Tuesday, August 23, 2011

DeMarco, Plisco, Et Cetera

In our assessment of ODU football’s positional units, we’ve looked at the offensive and defensive lines; running backs and linebackers; and most recently, wide receivers and the secondary.  Today we’re looking at everyone else – quarterbacks, tight ends and special teams. 
DeMarco has led Old Dominion to a 17-5 record through its first two seasons.
We’re not going to spend too much time on Thomas DeMarco, even though he’s arguably the most important player the program has had in its brief existence.  Rich Radford wrote a piece for The Virginian-Pilot in which Bobby Wilder was effusive in his praise of the QB.  (Question – when is Coach Wilder NOT effusive?)  You can get a feel for his command of the team from that article.
I already discussed his impact on the offense when reviewing the team’s running attack.  As for passing the ball, it can be a little frustrating at times watching him.  There were two quick WR screens last season where the receiver was no more than eight yards, and the ball landed at their feet.  Division 1 quarterbacks should not miss those passes that badly. 
The Monarchs scored 50 points in the first half against Savannah State in 2010.
Simultaneously he is a little underrated with throwing the ball.  The spread offense is predicated on spreading out eligible receivers, getting them the ball quickly and letting them make plays in space.  DeMarco seems to make good decisions with how he distributes passes among receivers.  The proof is in results – he’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns through 22 games.  My only concern with him this season is whether he can survive a full season against CAA-caliber defenses. 
Without restating the entire argument I made in the running backs post, the CAA defenses are too good for him to average eleven rushes per game this season.  No one on the team questions his toughness.  He played the last couple games of 2010 with a separated non-throwing shoulder, and then separated the other shoulder in the finale.  Following the game co-captain Craig Wilkins told Rich Radford, “The guy is tough enough to play linebacker if he wanted.”  Toughness is not in question with DeMarco; durability against the best FCS defenses is.
Backing up DeMarco is Nate Ong, a JUCO transfer from Palomar in California.  The Palomar Comets also ran a spread offense, and Ong started every game his two seasons there except for the very first two.  In those two seasons he threw for almost 4,000 yards and had 33 touchdowns. 
In his final game with the Comets, Ong threw for 314 passing yards with four touchdowns, so there’s no question the guy can play.  There IS a question of how quickly he can pick up the offense.  Last season’s backup QB, Rashad Manley, was converted to running back during camp this season.  The other backup quarterbacks heading into this season (to be discussed momentarily) are two true freshmen.  If DeMarco does need a spell for a game or two, Ong had better be prepared.
Nate Ong put up impressive numbers at Palomar.  (Photo credited to Palomar.edu)
Of the two true freshmen quarterbacks, one of them (Tyler Clark) is a walk-on from nearby Grassfield High School in Chesapeake.  You know you’ve been away from your home town too long when there are new high schools whose names you don’t recognize.  Clark will be listed as fourth on the depth chart.
The other freshman quarterback is last season’s Georgia AAAAA Offensive POY, Taylor Heinicke.  You may ask yourself how Old Dominion ended up with such a talented player.  Read this article by Radford for the details – it’s interesting how random, chance interactions can lead to significant decisions like someone picking a college.  The short version is that his team was run-oriented until his senior season, when he broke state single-season records in passing yards (4,218) and touchdowns (44).  Old Dominion was the first program to recruit Heinicke well before others and eventually he chose the Monarchs.
The master plan from all accounts is for the team to redshirt the highly-touted quarterback.  Hopefully DeMarco and Ong can complete the season without Coach Wilder needing to go to his third quarterback, and the redshirt season can be saved.  However, Heinicke has been lighting it up in camp already, so the team should be in good hands even if he has to play as a true freshman. 
Heinicke had a record-breaking senior season in Georgia.
There’s not too much to discuss here as the skill position players on the field are typically receivers and running backs in the Monarchs’ offense.  Special recognition does go to Kai Blanco, though.  When we analyzed the offensive line’s play from last year, we discussed how the unit was decimated by injuries to the point that Blanco suited up as a lineman temporary.  Blanco also caught the first touchdown against William and Mary in the Monarchs’ eventual four-point loss last September. 
There are six tight ends on the roster, three of which are true freshmen who probably won’t see significant action.  Backing up Blanco will be redshirt juniors Tommy Reamon and Tyler Damato.  Reamon had a couple catches against Savannah State but has mostly contributed on special teams.  Damato saw the field only against Georgia State and Savannah State.
As many accolades as DeMarco has received, punter Jonathan Plisco has gotten even more.  The redshirt junior led all FCS punters his freshman year with an average net punt of 44.8.  In 2010 his averaged slipped to 44.3, and he was 0.05 yards/punt shy of leading all FCS punters again.  Rather than listing the laundry list of awards and accomplishments, I’ll simply direct you to his official biography page.  While the man can obviously kick, Coach Wilder is quick to point out that the high average is also a part of the outstanding coverage unit that can get to the ball before it crosses the goal line. 
Plisco drops a punt against North Carolina Central University.
Plisco has helped change field position multiple games during his two years with the Monarchs.  The Gardner-Webb game last season stands out as the prime example.  With the game tied 7-7 for most of the contest, Plisco punted eight times at a clip of 47.2 yards/attempt.  Five of his punts were downed inside the 20, and he had a long of 59 yards.  In low-scoring games it’s important to make the opponent drive the length of the field to score rather than giving them short fields.  The Monarchs went on to win that game, 14-7, on a play set up by…
The punt return unit!  Monty Smalley returned a fourth quarter punt 32 yards to the Bulldogs’ 20 yard line, setting up a DeMarco touchdown to seal the win.  As mentioned in the WR preview, Smalley is not returning to the team in 2011.  While Smalley had 24 punt returns last season, the rest of the roster combined for four.  Aaron Evans became the kick returner when Colby Goodwyn was lost for the season, so if I had to take a wild guess, he gets my vote as punt returner.  But we’ll know more as we get closer to the season.
Speaking of Goodwyn, I’ve already mentioned that he broke the single-game Division 1 record for kick return yards.  Evans became the first Monarch to return a kickoff for a touchdown, which he did against Savannah State.  With Goodwyn and Evans back, return kickoffs should be another positive for the Monarchs’ special teams.
Hopefully we’ll be kicking off to opponents more than the other way around, which would indicate that we’re scoring more than they are.  After a solid 2009 season, Drew Hareza suffered an injury in summer camp.  This opened a window for then-redshirt freshman Jarod Brown to take over.  While Wilder gave Hareza a chance, he struggled with kickoffs and only went 1-3 in field goals.
This is as perfectly I've ever timed a photograph to capture what I sought.
Brown had a fairly successful 2010 season, going 12-16 on field goal attempts.  He connected on a 48-yarder in the season finale against NCCU, and missed only one of eleven attempts less than 40 yards.  He’s pretty much entrenched as the kicker heading into 2011, as Hareza left the team this offseason.  Other specialists include kicker Dustin Burdick and punters Orion Hall and Josh Williams.  Unless Plisco or Brown is injured, don’t expect to see much of these players in 2011.
Don't be surprised to see an onsides kick at any point against any 2011 opponent.  In 2010 the Monarchs opened games against Savannah State and NCCU with onsides kicks.  They recovered the first five onsides kicks they attempted while recovering all their opponents' attempts.  Part of that was the element of surprise; CAA coaches are going to notice that trend and be more prepared this season.  Still, going five-for-five is not a bad rate of recoving onsides kicks. 
And finally, we would be remiss if we did not discuss the unit's ability to block kicks.  Edmon McClam set a Division 1 record by blocking three PAT's in the 2009 opener against Chowan; this also tied the FCS record for all types of kicks.  He blocked two more PAT's that season to set the FCS record for most blocked PAT's in a single season.  He added a sixth career blocked PAT last season.  Additionally the team blocked two punts against Hampton last season, helping ODU establish a 21-7 lead.  The blocked punts propelled the team to a 28-14 lead.  This is a sign of good special teams coaching.
Old Dominion is set at quarterback.  It’s nice going into our first CAA season with a two-year starter entering his third year in the same system.  Nate Ong should be a capable backup, while phenom Taylor Heinicke hopefully gets to redshirt this season.  Whoever the QB is, don’t expect many passes thrown towards tight ends.  They may be used more in goal line situations than they were in previous seasons, but they are not primary targets on most plays.  The special teams position will be a strength again for the Monarchs, and could help us win a conference game or two.
In my next post we’ll compare the best of the Monarchs against the best of the CAA.  Cliffhanger – we’re actually in decent shape for a three-year program…

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