Sunday, August 21, 2011

Backs and 'Backers

The other day we took a look at both the offensive and defensive lines of Old Dominion University for the 2011 season.  The play of the lines will have a large impact of the next two units we discuss, running backs and linebackers.


It is arguable that quarterback Thomas DeMarco is the best running back the Monarchs have had its first two season.  Out of the spread offense he can throw, hand off, or keep the ball and run.  He's done that last option exceptionally well the last two seasons, racking up 1,300-plus yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground.  But please read this next statement as slowly as you can (since I can't control the pace of your reading).  Thomas DeMarco will get crushed against eight straight CAA defenses if he averages more than the eleven attempts/game he had 2010.

I am a big fan of DeMarco.  As a guy who's a little on the short side myself, I'm always rooting for the vertically-challenged to succeed in sports.  One of the best quarterbacks ever (when factoring his college and CFL production) was Doug Flutie, who was no taller than 5-3.  (Well, maybe 5-9.)  You know what made him so great?  He made smart decisions, frequently deciding where to go with the ball before the snap.  His shiftiness and improvisational skills helped as well.  Unfortunately he also divided the Bills locker room into the Flutie Camp and the Rob Johnson camp. 

When discussing Flutie v Johnson, people fail to menion that Johnson left the playoff game against the Titans with the lead.  That counts for something.  (Photo credited to  And yes, that's a real website.)

Although I am not flat out comparing DeMarco to Flutie, the similarities are there - he's a short QB with great scrambling skills who can execute unconventional plays when things break down.  That said, the defenses DeMarco faced the last two seasons are nothing compared to the defenses he's going to face in the CAA.  Recently we've seen multiple players on defense drafted by the NFL come out of the CAA.  These cats are serious. 

I mention all this to underscore the fact that DeMarco cannot be the primary, secondary or tertiary running option for the team.  After leading the team in rushing yards in 2009, he finished second in both attempts and yards in 2010 while leading the team with eight touchdowns.  He won't last halfway through the conference lineup unless his attempts go down or he at least learns to slide more. 

Which brings us to the running backs currently on the roster.  The running back corps should be much improved in 2011 given the defection of walk-ons, the health of returning players and the new additions.  I'll always remember walk-on Jamar Parham for his 100-yard opening night in September 2009 against Chowan, but that was his lone career highlight.  He and fellow walk-on Desmond "DD" Williams left the program during the offseason, detecting the improvement in talent this season.

Last seaon's leading rusher, Mario Crawford, returns for his junior season.  He gained more than 500 yards and had six touchdowns in 2010, and returns as the projected starter at the start of camp.  The junior had a season-high 91 yards against Georgia State in 2010, and posted a personal-best 102 yards against Savannah State in 2009.  His main competition for reps is Angus Harper, a redshirt freshman who returns this season after injuring his knee during camp last season. 

Crawford was the Monarchs' leading rusher in 2010.

Word on the street was that Harper was healthy enough to play by roughly the eighth game last season, but the coaches didn't want to play him for only three games and waste a whole year of eligibility.  Harper had scholarship offers from Boston College and the University of Pittsburgh to play safety, but chose Old Dominion because the coaching staff would let him play RB.  When two different BCS programs offer someone a football scholarship, you know the guy has talent.  Their loss, our gain!

Also returning for his second season with ODU is sophomore Colby Goodwyn.  The young man from local Phoebus High School was fourth on the team with 186 yards and scored three touchdowns, including a 41 yarder against William and Mary.  The coaches had Goodwyn more focused as the #1 kick returner than as a RB.  Against Cal-Poly in October, Goodwyn set the D1 record (FBS and FCS) for most kick return yards (333) in a single game.  (Unfortunately that also meant the Mustangs scored too frequently, but it still put his name in the record books.)  If Colby is again the primary KR then I'd expect him to be third on the depth chart at RB.  It's not a bad thing to have a record-breaking RB at third on your depth chart.

The Monarchs' ground attack put up 229 rushing yards against Georgia State.

Following Goodwyn from Phoebus is former backfield teammate Tyree Lee.  Because he was behind upperclassmen in high school until his senior season, Lee was not highly recruited until then.  He was voted the AP Virginia Player of the Year after producing more than 2,500 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns last year.  (Lee and quarterback Tyler Heinicke give ODU two 2010 State POY, as Heinicke joins the program after earning those honors in Georgia.)  The Monarchs were among the earliest teams to recruit Lee, even after he dislocated his ankle in an all-star game, and he signed on to play in Norfolk.  Since February when Lee signed his LOI, Coach Wilder said he hoped to redshirt Lee because of the injury and the depth in front of him.

There are a couple other names worth mentioning.  Malik Jackson is a walk-on this season, finishing his career at Archbishop HS in Washington, DC, in 2010.  Jackson, who finished on the Second Team All-WCAC at the end of last season, has gotten significant PT in camp due to minor bumps and bruises to Crawford and Goodwyn.  (Those two could play if needed right now but are being held out as a precaution in camp.) 

The other new running back is not new to the team.  Former quarterback Rashad Manley has switched to RB during camp.  This was done partly because of the minor injuries mentioned above, but also because he'd be fourth on the depth chart at QB this season.  We'll explore that more when we look at that position.  For now, I'm excited to see Manley at RB this season.  I saw him in his only two games last season, against Savannah State and at NCCU, and this guy looks shifty.  The true sophomore seemed very athletic with an ability to change directions quickly.  He'll need that in his new position.

With DeMarco injured against NCCU, Manley took the final snap for ODU in its FCS Independent existence.

I expect 2011 to be a great season for ODU's running backs.  The returning talent on the team is better with a healthy Harper.  The unit would be even more dynamic with a healthy Lee, but you don't want to rush a RB back from foot-or-leg injuries.  The backs should also produce more thanks to an offensive line that's deeper and healthier than the 2010 unit.  Lest we forget, DeMarco has shown the ability to just take off with the ball himself.  However, if he finishes the season as the second-leading rusher again, then our season will not have gone well.


This is the unit that causes me the most anxiety.  It seemed like all big plays made on defense last season were made either by defensive linemen, cornerbacks or Craig Wilkins.  (Deron Mayo played a DE/LB hybrid but he mostly rushed the QB.)  A rising redshirt junior, Wilkins could start for most CAA defenses.  Starting middle linebacker Michael Williams was fifth on the team in tackles.  It is not good when your starting middle linebacker is only fifth in total tackles.  Coach Wilder pointed this out rather directly in an interview with Rich Radford at the end of last season.

Regardless of his production last seaon, Michael Williams was dismissed from the team over the summer.  To be frank I'm not sure that there's a clear-cut choice to replace him.  Wilkins is phenomenal at OLB and probably won't be moved.  The most likely candidate is JJ Williams, who had 41 tackles in eight games last season.  Redshirt sophomore John Darr has put himself in position to start at the third linebacker spot after a solid offseason and fall camp to date. 

One of four captains on last year's squad, Wilkins led the team with 74 tackles and added 10.5 TFL.

At the start of camp, Coach Wilder mentioned working in four-linebacker sets.  If that does happen, you should expect to see WR-turned-LB Alex Arain (redshirt junior) as the fourth 'backer.  He has made his share of plays during camp so far.

Behind the four players discussed above, Michael Colbert and Xavier Duckett return to provide experienced depth at the position.  Less-experienced depth arrives in the form of redshirt freshmen Darryl Brown and Shawn Butts.  Based on his size and speed (6-4, 200 former DE in high school), Butts has the tools needed to replace some production Deron Mayo won't be around to provide this season.  It'll be difficult to do so in only his first season, but keep the name in mind for now.  The team also welcomes three true freshmen at the position - James Faircloth, Mike Lennox and Rob Mahan.  With so many players in front of them, these three may redshirt the year.

Regardless of how the defensive line performs, this group of linebackers has its hands full.  The team starts its CAA slate against one Preseason CAA Co-Offensive POY (Delaware's Andrew Pierce) and finishes it against the other Co-POY (W&M's Jonathan Grimes).  Rest assured the team will face several other fantastic running backs in between those two games.  The fan in me says that the unit will be fine, but the lack of production returning (other than Wilkins) has me a little worried.


Assuming the offensive line can open holes for our running backs, we should see the unit thrive even against improved competition.  Crawford will fight to hold on to his starting position from last year but Harper and Goodwyn are too good to be kept on the sidelines.  Meanwhile, the linebackers are the unit that has me the most concerned heading into the season.  Wilkins will terrorize the CAA but the rest of the corps was too absent at times to give me too much confidence.  That was partly because of the production of the defensive linemen like Mayo and Ronnie Cameron - if the defensive line brings down the ball carrier then there's nothing else for the linebackers to do.  It says here that Wilkins leads the group to outstanding achievements this season.

Next we will take a look at wide receivers and the secondary.

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