Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Comparing ODU's Offense to the CAA's Best

Over the last several weeks we have previewed every one of ODU Football’s 2011 opponents, the summary of which is found here.  The last seven days we’ve analyzed the Monarchs positional units – OL and DL; RB and LB; WR and secondary; and QB, TE and special teams.  At this point we’re still ten days away from kickoff so I don’t want to provide my overall preview just yet.  Instead, we’re going to compare the Monarchs against the best of the CAA by position.  We’ll examine the offense here and the defense in another post.
There is a general caveat: the Monarchs have played two seasons of opponents that are less talented than the CAA teams.  It’s difficult to conclude with certainty that the players would have had the same results against tougher teams.  Conversely it must be acknowledged that two years ago today this program still had not played a game, so the production cannot be dismissed without also acknowledging that the system and players are all new.  Contrast ODU's 22-game-history to programs like Richmond and William and Mary, whose football teams have existed for more than 100 years each. 
We’ll start by comparing ODU’s projected starting units to the 2011 Preseason All-CAA Team, and then cover other top players at those positions.  We are discounting true and redshirt freshmen (even those of the Monarchs) because they have yet to prove anything on the field.  There’s no telling how high school production translates to Division 1 football.
Pat Devlin was the 2010 CAA Offensive POY.
Production-wise, Thomas DeMarco is among the best “returning” quarterbacks in the conference.  (He's returning to his team but he's not "returning" to the conference.)  In two seasons he’s passed for more than 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns.  He’s also rushed for more than 1,300 yards and added another 25 touchdowns on the ground.  No matter the level of competition those are solid numbers to post for a quarterback in his team’s first two years of existence.
Thankfully for Old Dominion, the three best quarterbacks from last season all graduated – Delaware’s Pat Devlin, Villanova’s Chris Whitney and UMass’ Kyle Havens.  This is randomly as good a year as any to join the conference, considering the talent that graduated.  The Preseason All-CAA quarterback is Steve Probst of Rhode Island.  The rising senior was the only CAA player with 1,800 passing yards and 600 rushing yards, and in fact led the Rams in both categories.  The two-time CAA Offensive Player of the Week was third in the conference in total offense at 225 yards per game. 
Other top CAA quarterbacks this season include two men who were injured part of last season – Richmond’s Aaron Corp and the Tribe’s Michael Paulus.  Each of these two transferred to their respective schools from BCS programs.  Corp only started five games before injuring his leg while Paulus himself was limited to six by injuries.  The fifth-year seniors are more than capable of leading their teams to winning records this season.
Aaron Corp will lead the Richmond Spiders' offense.  (Photo credited to Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Another wildcard in the hunt for top CAA quarterback is James Madison’s Justin Thorpe.  The 2009 CAA Offensive ROY missed all but the first half of the 2010 season opener due to a knee injury.  Already named the 2011 starter by coach Mickey Matthews, Thorpe had 1,900 yards of total offense in his one healthy season. 
All in all I’d say DeMarco stacks up well against the four CAA quarterbacks discussed above.  We’ll see if he can handle the CAA as well as they do, but I think his chances for success are good.  He played reasonably well against both top-25 programs faced in 2011, William and Mary and Cal-Poly.  We’ll see if he can do it for a full season.
Thomas DeMarco against NCCU
Old Dominion returns its top two rushers from last season – DeMarco and junior Mario Crawford.  Sophomore Colby Goodwyn returns and the unit is further strengthened by a healthy Angus Harper.  Overall it’s safe to call the running back position more than adequate for CAA play.
That said, the talent of CAA running backs is far deeper than at quarterback.  The 2011 Preseason All-CAA running backs are W&M senior Jonathan Grimes and Delaware sophomore Andrew Pierce.  These two players were also the Preseason Co-Offensive POY so you know the league has nothing but respect for their abilities.  After three seasons Grimes is already the Tribe’s career leader in all-purpose yards, while Pierce had one of the most productive seasons you could expect from a true freshman.
Andrew Pierce had a breakout freshman season in 2010.
It’s almost unfair to UMass’ Jonathan Hernandez to be so talented and only be the third-best running back in the conference.  The senior was second in the conference with 938 rushing yards last season while chipping in nine touchdowns.  I only saw him in one game (at JMU) but I saw enough to know how good he is.  Maine’s Pushaun Brown and New Hampshire’s Dontra Peters were sixth and seventh in rushing yards in the conference last season, respectively.
Mario Crawford may not be at the level of Grimes, Pierce or even Hernandez.  But he does what is needed of him in the spread offense.  He and DeMarco combined for only 260 rushing attempts last season, while DeMarco threw more than 400 passing attempts.  This is a pass-oriented offense but the Monarchs are in good hands when Crawford takes off with the ball.
Crawford (25) led the Monarchs in rushing yards last season.
Old Dominion’s offense does not feature tight ends.  Kai Blanco is more than sufficient at the position for how ODU likes to attack.  The best tight end in the conference is Alex Gottlieb of William and Mary.  (Have you noticed the theme of talented Tribes players yet?)  The 2010 First Team All-CAA TE was also named to the 2011 All-CAA Preseason team.  Other than Gottlieb, the conference’s tight ends are mostly non-descript.
Old Dominion’s wide receivers corps is probably the most exciting unit on the team.  Prentice Gill was named to the CFPA Awards Preseason Watchlist, although Reid Evans had arguably just as good a season as Gill.  Nick Mayers and Chris Lovitt round out the experienced players on the unit, who are getting pushed for playing time in camp by true and redshirt freshmen…that I can’t discuss per my own rules. 
Julian Talley of UMass was among the CAA leaders in receptions in 2010.  (Photo credited to J. Anthony Roberts of
The three WR’s on the Preseason All-CAA Team are Tre Gray of Richmond, Julian Talley of UMass and Norman White of Villanova.  Of all returning receivers, Talley had the most receptions (56) in 2010 while White had the most receiving yards (886) and touchdowns (11).  Part of White’s production came in the playoffs but those were still the best numbers among returning players.  The Tribe’s Ryan Moody was also named to the 2011 CFPA Watchlist.
I think the Monarch receivers collectively stack up well against the conference’s other units.  Their top three receivers each had at least five touchdowns, so DeMarco spreads around the wealth.  Both Talley and White benefited last season from having senior quarterbacks under center; in Talley’s case it was even more important as Chris Whitney had been a starter since his freshman season.  With underclassmen taking snaps this season, will their production be hampered at all?  This is one unit where ODU is at the very least on par with its competition in terms of returning talent, if not in the better half of the conference.
Reid Evans has been ODU's leading receiver the last two seasons.
The ODU offensive line is the most important unit on the team.  While I think it will hold its own, I am not confident that it will be as dominant as Monarch fans saw the last two seasons.  Ryan Jensen returns for his senior season after missing 2010; he’s expected to replace two-year starter Tobin Cameron at left tackle.  The rest of the line will be solid if unspectacular.  Will that be enough to help win games in the CAA?
The best line in the conference belongs to Delaware, and I don’t think it's close.  They return four of five starters from last season’s squad, having protected Devlin and opened holes for Pierce all the way to the FCS title game.  Two of those starters, Gino Gradkowski and Rob McDonald, are seniors who were voted to the Preseason All-CAA Team.  The other three linemen on the All-CAA Team are Roane Babington of JMU, James Pagliaro of W&M (again!) and Dan Shirey of Villanova.  All but the junior Shirey will be seniors in 2011. 
The Blue Hens' offensive line will keep the team in the hunt for another CAA title.
This spot and the defensive line are where it’s hardest to compare the Monarchs to the rest of the CAA.  I witnessed several games where the offensive line simply pushed back the opposing defenses; nobody in the CAA does this on a regular basis.  The game against Georgia State comes to mind, as they racked up 229 rushing yards against the Panthers.  In 2010 the line did well enough against the Tribe, paving the way for 315 net yards while not giving up a sack against a top-tier FCS defense.  Against top-25 Cal-Poly the offense gained almost 450 yards of offense while allowing two sacks. 
There is no cause for panic with this unit.  They held their own against the Tribe and the Mustangs last season, even with injuries and shifting players along the line.  The line was clearly better than most defenses we’ve faced the last two seasons, but is it a top-tier unit in the CAA?  I don’t think the sample size is big enough to form a conclusion.  It helps that center Jeremy Hensley returns as he’s responsible for calling the blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage.  But if plays break down, DeMarco has shown the ability to improvise and get away from defenses.
Lowney (73), Morrison (75) and Carr (70) are among 2010's starters to return this season.
There is reason for genuine optimism for Monarch fans.  We head into the season with experienced starters at all positions.  We should be more than alright at quarterback if DeMarco’s carries are limited.  The running back position should also be fine but is not the focus of this version of the spread offense.  The wide receiving corps is among the best the CAA has to offer.  However, it all hinges on the success of the offensive line.  If the line can give just average play, look for the Monarchs to put up enough points to score two conference wins with a ceiling of four.  That’s actually meant as a compliment.  Coaches and SID’s voted the Monarchs to finish tenth among the eleven conference teams so they’re aware of how difficult things will be.
Next up we’ll compare ODU’s defense to the best of the other CAA teams.

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