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.

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