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.

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