Wednesday, August 31, 2011

ODU Football vs Campbell University - 9/2/2011

Before we begin our analysis of this weekend’s football game between ODU and Campbell, we have a couple housecleaning items to review.

First, my debut article for posted this week.  I will be posting at least once (probably twice) a week during the season, specifically about CAA football.  I’ll throw out some general FCS news as well.  I’ll use my blog to track games I see in person this season – seven ODU games, three Towson games, the season finale between W&M and Richmond, as well as a Buffalo Bills game the first weekend in November.

On this play, Buffalo went five-wide on third and five.  On a related note, the Jets won this game big and the Bills missed the playoffs...again...

Second, former Old Dominion University standout pitcher Justin Verlander became the first pitcher in a decade to win his 20th game before the calendar turned to September.  There have been talks of him garnering AL MVP votes.  I don’t think he’ll win the award but it’s an honor for a starting pitcher to be even mentioned in the conversation.

Another former Old Dominion great, Dan Hudson, won his 14th game of the season a couple games ago.  There’s a good article in The Virginian-Pilot detailing the impact Hudson and fellow Hampton Roads native Justin Upton have had on the first-place Diamondbacks’ turnaround from last season.

We are saying a prayer that our loved ones survived Hurricane Irene.  There was significantly less water in my basement than I expected but thankfully my family, friends and I remain healthy and alive.  Some of my friends lost power (and still remain without it) but we can replace power; we cannot replace lives.

And now, we preview Campbell University at Old Dominion.


We took a look at the Camels’ prospects for the season earlier.  The team loses 2010 starting quarterback Daniel Polk, who threw for eight touchdowns and ran for another twelve.  When their camp broke the coaching staff was considering true sophomore Dakota Wolf and RS freshman Jordan Hildreth to replace Polk.  Recently there’s been speculation that Southern Methodist transfer Braden Smith will get some playing time. 

Regardless of who the starting quarterback is, the Camels’ offense will be centered around running the ball.  There are three senior tailbacks on the team, led by Rashuan Brown.  Brown and senior defensive back Jared Hart are the two Camels on Phil Steele’s First Team Preseason Pioneer League Team.  Campbell returns five starting offensive linemen from last year’s team, all of whom are true-and-redshirt seniors.  This team will try to run the ball.

Meanwhile the Monarchs are a year behind the Camels but have out-recruited them for better talent.  In 2009 ODU beat Campbell 28-17 and crushed them 44-13 in 2010.  So all those returning seniors are 0-2 against what has become a superior team.  What can the Camels do differently to win the third matchup?

DeMarco leads his team into the 2011 season.

Campbell will win if…

1.      The offensive line dominates the line of scrimmage, controls the clock and minimizes the number of possessions ODU’s offense gets. 
2.      Smith plays out of his mind and becomes Drew Brees for a day against the Monarchs’ secondary.
3.      …I got nothing other than “any team can beat any other team on any given game day.”  Perhaps the Monarchs don’t take Campbell seriously, but the Monarchs have been too well-coached their first two years to assume they’ll look past any opponent.

Old Dominion will win if…
1.      The offense plays its normal pace.  Since implementing the spread offense, Coach Wilder has stated that he wants ODU’s offense to get off 75-plus plays in a game.  This offense has scored an average of 36 points against Campbell’s defense in two games; outside of a 56-point outburst against winless Valparaiso, Campbell scored less than 28 points in every other game last season.
2.      The defensive line holds its own.  Coach Wilder is high on the Monarchs’ defensive line, so if it can just do its job and prevent Campbell from running all over the field, the Camels will be forced into third-and-long situations that they may not convert with regularity.
3.      The sun rises.  I may eat my words this Sunday morning but I’m honestly struggling to come up with reasons Campbell is a better team than Old Dominion. 

The real concern of the game this weekend is that it’s late Wednesday night as I’m typing this, and I still don’t have my parking pass.  Will tailgating occur for VBR Productions?  We will find out soon. 

Go, Monarchs.

Monday, August 29, 2011

ODU Football, 2011 - It's Happening

So we’ve finally arrived at the week leading up to the first game of the college football season.  We’ve taken a lot of time to preview Old Dominion University ’s inaugural season in the Colonial Athletic Association.  Specifically we’ve taken a look at their eleven opponents.  We’ve reviewed the offensive and defensive lines; running backs and linebackers; receivers and secondary; and quarterbacks, tight ends and special teams.  We’ve further compared the offense and defense/special teams to the best of the conference.

So with all this information, it’s time to make an educated prediction of how the season will all play out.  Since the time of our original analysis there have been significant events that require certain re-assessments.  Those events are highlighted below with some quick links.

There are two changes specific to ODU to review.  First, last year’s leading rusher (Mario Crawford) will miss the 2011 season after suffering a neck injury at the end of camp.  There is no paralysis involved but neck injuries are never good.  Here’s hoping to a healthy recovery.  Along less serious lines, I had listed DJ Morrell as a JUCO adding important depth along the offensive line.  Over the weekend I noticed his name is no longer on the ODU roster, so that pokes a minor hole in my offensive line analysis.  Regardless, the starting line and key backups are in good shape even without him.

Crawford led ODU with more than 600 rushing yards last seaon.

A couple of ODU’s opponents also experienced significant change over the last several weeks.  The Monarchs’ second opponent, Georgia State, experienced difficulties during the offseason with their quarterbacks.  It appears that at least one issue may be resolved as sophomore Kelton Hill has returned to the team since the Fulton County DA temporarily dropped burglary charges against him.  Georgia State ’s AD has suspended Hill for the season opener, but it is unknown whether head coach Bill Curry will immediately reinstate him or add to the punishment.  The most important aspect to this story, even above football, is that he gets another chance to continue (and hopefully finish) a college education.

Along the lines of law enforcement, Latrell Scott resigned from his post as head coach of the Richmond Spiders.  Scott, who was hired after Mike London left for Virginia following the 2009 season, was arrested for failing to take a sobriety test issued by police.  This was Scot’s second drinking-and-driving-related offense; the Richmond AD knew of Scott’s first DUI offense and had a no-tolerance policy.  Before news of Scott’s second offense became public, he tendered his resignation.  Scott’s offensive coordinator Wayne Lineburg was promoted to interim head coach for the season.

Since we’ve already done so much initial research and have now updated it as needed, let’s take a look at some other aspects to the season we’ve yet to cover.


No matter how well the Monarchs performed in their record-setting 9-2 first season, or in their 8-3 sophomore campaign against a tougher schedule without sub-FCS competition, I just don’t see how this team can replicate those records in 2011.  The Colonial Athletic Association finished the 2010 season above two FBS conferences (the MAC and Sun Belt) in the Sagarin ratings.  Five CAA teams have wins over FBS opponents the last two seasons – JMU, W&M, Villanova, UNH and Richmond.  If ODU is simply competitive in its eight conference games, the won/loss record this season will not define the season. 

With that said, each game has its own level of importance for the program.  Below are the top three games and why Monarchs fans should be excited for them.  Others receiving consideration include UMass (first home conference game), Towson (Homecoming), Richmond (Senior Day) and William and Mary (rematch of last season’s game of the year).

3. Hampton University

Old Dominion University faced off against its Hampton Roads rival Hampton University in 2010 with only three classes of recruits.  After building a 21-7 lead, they would hold on to win the game 28-14 against a Pirates team that had won five of its prior six matches.  If ODU wants to maintain bragging rights within the 757, it needs to take care of business on September 17.  The Pirates lose three First Team All-MEAC players on defense to graduation, so it may be easier to move the ball and score on Hampton’s defense this season.
Former Hampton Pirate Kenrick Ellis was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft.  (Photo credited to

2. University of Delaware

The Monarchs have a decent chance of going 3-0 against its non-conference schedule to start the season.  If that happens, at least they’ll ride a high note into Newark, Delaware, to face the 2010 FCS national runners-up Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens.  The only worse way the conference could have welcomed ODU to the CAA is to have them played at William and Mary, a team with a legitimate shot at 2011’s FCS title. 

Delaware loses more than half its starters on defense to graduation, not to mention losing projected starting LB Kyle Hunte during summer camp.  The Hens also lose 2010 CAA Offensive POY Pat Devlin, who signed with the wretched Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent.  Nevertheless, they return four starting offensive linemen along with Preseason CAA Co-Offensive POY Andrew Pierce.  Old Dominion will have its hands full competing in its first game against a conference foe.

Sophomore running back Andrew Pierce will lead the Hens back to the playoffs.

1.     James Madison University

In the 1990’s, ODU and JMU had a pretty fierce rivalry in CAA basketball.  While both programs staggered at the end of the decade, the Monarchs were able to turn things around under Coach Blaine Taylor.  Old Dominion has reached the NCAA Tournament four of the last seven years, while James Madison made the CIT in 2008.

While the JMU basketball team has struggled, their football team has had notable success of late.  In the first place, they’ve had football for more than the last two years (which is ODU’s tenure).  But on a national scale they’ve won the FCS national title (2004), had multiple other playoff appearances (2006-2008) and defeated ACC Champion Virginia Tech in 2010.  They’ve also had multiple players reach the NFL, including Curtis Keaton and…wait for it…ARTHUR MOATS!!!

As Brett Favre learned, DON'T CROSS THE MOATS!!!

All things considered, there are several dynamics leading up to this game.  Old Dominion has had a superior basketball program while Dukes fans have enjoyed successful football for a longer period of time.  The Monarchs have sold out 14 straight games at Foreman Field, averaging 19,782 per contest.  Meanwhile JMU’s administration has done a phenomenal job of sprucing up Bridgeforth Stadium, and their fans expect it to be a better game day experience than Norfolk maintains.  Throw in rivalries in other sports (baseball, women’s basketball, field hockey) and you’ve got the makings of a game that could exceed last season’s ODU/W&M game for anticipation.  The Dukes are no joke, either, returning ten of eleven starters from a dominant 2010 defense that beat Virginia Tech on the road.


As mentioned above, the Monarchs’ 2011 season should not be measured as a success or failure based solely on its win/loss record.  Every one of ODU’s eight conference games is against teams that have existed for decades; conversely Old Dominion’s Head Coach Bobby Wilder was hired less than five years ago.  Monarch fans should temper their expectations for the season.

Still, if ODU is to win its share of games in 2011, here are the three keys for that to that happen.

3.     A healthy Thomas DeMarco

In two seasons as ODU’s starting quarterback, the redshirt senior has accounted for 44 touchdown passes and another 25 on the ground.  The Californian has taken Wilder’s concept of the spread offense and executed it to the tune of 17 wins in 22 games.  We fans knew we had a winner after he led the team to a comeback win at Jacksonville in its first-ever game against an FCS opponent.

But the Monarchs’ schedule has been littered with mostly lower-tier competition in its first two seasons.  DeMarco fared well against both William & Mary and Cal-Poly, top-25 teams in the FCS last season.  The question remains, can DeMarco hold up against CAA-caliber defenses for eight straight weeks?  In 2009 the quarterback led the team in rushing yards while finishing second in 2010.  He cannot average the eleven rushing attempts he had last season; Tyler Holmes, Frank Beltre and other CAA defensive standouts will make him pay if he tucks the ball and runs too frequently. 

Old Dominion should limit DeMarco's carries against superior defenses of the CAA.

Limiting DeMarco’s attempts is complicated by the aforementioned injury to Crawford.  The running game will feature redshirt freshman Angus Harper and true sophomore Colby Goodwyn, complemented by former quarterback Rashad Manley and walk-on freshman Malik Jackson.  If DeMarco is out of the lineup for an extended period in CAA play, it may be a long season as his primary (Nate Ong) and secondary (Taylor Heinicke) backups are both new to the program this season.

2.     Play of the Trenches

Despite injuries and defections prior to last season, and subsequent injuries in the middle of the season, the Monarchs’ offensive line was amazingly effective in 2010.  Quarterbacks were sacked less than once per game; the running attack averaged 140 yards per game with a season-high 229 against Georgia State.  That game against the Panthers was the first in which starting center Jeremy Hensley was replaced due to injury, and was the second time an overhaul of the 2010 offensive line occurred.
The Monarchs fared well on the ground against the Panthers in 2010.

2011 will mark the first season Tobin Cameron will not start at left tackle for the Monarchs, as the JUCO transfer graduated after last season.  He’ll be replaced by Ryan Jensen, a redshirt senior who started all of 2009 but missed 2010 due to injury.  Hensley returns at center, allowing right guard Brandon Carr to return to his natural position.  All 6-8, 340 pounds of JUCO transfer David Born will start at left guard while redshirt sophomore Jack Lowney will start at right tackle.

The 2011 version of the offensive line will be much improved from last year’s squad, if for no other reason than stability.  At the end of 2010’s camp, ODU’s coaches practiced using two-hand-touch rules because they were so thin on the line and couldn’t afford to lose anyone else.  All starters listed above except Born have at least two seasons with the program and logged several starts the last two years.  How will they perform against defenses that consistently have players drafted by NFL teams?

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line was going to be a source of strength for the Monarchs until redshirt junior Andrew Turner injured his Achilles heel.  As I’ve mentioned several times, the starting unit along the line will be fine if it stays healthy.  Ronnie Cameron, Chris Burnette, Erik Saylor, Chad King and Edmon McClam have all had a significant impact on the defensive line.  However, behind these five players are several true-and-redshirt freshmen.
The Monarchs had three sacks and eight TFL's against NCCU in the 2010 finale.

In 2009 the defense allowed 167 rushing yards per game, which finished at the bottom of FCS; in 2010 the team shaved off 25 yards/game and ranked 35th out of 120 FCS teams.  Turner was a major part of that improvement last season, but won’t be there for the team this season.  The Monarchs will rely heavily on Nate Barnes, Dominique Guinn-Bailey, and Alex Johnson to make up for the loss of Turner. 

Even without the loss of Turner, the defensive line would still have been in the 2011 spotlight.  Last season the Monarchs gave up 35 points to Jacksonville and another 50 to Cal-Poly, the teams with the most explosive offenses they faced.  This season they run up against CAA Preseason Co-Offensive POY Andrew Pierce and Jonathan Grimes, both running backs.  UMass’ star running back Jonathan Hernandez and Rhode Island ’s dual-threat QB Steve Probst are also on the schedule.  If the DL cannot contain the line of scrimmage against the CAA, opposing offenses will rack up yards and points.  Old Dominion will then be forced to move the ball through the air, making the offense one-dimensional.

1.     Slow-and-Steady Wins the Race

In 2010, an FCS team that finished 3-5 in its own conference (James Madison) beat the ACC champions (Virginia Tech).  Three weeks later that same FCS team won a contest 17-13 against another FCS team (Towson) that finished its season 1-10.  The Minutemen of UMass started its season with a 27-23 win over co-conference champion William and Mary, then went 5-5 the rest of the way.  The Rhode Island Rams only won three of its first nine games but ended the season with wins over #3 Villanova and #19 UMass.

It cannot be stressed enough how good this conference is from top to bottom.  In the last decade four CAA teams have won the FCS national title – Delaware (2003), James Madison (2004), Richmond (2008) and Villanova (2009).  Three other teams made the FCS title game – Delaware (2007 and 2010) and UMass (2006).  And as mentioned previously, the conference has five wins over FBS teams the last two years.

With this in mind, the Monarchs could win a game it shouldn’t win (JMU, Delaware or W&M?) and lose a game it shouldn’t lose (Towson or Rhode Island?).  The key is that the players need to approach each game with the same intensity.  They cannot get too high after wins nor too low after losses.  Last season Rhode Island had only five wins but three of them were against FCS teams ranked 19th or higher at the time they played.  THESE PROGRAMS ARE LEGITIMATE.

Even more than Thomas DeMarco, the player who will have the most influence for the team this season is Ronnie Cameron.  Hofstra University folded its football program at the end of the 2009 season, and the Monarchs were lucky enough to land Cameron and Deron Mayo as transfers.  Mayo used his last year of eligibility last season while Cameron transferred with two seasons available.  Having been through two seasons of conference play, the redshirt senior DT must guide his teammates through both the highs and the lows of battling the nation’s toughest FCS conference.


We’re going to develop a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and what we actually expect to happen in 2011.  This will be the first post we bring up at the end of the season to review how accurate we were. 

Best-Case Scenario

Old Dominion will go 3-0 out of conference.  After losing at Delaware, the team will then win four straight games before losing at home to James Madison, and then beating either Richmond or William and Mary to finish its season.  The eight wins are enough to host an FCS playoff game, at which point anything can happen.

Worst-Case Scenario

Old Dominion beats Campbell but loses to Georgia State and Hampton.  The Monarchs’ first conference win will come at home against Towson.  Add to that home win a road victory against Villanova, and the Monarchs win a total of three games.  Nevertheless, ODU averages 19,782 fans at home and finishes top-five in FCS’ average attendance as its fans continue support the team, regardless of competition or venue. 

Realistic Scenario

This is what we expect to actually happen.  Old Dominion will go 3-0 out of conference.  The Monarchs get their first CAA win on the road at Rhode Island, and get its second win against Towson at home.  After that they win only one of its final four games (Villanova would be the most likely victory) and finish 6-5. 
In its 21-17 loss to eventual CAA Co-Champion, the Monarchs showed they can compete with the best FCS programs in the nation.  In 2011, they'll have to show that they can do it against eight straight CAA foes.


No matter what happens in 2011, Old Dominion has set itself up well for long-term success in the conference.  They brought in the appropriate mix of JUCO transfers and high school recruits on the offensive line and at quarterback to run a spread offense.  The team was lucky enough to have Cameron and Mayo fall into its lap after one season.  Beyond that the team’s depth has been established around recruiting classes of true freshmen. 

Coach Wilder is bringing in young men who want to spend their entire collegiate careers with the Monarchs, and is beating out other CAA programs and/or lower-tier FBS teams for recruits.  This season cannot be measured purely in wins and losses; ODU does not have decades of football tradition on which it can rely to win.  It is creating its traditions in its youth. 

But the objective of playing football is in fact to win, and the Monarchs are good for at least four wins this season.  A stretch-goal of eight wins is attainable if everything falls in place, but that’s rare in college football.  Regardless of the win/loss record, the program will continue to be a success.  All 14,000-plus season tickets are already sold out for all six homes games and there’s a waiting list comprised of 1,700 people. 

The wind was being extremely uncooperative this day.  When I tried moving to the other side, the wind changed direction.  Just hold the picture in front of a mirror and you'll get the idea.

2011 is a stepping stone to great things.  Monarch fans may need to remind themselves of that when the team faces CAA teams eight straight weeks without a bye.  But they can also expect their share of wins against quality opponents after only four recruiting classes.

It’s happening.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

ODU Football - Newcomers

I’m typing this on the Saturday that Hurricane Irene is hitting the east coast.  I can’t get that song by The Scorpions about rocking you like a hurricane out of my head.  I can’t stand that guy’s vocals so it doesn’t put me in a happy place of mind.  And of course, now I’ve got that “Winds of Change” song in my head.  Why are their two most popular songs about wind? 

But we move on from there, hoping this Adam Carolla podcast gets my mind off bad music.  There are three more topics of Old Dominion football that I want to address, and today we’ll review one of them – the impact that Monarch newcomers will have on the 2011 season.  For our purposes “newcomer” includes players who have yet to play a down for ODU; this includes JUCO transfers, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. 

We’ll break it down by position, and we’re focusing only on those expected to make a positive impact from Day One.  If we see Nate Ong and/or Taylor Heinicke, it means that something happened to DeMarco.  We’re hoping that DeMarco plays every snap this season, save those that come at the end of a blowout.

Make it stop.  MAKE IT STOP!!!


One JUCO transfer gives the Monarch OL a boost this season.  Redshirt sophomore David Born had won the starting left guard position at the end of summer camp.  The 6-8, 340-pound lineman comes to ODU after one season at Bakersfield College.  Despite getting interest from lower-level FBS program, Born has been with the team since spring camp, so he’s gotten several months of work with the program.

Prior to the start of camp, there was talk that true freshman Josh Mann of Virginia Beach would redshirt this season and compete for the starting center position in 2012.  However, he’s been so productive that he will get playing time this season at right guard.  He’s pushed last year’s starting guard/center Brandon Carr for playing time, and the coaches will platoon the two at that position. 


The season-ending injury to Mario Crawford means more playing time for redshirt freshman Angus Harper.  The young man from Alexandria injured his knee as a true freshman in camp and missed the 2010 season.  Due to injuries to Crawford and sophomore Colby Goodwyn, Harper got most of the reps with the first team offense.  BCS programs Pitt and BC offered Harper scholarships to play safety, but he chose ODU because he wanted to play running back.  This season, Harper gets his chance to show his stuff.


The injury to Crawford also impacts the wide receiver position.  Redshirt freshman Antonio Vaughan has been spectacular in camp so far at WR.  Nevertheless, he may be forced to play some RB during the season.  In high school he played quarterback in an option-style offense, so he’s no stranger to taking the ball behind the line of scrimmage.  Regardless of where he plays, Vaughan will do good things with the ball in his hands.

Another receiver who will have an instant impact is Blair Roberts.  At 6-2, the true freshman is the tallest receiver on the team.  During the spring signing period, Roberts picked ODU over offers from Temple and Buffalo, and there has been buzz about his play during the summer camp.  With the indefinite suspension of redshirt junior Nick Mayers, Roberts has an opportunity to get into the lineup and be productive. 


With the loss of Andrew Turner for the season, the defensive line does not have much proven depth behind the starters.  Look for two redshirt freshmen to get several chances to prove themselves.  Defensive tackle Jagger Blehm is a kid who played only one year in Green Run High School in Virginia Beach after playing previously at a small school in North Carolina.  He was starting to get looks from several schools at Green Run but it was late in the recruiting process for those bigger colleges; thankfully the Monarchs had a scholarship available and he signed on with us.

Green Run High School product Plaxico Burress. 
The other redshirt freshmen expected to help the DL is Dominique Guinn-Bailey, a defensive tackle from Churchland High School in Portsmouth.  The 6-4 tackle added 40 pounds to his frame since high school and is now at 265 pounds.  He made Second Team All-Tidewater his senior season at Churchland and should make significant contributions.  And isn’t “Guinn-Bailey” just a badass name? 


The two-deep at safety position is set, but keep an eye on true freshman Neal-Anthony Hale.  The walk-on from Maury High School in Norfolk has been among the hardest hitters in camp.  He is the shortest safety on the roster listed at 5-9, but he’s a player who was missed by other coaches because he didn’t meet the height/weight measurements that blind some coaches. 

One cornerback position is locked down by redshirt junior TJ Cowart, based on his play the last two years.  There was a fierce battle for the other starting CB position, and Rich Radford reports that redshirt freshman Eriq Lewis appears to have won the competition.  The DC product has beaten out sophomore Aaron Evans and redshirt sophomore Markell Wilkins, who started in 2009 but missed 2010 with an injury.  Coach Wilder has been impressed with all three of these players, so it sounds like he’s confident with all of them on the field.

In addition to Lewis, Evans and Wilkins, don’t be surprised to see true freshman Reggie Owens making plays this season as well.  Before his senior season Owens committed to play at Duke University.  The relationship went south and he chose to come to Old Dominion.  It’s hard to keep BCS-level athleticism off the field. 


The punter and placekicker positions are set with Jonathan Plisco and Jarod Brown, respectively.  The man responsible for snapping them the ball (not on kickoffs, obviously) will be true freshman Rick Lovato.  From Middletown, NJ, Lovato will have to replace All-American long snapper Dustin Phillips.  Similarly to other offensive linemen, it’s a good thing when you don’t hear the long snapper’s name – it means he’s doing his job and doesn’t get noticed for it.  When you DO hear the snapper’s name, it’s because the snap failed to reach its intended target.  The only time Phillips was mentioned was when he was named to the All-American team. 


With only three recruiting classes heading into the 2010, the Monarchs had to rely on underclassmen and JUCO transfers the past two seasons.  The current class of true freshmen is only the fourth class, so even they are expected to make immediate contributions.  It appears Coach Wilder is bringing in kids with talent, but we won’t know how well they fare in the CAA until the season begins.  They should be able to lean on the upperclassmen while they learn the ropes themselves, which the upperclassmen themselves could not have done the last two years.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Comparing ODU's Defense to the CAA's Best

Yesterday we compared Old Dominion football’s offense to the best the CAA had to offer.  We actually came away with a decent amount of optimism, assuming the offensive line can hold its own.  Less than 24 hours after my post, it was announced that projected starting RB Mario Crawford would miss the next six-to-eight weeks with an injured neck.  That tempers the expectations for the offense a bit.
So how does the Monarch defense stack up against other CAA defenses?  Since 2007 there have been eight defensive players from the CAA drafted in the NFL.  The defenses in this conference are legitimate.  We’ll also look at special teams in this post.  Again, we will refrain from including true/redshirt freshmen from our analysis.  Production in high school football does not always translate to production in Division 1 football.
Old Dominion’s defensive line took a significant hit in April when rising redshirt junior Andrew Turner injured his Achilles heel.  The other starters returning have done a good job the last two years.  The only game last year where they were pushed around was against Cal-Poly, a top 25 FCS team that employs a lethal triple option offense.  Ronnie Cameron returns to lead this unit; his 19 tackles for losses would have ranked him second in the CAA last season.  Other returning starters include record-setting Edmon McClam, Chris Burnette and a platoon of Erik Saylor and Chad King.  There is minimal proven depth behind the starters, as Turner was being counted on to start this season.  There are seven true/redshirt freshmen on the squad.
There were five defensive linemen named to the Preseason All-CAA Team.  They include three seniors (Michael Atunrase, Marcus Hyde and Brian McNally), one junior (Frank Beltre) and one sophomore (Antoine Lewis).  2011 CFPA Award Watchlist members Beltre and Hyde finished second and third among conference linemen in tackles last season, respectively.  Meanwhile McNally had 13.5 sacks to go along with 15 TFL’s. 
New Hampshire's Brian McNally was named to the 2011 Buchanan Award Watchlist.
Last season Delaware’s defensive line was arguably the conference’s best, but the only returning starter from that unit in 2011 is Atunrase.  They are a perennial top-25 program because of their defense and they allowed the fewest points among FCS teams at only 12.1/game last season.  New Hampshire should be exceptional again this year; they lose two starters on the DL but return McNally. 
From here I could pretty much list every team and point out how fantastic their defensive line is, but that would defeat the purpose of singling out the best.  My vote for best defensive line is James Madison.  They return their defensive line intact save 2010 All-CAA First Teamer Ronnell Brown.  If you’ll recall from my JMU preview, this defense was lights out the first three quarters of games last year but were outscored rather dramatically in the fourth quarter.  The offense couldn’t stay on the field long enough and/or score enough, which wore out the defense.  They don’t have any defensive linemen on the Preseason All-CAA  but as a unit they should be the best in the conference.
At best I would put the Monarchs’ defensive line in the middle of the CAA pack.  Ronnie Cameron played great against W&M (10 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Cal-Poly (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL) so he’s proven himself against the best competition.  The rest of the line didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet either game and in fact were mostly unable to stop the Mustangs’ triple option offense.  Even with Cameron, this unit hasn’t proven itself to be among the elite lines like Delaware, New Hampshire, JMU or even William & Mary.  I don’t expect a terrible season from them but having lost starter Turner puts them a bit behind the eight ball.
The Monarchs' DL in action against NCCU.
Head coach Bobby Wilder himself sees significant room for improvement among the team’s linebackers, as he discussed in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot’s Rich Radford.  The team’s middle linebacker was fifth in total tackles.  Part of this was the result of the play of Cameron and Deron Mayo upfront; if the line gets to the ball carrier before the linebackers then there’s nothing for them to do.  However, Wilder is on record for expecting the unit to play better.  Craig Wilkins was among the team’s best defensive players, leading the team in tackles (74) while adding 2.5 sacks, 10.5 TFL’s and 5 fumble recoveries.  The rising junior was also named to the CFPA Award Watchlist.
Among the five Preseason All-CAA linebackers there is one senior (last year’s Defensive POY Tyler Holmes), three juniors (Dante Cook, Matt Evans and Paul Worrilow) and one sophomore (Stephon Robertson).  The Sports Network named UMass’ Holmes as the best linebacker in all of FCS heading into 2011.  We’re definitely going to review this guy’s performance as we get closer to the October 1 showdown with the Monarchs, but for now that link provides all the information you need to know. 
Holmes is arguably the best linebacker in FCS.  (Photo credited to Don Treeger of The Republican)
Last season New Hampshire’s Evans had the fifth most tackles in FCS (156 total)…as a sophomore.  I’ve already labeled him the favorite to win this season’s Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player in FCS.  The guy just knows where to be and is technically as good a tackler as there is.  I’m happy that ODU doesn’t face Evans and McNally this season as we avoided New Hampshire on the schedule.  But I should be able to get to the UNH/Towson game this season so I’ll still get to see them.
And those are only two linebackers.  Along with Holmes and Evans, others included on the CFPA Linebacker Watchlist are Cook, Robertson, Pat Williams of JMU, and Darius McMillan of UR.  This league is deep with talent at the position.  Kyle Kensing of wrote an entire piece on the best FCS linebackers, in which all players he analyzed come from the CAA. 
Honestly it’s difficult to list the best linebacker unit in the conference because cases can be made for several of them.  We could go around in circles for a while.  It should suffice to say that JMU, W&M, UMass and UNH are collectively the best.  Regardless of who’s #1 versus #4 among that list, ODU’s linebackers are not in that same elite group.  Wilkins could start for probably any CAA team but after him there is minimal proven talent.  Even if you consider Wilkins in the same league as Holmes and Evans, the other ODU linebackers have not proven themselves (yet).  There are several underclassmen that will get significant time at the position, so someone may step up.  This is one outcome of being in only our third season - youth.  John Darr has reportedly made good strides during the offseason, but how will the unit fare against CAA offenses?  I am admittedly skeptical…hopeful, but skeptical.
Wilkins (12) is the leader of the Monarchs' linebacker corps.
Old Dominion’s secondary is in pretty good shape overall.  Their numbers may be underwhelming (only four interceptions by cornerbacks and safeties) but their play has been solid.  As stated above with the linemen, the only game they were really completely outplayed was the Cal-Poly game.  Individuals simply failed their assignments, and the defense allowed several big plays.  Junior TJ Cowart has one cornerback position locked up, playing solidly in eleven starts last season and ten in 2009.  There’s a strong battle among a redshirt sophomore (Markell Wilkins), a true sophomore (Aaron Evans), a redshirt freshman (Eriq Lewis) and a true freshman (Reggie Owens) for the other spot.  This position will be young but talented the next several seasons.  The safety position rotation will chiefly include Devon Simmons, Paul Morant, Fred Credle and Carvin Powell. 
There were three seniors (Jerron McMillan, Vidal Nelson and James Pitts) and one junior (BW Webb) on the Preseason All-CAA Team.  Only Nelson was among the top 15 DB’s in total tackles last season.  McMillan tied for the lead in fumbles recovered (three) while Pitts was second in passes defensed (1.0/game).  Only Webb was named to the CFPA Defensive Back Award watchlist.
Webb, left, had three INT's in the Tribe's 2009 victory over UVa.  (Photo credited to
The best pass defenses from 2010 (JMU, W&M and Delaware) will probably remain among the best in 2011, though Delaware’s may slip a bit.  They lose four defensive backs with significant starting experience to graduation this season.  Surprisingly Towson had the fourth-ranked passing defense last season, but then you look over and see that they allowed a conference-worst 181 rushing yards per game.  While Towson's defense will be improved over 2010's results, they are still not a top-tier CAA defense.
Old Dominion allowed an average of 216 yards through the air last season.  The team gave up more than 400 passing yards to start-up Georgia State, though 192 of those yards occurred in the fourth quarter after ODU had built a 34-6 lead.  The average of 216 yards would have put them in the bottom third of the conference in 2010.  I hold the same position on the defensive backs as I do for linebackers – the players seem to be talented but they’ve yet to produce.  It’s also important to note that the defensive backfield consisted primarily of underclassmen last season, and there again are no seniors on the roster in 2011.  This team took its lumps and was still standing at season’s end, playing true freshmen at CB and S.  Did they learn enough together to improve as a unit?
This is one area where the Monarchs may actually have an advantage over more than half the CAA squads.  Jonathan Plisco led the FCS in punting average in 2009 and was 0.05 yards/punt from leading all FCS punters in 2010.  The Monarchs’ leading punt returner of 2010 (Monty Smalley) is not returning for 2011.  Meanwhile our kicker converted 75% of his field goal attempts last season, and we have a record-setting kick returner coming back for his sophomore season.
If you haven’t kept track, there were no Monarchs voted to the All-CAA Preseason Team.  It’s understandable because ODU has proven nothing yet relative to what CAA programs have accomplished.  However, the one position where ODU should have gotten recognized was punter.  Plisco has averaged more than 44 yards per punt in his two years with the Monarchs.  The Preseason’s All-CAA punter was James Madison’s David Skahn, who averaged 39.2 yards per punt last season. 
The CAA coaches and SID’s probably wanted to send ODU a message about proving themselves in the conference.  That’s fine.  But one byproduct of that message is that their selection of the best presesaon punter averaged a full five yards less per kick than Plisco.  Plisco averaged 44.3 yards/kick last season, more than a yard more than the CAA’s top punter last season, Dominic Scarnecchia (43.2/punt).  Objectively, doesn’t Plisco’s exclusion look a little silly? 
Plisco led the FCS in punting in 2009 and was 0.05 yards/attempt shy of being the leader in 2010.
Kickers are kickers.  Jarod Brown converted 12/16 field goal attempts last season with a long of 48.  Those numbers would have put him in the upper half of the CAA.  The conference is returning its top four and seven of its top eight kickers from last season.  Of course this is a “field goal” league, meaning that games between even the best and worst teams could come down to a final kick.  I’m comfortable with Brown at kicker, and I’m sure fans of most other schools are comfortable with theirs.  The Preseason All-CAA kicker is Will Kamin of Richmond , who converted 91% of his kicks last season.  Five CAA kickers were named to the CFPA Kicker Award Watchlist, two of which are Brown and Kamin.
My amateur self took this badass shot...of a kick, but still...
Colby Goodwyn ranked fourth among all FCS kick returners in 2010 with 29.8 yards per return.  That would have been good enough for first place in the CAA last season, beating Travis Hurd’s average of 26.2 yards/return.  The Rhode Island sophomore was named the Preseason All-CAA kick returner.  Jonathan Grimes, the Co-CAA Preseason Offensive POY, is another stellar kick returner in the conference.  These three players and Maine ’s Steven Barker were elected to the CFPA Kickoff Returner Award Watchlist.  Considering Goodwyn set a Division 1 (both FBS and FCS) record for most kick return yards in a single game, I am more than confident in how the return unit will perform.
I am much less confident about how the punt return unit will perform.  Last season’s main punt returner is not returning for 2011.  Smalley handled all but four punt returns for the Monarchs last season, and played a big role in the Monarchs’ win over Gardner-Webb.  So while the roster is filled with quality athletes, we don’t know how they’ll perform until the season starts.  There is no separate punt returner selection for the Preseason All-CAA team.  Richmond ’s Justin Rogers, selected by the Buffalo Bills in the 2011 NFL draft, led the conference with an average of 12.4 yards/return.  William and Mary’s BW Webb led all returning players with an average of 9.8 yards/return.
While the defense was good enough to help the team win 17 out of its first 22 games last season, overall I’d say it doesn’t measure up to the best of the CAA right now.  Each unit has standout players (Cameron, the Wilkins) but its depth has not proven itself sufficiently like the rest of the CAA has.  There is a good amount of athletic ability but this is only the third season for the program.  Are the two previous seasons enough to get up to the speed against CAA offenses?  Meanwhile I’ll take Old Dominion’s collective special teams unit against anyone in the conference.  Plisco, Goodwyn and Company will perform well, no matter the competition.
In our next post we will take a look at the newcomers expected to make the most impact for ODU this season – including true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and JUCO transfers.  There are also updates for some of our opponents that significantly alter our matchups with them.