Friday, August 19, 2011

Old Dominion Football Preview - The Trenches

We have taken the time to preview all eleven of ODU football's 2011 opponents, the summary of which you can find here.  It's now time to look at the Monarchs themselves, position-by-position.  We're going to do this a little differently than some might find logical but we've got to find different angles to look at things, right?  It all will make sense by the time the Monarchs kick off September 3 against Campbell University.  After examining the different positions, we'll do a series of posts assessing how ODU's talent stacks up against the best of the CAA.

We'll begin with the two units that will have the biggest impact on Old Dominion's success in 2011 - the offensive and defensive lines.  Thomas DeMarco won't live up to his preseason CFPA Award Watch List expectations if the line can't block for him, nor will the linebackers show improvement if the defensive line cannot hold their own in the CAA.


2010 was a challenging year for the Monarchs' o-line before it even started.  One freshman who was expected to contribute immediately transferred to a D-II school to be closer to home.  Ryan Jensen, who started all eleven games in 2009 at right tackle, missed all of 2010 due to an injury.  Tight end Kai Blanco temporarily converted to OL just to provide depth at the position.

The linemen remaining were so banged up before the season opener against Jacksonville that the coaching staff enforced two-hand-touch rules the last few practices.  And then the hits kept coming during the season.  Center Jeremy Hensley suffered a season-ending ankle injury in a 50-37 loss to Cal-Poly midway through the season.  Right tackle Brandon Carr finished the season at center while right guard Robbie Duncan moved over to RT.  True freshman Mike Justice played five games along the line; the coaching staff was hoping to redshirt Justice but he was forced into action with the injuries.

Despite the moving parts of the line throughout the season, the offense barely missed a beat.  Left tackle Tobin Cameron and left guard Bryan Morrison played all eleven games.  Carr and Duncan also played the entire season, albeit while rotating positions.  With all the shuffling and missed games, the offensive line still paved the way for a respectible 140 rushing yards per game while giving up only nine sacks.  Considering the step up in the talent of their 2010 opponents compared to the 2009 schedule, the line should be proud of what they accomplished. 

The Monarchs offensive line opened several holes for Thomas DeMarco and Company.

The 2011 season is shaping up to be much smoother than last season, which is a welcomed change considering the talent of the CAA.  Cameron, who had started all 22 games at left tackle in Monarch football history, is lost to graduation.  Ryan Jensen was redshirted due to his injury and is now slated to take over for Cameron.  Hensley returns to assume the starting center role again in his senior season.  Carr, Duncan and Morrison all return after playing every game last season. 

The five returning players listed above form a talented, experienced line.  However, the talent doesn't stop there.  Two JUCO transfers arrived in time for spring camp - DJ Morrell and David Born.  Morrell arrives with two seasons of eligibility remaining after playing the prior two years at Dean Junion College.  He picked Old Dominion over established conference mates UMass and Rhode Island.  The 6-8, 340-pound Born played one season at Bakersfield College and has three years of eligibility with ODU.  These two bring proven talent to the line and are pushing for playing time.

Along with Justice, who did not get to redshirt last season, there is a bevy of young offensive linemen in addition to those listed above.  Redshirt sophomore Jack Lowney started five games at right guard last season.  Lowney is joined by Perry Owens (RS sophomore), Wes Moulton (RS freshman) and Ellett McGeorge (RS freshman) to form a young basis for future seasons.

There are two true freshmen joining the line, both "757" recruits - Josh Mann and Conor Mewbourne.  Mann was named to the Virginia High School All-State Team by the AP as a senior, having started all four seasons of high school.  He also seems to be a pretty well-rounded individual.  Mewbourne was named to the All-Beach First District Team his senior season.  Although we'd like to see both players redshirted considering the depth in front of them, Mann is already getting serious looks at guard in training camp

Old Dominion quarterbacks were sacked only nine times in 2010.

At this point the only known starters are Jensen (RT) and Hensley (C).  It's reasonable to expect Carr, Duncan and Morrison to get strong consideration to be starters early in the season as they have more experience in the system than others.  If players other than those three are tabbed starters, it will most likely be Justice, Morrell or Born.  But no matter who starts, the unit will be in much better position than last year to handle injuries along the line.


Whereas injuries impacted the lineup of the offensive line last season, they're already starting to affect the defensive line.  Redshirt junior Andrew Turner, who started most of the last two seasons at defensive end, suffered an achilles injury in spring camp.  This is a big blow to a team that was already losing Deron Mayo to graduation.  The DE/LB hybrid player is currently in the Denver Broncos camp

We'll blame the Greeks and their mythology for the loss of Turner. 
But before looking at the current DL composition, let's take a look at the 2010 results.  Without a doubt the unit was bolstered by Hofstra transfers Mayo and Ronnie Cameron.  Cameron finished second on the Monarchs with 72 tackles while tying for eighth overall in the FCS with 19 tackles for loss.  Let me repeat that - a DT led all but one teammate in total tackles.  The CAA Football Blog produced a nice article on Cameron during the spring, focusing on his impact on the program to date. 

Beyond Turner, Mayo and Cameron, the line got significant contributions from Edmond McClam, Chad King, Erik Saylor and Chris Burnette.  The DL showed drastic improvement from 2009 (allowing 167 rushing yards per game) to 2010 (132 yards/game) against better competition.  There was also a jump in sacks, going from 22 to 29.  Needless to say, the overall improvement in the defense started up front with the defensive line.

The defensive line held a lead at North Carolina Central University after DeMarco left with an injury.

With the losses of Mayo and Turner, the defensive line is missing two important pieces from the 2010 season.  The team will get to see redshirt freshmen Preston Smith, Jagger Blehm and Dominique Guinn-Bailey in live action for the first time this season.  Guinn-Bailey was named Second Team All-Tidewater as a senior in high school.  Additionally, Dontez Tyler joins the Monarchs as a true freshman after previously committing to the University of Maryland.  Tyler has the skill set to replace Mayo, but we won't know how he develops until he hits the field. 

The 2011 picture is an inverse of what we saw on offense.  We know who the starters should be (barring changes in the next two weeks) - Cameron, King, McClam and Burnette.  That is a starting defensive line I'd put up against anyone in the CAA.  Conversely there is minimal proven depth on the bench behind the starters and Saylor.  There are seven redshirt-or-true freshmen ends and tackles on the roster, none of whom have played a down for the Monarchs.  Redshirt sophomores Alex Johnson and Nate Barnes appeared in eight and nine games, respectively, in minimal roles in the 2010 season. 

Here's wishing health to the starting defensive linemen.  The CAA is a tough league to learn the ropes in the trenches, so giving significant playing time to newbies is not the best recipe for success.  If you're looking for an unexpected hero, keep your eyes on Alex Johnson.

Offenses in the CAA are a bit better than offenses like NCCU.  Is the Monarchs defensive line up to the challenge?


There is reason for optimism along both lines for the Monarchs.  Despite the slew of injuries in 2010, the offensive line was more than effective.  Proven depth is now complemented by talented newcomes.  Meanwhiile the defensive line is top-heavy.  The loss of two key players hurts the depth, and that could end up hampering the overall defense this season.  But the young guys will have to prove themselves sooner or later; why not sooner?

Next up we'll take a look at running backs and linebackers. 

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