Monday, August 22, 2011

Something in the Air

When thinking of a catchy title to this post I had Tom Petty's voice in my head singing "Something in the Air."  I knew this was a cover and I thought the original artist was The Beatles.  If you've heard the song, can't you imaging John Lennon singing it?  Regardless the real original artist was something called Thunderclap Newman.  Apparently Pete Townsend put the band together for someone else but himself was not part of the band.  The random things you learn through Wikipedia...
In previous posts we have taken a look at both the offensive and defensive lines, as well as running backs and linebackers.  The two units we will analyze in this post are the wide receiver corps and the secondary.
I still remember ODU’s first football game like it was yesterday.  I was in Virginia Beach to celebrate my sister’s birthday from the week before.  I made sure to wear my ODU Redshirt T-Shirt that I purchased in 2008.  I couldn't score tickets the first season so I watched the game with my family at home.  After ODU scored a field goal on their first possession, the Monarchs hit it big with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Thomas DeMarco to Marquel Thomas.  Thomas simply beat the defender on a “go” pattern and DeMarco threw a perfect bomb to him.  I am not ashamed to admit it – I got a little teary-eyed.
I have worn this shirt only once - on September 5, 2009.
That one early play encapsulated the excitement generated by the wide receiver position in Bobby Wilder's spread offense.  Unfortunately it was Thomas’ lone highlight of 2009, as he only played one other game before suffering a season-ending injury.  But Reid Evans and Company picked up the slack from there, helping the team finish with a 9-2 record.
The Monarchs have a THOMAS and a RE(I)D on offense already.  Now all we need is a Kelly.  Seeing this picture makes me sad to be a Bills fan in 2011.
As I’ve discussed in prior posts, ODU employs a spread offense with upwards of four WR’s on the field at any point.  Last season DeMarco spread the ball around as needed, depending on what the defenses presented.  Five different Monarchs had at least 24 catches; Evans led the team with 55 catches and six touchdowns.  Prentice Gill, a JUCO transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College, led the team with almost 700 receiving yards and added five touchdowns.  Even Thomas bounced back and chipped in another five touchdown receptions.
Despite the numbers put up by Evans and Gill, the most important game for the Monarchs’ aerial assault came against Georgia State.  The Panthers’ game plan was to take away the opportunities for deep passes.  Once the coaching staff and DeMarco figured out what was happening, they adjusted their own game plan and threw a series of short passes.  Monty Smalley led the team with nine catches and less than 70 yards as DeMarco’s primary weapon that day.  The unit had not been challenged to improvise to that extent in its existence, so it was good to see their ability to successfully change mid-game and put up 34 consecutive points.
This is the best picture I have of a WR in action.  Ironically it was an end-around, and Smalley is not even returning to the team this season.
With the top five receivers from 2010 returning this season, you might expect the WR rotation to be set, right?  WRONG!!!  There have been a few youngsters making a strong push for significant playing time through spring camp into the summer.  We’ll start with Antonio Vaughan, a redshirt freshman from North Carolina .  During spring practices, Rich Radford wrote a terrific piece on Vaughan for The Virginian-Pilot.  His name has been showing up regularly in summaries of practices and scrimmages on ODU's official website.  Meanwhile the injured Thomas has not participated in a team practice this summer yet; Vaughan has been doing well in Thomas’ absence. 
Two other newcomers to highlight are redshirt freshman Larry Pinckard and true freshman Blair Roberts.  Pinckard, a 6-0 receiver from Washington, DC, used his redshirt season to improve his game and the results in camp are obvious.  Roberts, meanwhile, had turned down offers from Temple and Buffalo in the spring to sign with the Monarchs.  At 6-3 he’s the tallest Monarch receiver, and Thomas himself called Roberts “the real deal.”
In addition to the Evans/Gill/Thomas trio, redshirt juniors Nick Mayers, Dorian Jackson and Chris Lovitt return to provide experienced depth.  Roberts is joined by true freshmen Jakwail Bailey and Kirk Spellman as receivers in the class of 2015.  With six experienced receivers and three other freshmen in front of them on the depth chart, I would expect Bailey and Spellman to redshirt.  But I'm just a blogger who can only make educated guesses from a state away.
The WR corps settles in to take on NCCU in 2010's season finale.
Of all the units on either side of the ball, I’m most excited about the receiving corps.  Evans was heavily recruited to attend the University of Virginia, so he has BCS-level talent.  In the offseason Gill was named to the CFPA Awards WR Watch List; he had three 100-yard games last season and is quite the speed burner.  The underclassmen are pushing the experienced players for playing time.  With this spread offense system and a two-year starting quarterback returning, we should see some fantastic numbers from this group of wide receivers.
While the WR position should be the most exciting unit on the team, the secondary is the unit I see that will improve the most from last season.  There are a couple freshmen who are fighting for playing time at the cornerback position, while seasoned veterans return at safety.
If there was one adjective to describe the secondary’s 2010 performance, it would be “non-descript.”  That is not meant as a bad thing – although the secondary accounted for only four interceptions (one each by Donald Smith, Devon Simmons, TJ Cowart and Carvin Powell), the only game where they gave up numerous big plays was against Cal-Poly.  The nationally-ranked Mustangs employ a triple option offense and our defense gave up big passing plays when individuals failed to stick to their assignments.  It was the first time the Monarchs had faced a triple offense so it's considered a learning opportunity; the team didn't lose a game the rest of the season.  On the whole the unit did its job without being flashy.
One cornerback position is locked up by TJ Cowart.  The rising redshirt junior led all secondary players with 58 total tackles and eleven passes defensed, more than double the next closest (Smith had five).  With camp winding down Coach Wilder has all but officially named Cowart one of the two starting cornerbacks. 
The other cornerback is up for grabs right now.  Donald Smith is not returning to the team in 2011 to concentrate on academics, so there'll be a different starter by default.  There are four players competing for the spot.  We'll start with Aaron Evans as he had game experience in 2010.  The sophomore played in ten games as a true freshman, registering 13 total tackles.  The Daily Press' 2009 High School Player of the Year at quarterback, Evans has bragging rights as the first Monarch to return a kickoff for a touchdown.  The guy is a natural athlete and should get more playing time this season.
Competing with Evans is true freshman Reggie Owens.  The talented defensive back had committed to Duke University early in last year's recruiting season, but eventually changed his mind and chose to join the Monarchs.  Joining Dontez Tyler, Owens makes it two true freshmen who decommitted from BSC programs to become a Monarch.  (I am aware this happens with other FCS programs but it's still something to brag about for a program entering its third season.) 
Owens selected Old Dominion over the evil empi--uh, I mean Duke University.   I get the two mixed up.
The third option Bobby Wilder is considering at corner is Eriq Lewis.  The redshirt freshman has made quite the impression in camp since the spring, per Rich Radford.  Lastly we must give a nod to Markell Wilkins.  The young man played all eleven games as a true freshman in 2009, but redshirted last season due to an injury.  We'll have to wait and see how well he comes back from injury before we know how much he'll contribute in 2011.  The rest of the CB's are comprised of mostly freshmen; they will be expected to contribute eventually but it may take a couple seasons before they see significant action.
The safety position is much more set than CB.  There'll be a general rotation of redshirt junior Devon Simmons, junior Carvin Powell and sophomore Paul Morant.  All three young men appeared in all eleven games last season, with Simmons and Powell getting the majority of starts.  Again, the safeties did a good enough job to not get burned but they weren't causing turnovers (two INT's, no fumble recoveries).  Redshirt junior Fred Credle provides experienced depth while three true freshmen expect to learn the ropes from the sidelines.  The safety position should not be a concern for the coaching staff.
The group of wide receivers on the Monarchs roster provides the right amount of experience (Evans, Gill, Thomas) who will be pushed by taleneted newcomers (Vaughan, Roberts, Pinckard) for playing time.  No matter who gets playing time, they'll make DeMarco look like an all-star again this season.  As for the secondary, there is enough competition that we should see an improvement over last season's play.  The unit must generate more than four interceptions if they're going to contribute to a winning team, but the upgrade in talent should be able to deliver.
Next up we'll take a look at the remaining positions - quarterback, tight end and special teams.  They are more intertwined than you may think, at least for the Monarchs...

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