNC, then by an average of 44-11 to Virginia Tech, FAU, and Marshall. The Monarchs were 2-4 and struggling drastically, then for about a month, this younger-than-expected squad gathered itself.

  • ODU, first 6 games (2-4): Avg. score: Opp 35, ODU 17 | Yards per play: Opp 5.6, ODU 4.5 (-1.1) | Avg. percentile performance: 29% (23% offense, 42% defense)
  • ODU, next 4 games (2-2): Avg. score: ODU 28, Opp 28 | Yards per play: ODU 5.8, Opp 5.7 | Avg. percentile performance: 40% (46% offense, 43% defense)
  • ODU, last 2 games (1-1): Avg. score: Opp 31, ODU 17 | Yards per play: Opp 6.5, ODU 4.5 | Avg. percentile performance: 25% (28% offense, 32% defense)

Lawry rushed for 166 yards in a near-upset of WKU and 168 in a win over bowl-bound FIU, and the offense began to show some life. But after rallying to the edge of bowl eligibility, the Monarchs faltered, eking by a hopeless Rice and getting blown out at MTSU.

Still, the rally was encouraging. And now, in theory, Wilder can reap some of the rewards for the youth movement.

ODU will begin 2017 with a top-25 level of returning production. (Conference USA mates Charlotte, UAB, and Rice will, too.) Williams is now an 18-year-old sophomore, Duhart is back, and both the offensive line and front seven return almost everybody.

Part of Wilder’s success has stemmed from the fact that he doesn’t take shortcuts. When a problem arises, he doesn’t throw a bunch of JUCO transfers at it or fire coordinators. He treats his assistants well and takes on youth movements when he has to, and his program takes some lumps and grows from it.

It’s an admirable approach. We’ll see if it keeps working. When the Monarchs fell from 99th to 111th in S&P+ in 2015, they surged to 73rd the following season. Well, last year they fell to 115th, their worst overall ranking since the move to FBS. Do they have another surge in them?

Offense

2017 ODU offensive radar

It made perfect sense that the passing game fell apart in 2017. Losing quarterback David Washington and both Duhart and Zach Pascal (combined: 113 catches, 1,681 yards, 18 touchdowns in 2016) was too large a hurdle, especially when it turned out that the groomed backups weren’t ready. Wilder and coordinator Brian Scott were enamored enough with Williams to trade short-term pain for long-term prowess. The former certainly happened; we’ll see about the latter.

The run game really fell apart, though. That wasn’t expected. Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox went from averaging 6 yards per carry to 4.9, and ODU fell from 42nd in Rushing S&P+ to 120th.

Injuries were at the heart of this regression. Cox missed three games, and Lawry missed four, plus the right side of the offensive line juggled pretty steadily between different starters. There were still occasional bursts of explosiveness, but the inconsistency was deadly, and Williams (4.5 yards per carry, not including sacks) wasn’t as capable of digging ODU out of holes as Washington (5.8) had been.

Old Dominion v Virginia Tech
Steven Williams
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

There are enough pieces returning to assume a rebound. Cox is back to add to his 2,115 career rushing and receiving yards, and five linemen with at least 10 career starts are back as well. And perhaps as importantly, the passing game should be dangerous enough to distract defenses a little more than it did last year.

The lanky Williams was one of the youngest people you’ll ever see playing college football last year. Growing pains were almost literal. He has a pretty lefty release, and he earned the gig by throwing two touchdown passes against UNC. After a predictable struggle, he showed some life late in the year in Scott’s quick-passing offense, even as his team faded at the end.

  • Williams’ first 6 starts: 51% completion rate, 9.6 yards per completion, 11 INT, 89.7 passer rating
  • Williams’ last 3 starts: 71% completion rate, 10.9 yards per completion, 0 INT, 146.2 passer rating

He gets four of last year’s top five targets back, plus Duhart. Slot man Isaiah Harper and Cox have proven to be pretty efficient options, while Travis Fulgham is inefficient but explosive. Duhart is both, and there’s a chance that at least one recent three-star recruit — sophomore Z-receivers Noah Ellison or Scott McCluney, sophomore tight end Marcus Joyner, redshirt freshman X-receiver Amari Colbert — is ready to contribute as well.

There’s a lot to like about this offense, but at this time last year, I was saying the same thing. ODU bears a bit more burden of proof this time around.

Defense

2017 ODU defensive radar

While the ODU offense has bounced around in the rankings through the years, the defense’s path has been one of slow improvement: 125th in Def. S&P+ in 2013, 122nd in 2014, 109th in 2015, 80th in 2016, 77th in 2017. I thought Kermit Buggs’ defense might have more improvement in it than that last year, but the streak continued.

Even minor improvement was impressive considering what was happening in the back: starting free safety Justice Davila missed the entire year (as did expected contributor Kane Miskel), starting strong safety Denzel Williams missed four games, and five other semi-regular contributors missed at least one. This was supposed to be the strength of the ODU defense, but the Monarchs fell from 42nd to 98th in Passing S&P+ despite a strong pass rush.

Still, the pass rush was awesome, and ODU was good at hemming opponents in on standard downs. They let opponents off the hook too much, and their aggression up front resulted in quite a few big run plays (91 rushes of 10-plus yards, 119th in FBS), but they were good at forcing the issue sometimes.

If the injury bug bites a bit less this time around, the secondary will have plenty of experience on which to call. Williams, Davila, and nickel back Sean Carter (3.5 tackles for loss, eight passes defensed) all return, and corners Joe Joe Headen and Jamez Brickhouse — a freshman and sophomore, respectively, in 2017 — are more experienced this time around. Cornerback depth is still a concern, but ODU has one of the deeper safety units in the conference.

Old Dominion v Florida International
Oshane Ximines (7)
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

If the cornerback position holds up, the rest of the defense could thrive. ODU returns five senior linemen who combined for 45 TFLs and 23.5 sacks last year, and while the one loss — star end and NFL Combine invitee Bunmi Rotimi — hurts, there’s a lot of star power here. Oshane Ximines has 33 career TFLs, and Miles Fox and the beefy Pat Toal Jr. are a nice pair of play-making tackles.

In Marvin Branch Jr., ODU has a senior middle linebacker calling the shots as well, though the best LB might be a sophomore. Jordan Young was asked to do a lot as a freshman last year, and he responded with six tackles for loss and 7.5 percent of the team’s havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles), fourth on the team. Three-star sophomore Lawrence Garner could be ready for more of a role in 2018 as well.

Special Teams

ODU’s special teams unit was mostly forgettable in 2017. Isaiah Harper was insanely all-or-nothing in the return game (three touchdowns, but only 53rd in kick return success rate), and kickoffs were mediocre, but the No. 80 Special Teams S&P+ ranking suggests ODU was ... okay in this regard.

Everybody’s back, including Harper, so there’s a chance the Monarchs move to firmly decent in this aspect of the game. Optimism!

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Liberty 115 -2.2 45%
8-Sep Florida International 120 3.8 59%
15-Sep at Charlotte 126 1.1 53%
22-Sep Virginia Tech 21 -20.6 12%
29-Sep at East Carolina 125 1.1 52%
6-Oct at Florida Atlantic 31 -22.7 9%
13-Oct Marshall 62 -10.9 26%
20-Oct at Western Kentucky 90 -9.4 29%
27-Oct Middle Tennessee 83 -6.1 36%
10-Nov North Texas 86 -5.4 38%
17-Nov VMI NR 34.3 98%
24-Nov at Rice 128 2.2 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 114
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 125 / 77
Projected wins 5.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -9.9 (114)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 122 / 100
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -0.4
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 80% (78%, 81%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.0 (1.0)

S&P+ projections are designed to be conservative, so the fact that the Monarchs are projected to improve only to 114th isn’t particularly surprising. It’s about what they were last year, after all. But if Williams sustains last year’s late-season improvement and meshes with Duhart, the offensive upside far outshines what we saw last year.

ODU will have a chance to start quickly this fall. Four of the first five opponents are projected 115th or worse (at Liberty, FIU, at Charlotte, at ECU), and if the Monarchs can do some damage on the road and start 4-1, they will enter full-on conference season with a chance to contend. Even with a low projection, they are projected favorites in five games; I think it could be closer to seven or eight.

Coaches earn benefit of the doubt from me, and Wilder has done so. He is methodical and successful, and last year’s only half-planned offensive youth movement could reap dividends in 2018.

The one catch: if it doesn’t happen in 2018, a massive rebuild in the defensive front seven could hinder the Monarchs in 2019. But that’s a concern for later.

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