Old Dominion football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Monarchs, best players and season prediction.
For the first time in his seven years as the Old Dominion head coach, Bobby Wilder oversaw a team with a losing record. And he’s none too pleased about it.
Wilder has attacked this period between games with all of the energy and focus of a leader determined to not repeat history. No jobs are secure. And players who failed to excel in offseason conditioning will find it difficult to climb the depth chart. It’s Year 3 at the FBS level for the Monarchs, and the entire staff is determined to pilot the program to a higher degree of competitiveness.
ODU came within a victory of being bowl eligible in 2015, painfully dropping the final two games. A first-ever bowl appearance would have been a seminal step in the evolution of a program still very much in the embryonic stages of its development. Just missing the mark will be used as a motivational tool and a rallying cry over the next few months.
For much of 2015, the Monarchs struggled on offense without linchpin QB Taylor Heinicke. And then athletic David Washington was pulled from the receiver corps at midseason, and it was shades of Heinicke all over again. Unfortunately, Washington suffered a severe knee injury in the Nov. 21 loss to Southern Miss that ended his breakout return behind center. If the senior can recapture his old form, his multi-dimensional potential coupled with a gifted backfield will give ODU a lot of interesting options this fall.
The offense will again need to be the catalyst in Norfolk, because the D is still operating at an FCS level. True, there are compilers and try-hard defenders at each level, but few are obvious All-Conference USA contenders, let alone pro-caliber types. LB TJ Ricks is the best of the group, and the D-line is improving, but the Monarchs will need a collaborative effort to improve upon last year’s inconsistent performance.
Old Dominion is viewing the upcoming season as an important one in its progression as an FBS program. The Monarchs believe they’re ready to bowl and be more competitive in the conference’s East Division. A lot is going to hinge on the health of Washington’s knee and the ability of the veterans—on both sides of the ball—to perform on a more consistent basis.
What You Need to Know About the Old Dominion Offense
The Monarchs are undergoing a philosophical shift in 2016, replacing an up-tempo attack with a more measured approach. Bobby Wilder wants to run the ball to set up the pass, and he’s promising a backfield-by-committee that squeezes all of the potential from backs Ray Lawry, Jeremy Cox and Gemonta Jackson.
However, the fulcrum of the offense will be QB David Washington, a part-time wide receiver who was revelatory as a dual-threat before suffering a serious knee injury last November. If Washington can return to form this summer, ODU could be home to one of Conference USA’s more diverse and explosive systems.
The Monarchs will be able to mix things up by running the option and pitching the ball to Zach Pascal, Jonathan Duhart and Melvin Vaughn, a tight end with dynamic downfield qualities. Washington’s health is the biggest question mark, but the state of the O-line is not far behind.
The ODU blockers were ineffective in 2015 and largely unhealthy this past spring, so the machinations up front will be a key theme in August.
Biggest Key To The Offense
Ground-and-pound. The Monarchs are abandoning their frenetic, fast-paced mode of transportation in favor of a more traditional approach. Bobby Wilder plans to use tight ends, H-backs and even fullbacks to unleash his greatest asset, arguably the deepest backfield in school history. How deep? Two-time leading rusher Ray Lawry is currently listed third on the depth chart behind Jeremy Cox and Gemonta Jackson. ODU is also installing elements of the option, so opposing defenses will be hit from all angles on the ground this fall in Norfolk.
What You Need to Know About the Old Dominion Defense
The Monarch D is a year older. But will it be a year better? An inability to make timely stops has long dogged Old Dominion, particularly since joining the FBS two years ago.
The team has yielded at least 36 points a game in each of the last two seasons, though there’s cautious optimism that the returns of so many of last year’s starters will lead to better results in 2016.
The strength of Rich Nagy’s unit will be up front, encouraging news for a leaky run defense. Three of the D-line’s top 2015 performers, NT Rashaad Coward and ends Oshane Ximines and Bunmi Rotimi, will form the foundation of a group that hopes to set the tone for the back seven.
And it’ll have to, because the Monarchs were ineffective in pass defense. Again, there’s plenty of experience, such as safeties Justice Davila and Rob Thompson and corners Aaron Young and Brandon Addison, but not much of a track record for frustrating quality passers.
Biggest Key To The Defense
Uncommon depth and experience. Shoddy defense has long been a problem for the Monarchs, and it still might be this year. But Rich Nagy’s crew is littered with returning starters and letterwinners, so there’ll be no good excuses for a lack of progress. Competition has also been intense, and will continue to be in the summer, particularly with the returns of so many rehabbing players who sat out the spring.
Old Dominion Will Be Far Better If …
the O-line is labeled the team’s biggest surprise by December. The Monarchs want to unleash their backfield-by-committee. And they must protect versatile QB David Washington, who’s still rehabbing a serious knee injury. But the staff’s plans for this season are going to incinerate if a dilapidated and thin offensive line doesn’t do a better job of supporting the skill players. Right now, there are no sure-things up front, so Old Dominion will need to sort things out quickly in August.
Best Offensive Player
Junior RB Ray Lawry. Okay, so Lawry might not match his recent numbers as the team moves toward spreading out the touches, but he’s proven his ability by rushing for more than 2,000 yards in his first two seasons. In fact, the junior could be a more effective ballcarrier in 2016, especially late in the season, since he’s less likely to wear down and run out of gas. Even if Lawry’s raw numbers dip, don’t be surprised if his yards per carry goes up.
Best Defensive Player
Senior LB TJ Ricks. Ricks has been moved from middle linebacker to outside linebacker this offseason, making room on the field for Shadow Williams. Regardless of where Ricks lines up, he’s going to make plays, because it’s in his DNA. He led Conference USA in stops a year, continuing to operate with the fire, intensity and drive of a player who arrived in Norfolk four years ago without the benefit of a scholarship.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior QB David Washington. When Washington moved from receiver to quarterback last October, the Monarchs were a visibly better squad, going 3-1 and averaging over 30 points in the games he finished. He makes Old Dominion a completely different team, a more dangerous team. But Washington is currently recovering from tears to his ACL, MCL and meniscus, and did not participate in spring drills. ODU needs No. 10 to be healthy again for this offense to play to its potential.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Monarchs bowl for the first time in school history. Old Dominion came painfully close to the postseason last year, losing its final two games to just miss the required six wins needed to qualify for a bowl berth. With so many veterans returning in 2016, this should be the year that ODU gets over the top and plays a bonus game. It only plays one Power Five opponent, NC State, and the road slate isn’t harsh at all.
Nov. 19 at Florida Atlantic. Old Dominion gets another crack at the Owls, the team that kept it from bowl eligibility in last year’s regular-season finale. The Monarchs must become better finishers after going 2-4 in the second half of 2015. And a road win in Boca Raton could set the team up very nicely down the stretch, since it only has to leave Norfolk once after Halloween.
2015 Fun Stats
– Yards per game: Old Dominion 371.2 – Opponents 437.2
– Third-down%: Old Dominion 35% – Opponents 47%
– First-quarter scoring: Old Dominion 39 – Opponents 117