Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
In 2016, the Monarchs won 10 games and the Bahamas Bowl. It was the culmination of a decade-long start-up process. And it appears the foot has since come off of the gas pedal.
ODU hired Bobby Wilder in 2007 to start a program. The Monarchs went 17-5 as a provisional FCS independent in 2009-10, cranked out two top-10 finishes and 21 wins in 2011-12, leaped to FBS and went a decent 11-13 in 2014-15, then broke through in 2016, damn near making the Conference USA title game before outlasting EMU in the Bahamas. This was about as meteoric a process as you’ll see.
From the moment the final second ticked off the clock in Nassau, however, things went awry. ODU had to replace a ton of production in 2017 and slipped from 10 wins and a No. 69 S&P+ ranking to five wins and No. 120.
The Monarchs started 2018 with a 1-6 record that included a 42-point loss to Liberty and a two-point loss to ECU. Not sure which is more embarrassing. The one win came against Virginia Tech somehow, but they were again mired in the 120s in S&P+, and it was pretty easy to make the case that Wilder’s days as head coach in Norfolk were numbered. (Since he’s the only coach the program has had and did such a wonderful job over his first decade, maybe he would have gotten more rope.)
ODU rallied, however. An upset of North Texas and a 77-14 romp over VMI highlighted a 3-2 finish that made Wilder’s seat a little less scalding. Granted, there was also a 34-point loss to MTSU and an ugly 14-point loss to hapless Rice, but ODU still improved to 109th by the end of the year.
It would be a good idea to build off of that progress this fall. But with all this turnover, that could be tricky. You know how the numbers show turnover at quarterback, in the receiving corps, and in the secondary are more tied to year-to-year rises and regression than in other units? Well, ODU must replace quarterback Blake LaRussa, its top three wide receivers, and its top four safeties. For that matter, the Monarchs lose four of their top six offensive linemen and five of their top seven defensive linemen (including Oshane Ximines, likely a high NFL draftee) as well.
The culture that Wilder spent a decade building? It unraveled in about a season and a half, and now he’s relying on a lineup with about a dozen new starters to re-establish it. Suboptimal.
Wilder has tried to counter the inexperience on the two-deep with extra seasoning in the coaching staff. He brought in Bryan Stinespring (26 years at Virginia Tech) as offensive line coach and Galen Hall (defensive co-coordinator at VT until 2018) as DBs coach. He asked David Blackwell to serve as his defensive coordinator after Blackwell raised ECU’s Def. S&P+ ranking from 128th to 101st in his lone year in Greenville. ODU ranked 119th on defense with Ximines and company; Blackwell, Hall, etc., have their work cut out for them.
ODU does sort of return a starting QB in 2019. Steven Williams finished 2017 as the first-stringer, producing a 146.2 passer rating in the last three games of his true freshman year, and he started 2018 atop the two-deep as well. But he struggled out of the gates, completing 50 percent of his passes with a 106.4 rating, and he was replaced by LaRussa, who had begun 2017 as the starter. LaRussa torched Virginia Tech and never looked back; he threw for 3,015 yards, ODU ranked 47th in passing marginal efficiency, and, having played parts of only four games, Williams redshirted.
With LaRussa gone, Williams will get the first crack at the job. Wilder and longtime coordinator Brian Scott aren’t putting all their eggs into one basket, though. They signed two JUCO transfers — former Michigan State four-star Messiah deWeaver and Stone Smartt, who threw for 2,700 yards (with 31 TDs to 3 INTs!) at Riverside CC in 2018 — plus a mid-three-star freshman in Hayden Wolff.
This should be a pretty exciting QB competition, and the winner will have to carry the offense. Of the five skill corps members with at least 75 intended touches (carries and pass targets) last year, only one returns: running back Kesean Strong.
A bit player in 2015 and 2016, Strong saw the most intended touches on the team last fall, rushing 106 times with 29 targets. His success rate on those 135 plays was 43.7 percent, slightly above the team average of 42.6, so he is not without efficiency value. Sophomore running back Matt Geiger produced a 54 percent success rate, and a trio of tight ends (sophomores Keon White and Donta Anthony Jr. and junior Marcus Joyner) combined for a 58 percent success rate as well.
The Monarchs will need some big-play companions, however, after the loss of wideouts Jonathan Duhart and Travis Fulgham. Last year’s top four returning backup WRs combined for 16 catches and 191 yards in 2018. It’s basically seniors Darrell Brown and Hasaan Patterson and a truckload of true and redshirt freshmen.
Stinespring’s first ODU line is in the middle of a makeover as well. Of last year’s 60 line starts, ODU loses those responsible for 33 of them, including honorable mention all-conference center Nick Clarke. The left side (tackle Isaac Weaver and guard Tony Barnett) is experienced, and the rest of it is not.
Stinespring is in the middle of a late-career renaissance. He was maligned near the end of his stay in Blacksburg, but he oversaw an excellent James Madison run game and line in 2016 (the Dukes’ FCS title year) and 2017, and Maryland ranked 18th in Rushing S&P+ in 2018, his lone year in College Park. ODU’s run game has lacked a spark; adding Stinespring doesn’t hurt.
So here’s my attempt at positive spin regarding the loss of stud end Ximines: with him, ODU only ranked 103rd in sack rate (he had 12 sacks), 75th in stuff rate (he had 24.5!), and 90th in havoc rate (he had 19 percent of team havoc plays). And again, they were 119th in Def. S&P+. The Monarchs probably won’t get better at these things in his absence, but they don’t have a whole lot of room to get worse.
That wasn’t very positive, was it?
Well, how about this: Blackwell is a damn good coordinator. Here’s what I wrote in last year’s ECU preview:
In his last three years at Jacksonville State, the Gamecocks never allowed more than 20 points per game. Last year’s JSU defense was a damn masterpiece, allowing 15 points per game and 3.8 yards per play with a 21.2 percent havoc rate that would have ranked fourth at the FBS level.
ECU last year: 45 points per game, 7.7 yards per play, 9.9 percent havoc rate. Last in FBS on all three accounts. Getting Blackwell was a damn coup.
He didn’t work miracles at ECU, but the Pirates still made drastic improvements just to get to 101st in Def. S&P+. They attacked with occasional recklessness (24th in havoc rate, 22nd in stuff rate, 23rd in sack rate), and while they got torched quite a bit … well … they were getting torched the year before, too. At least last year they made some plays, too.
Without Ximines (and fellow end Tim Ward), the search for play-makers will be all-hands-on-deck. But at least there’s experience elsewhere.
- Junior tackles Jeremy Meiser and Juwan Ross (combined: 24 tackles, 7 TFLs, 1.5 sacks) are back.
- The top four linebackers return, including MLB Lawrence Garner, the team’s second-best havoc guy (9 TFLs, 5 passes defensed, 12 run stuffs).
- The top three cornerbacks — junior Joe Joe Headen and sophomores Geronda Hall and Lance Boykin — are back, too. They were young last year but did combine for 19 passes defensed.
Sensing ODU was falling behind from a talent standpoint, Wilder loaded up on JUCOs, signing 10 on defense — three linemen, three linebackers, four defensive backs. The three up front (end Elijah Golston and tackles Tyre Bibby and Blake Hehl) and two safeties (Harrell Blackmon and R’Tarriun Johnson) are probably the most important.
I’m confident in Blackwell figuring out some improvements, but the best news is that there are almost no seniors. The only ones who might play a role are linebacker Terez Dickerson and tackle Mufu Taiwo. Otherwise, whatever assets Blackwell discovers in 2019 will be scheduled to return in 2020.
ODU ranked 41st in Special Teams S&P+ last year, its best performance yet. Isaiah Harper was extremely efficient in the return game, and he’s gone, but the biggest strength was a lack of outright weaknesses.
Junior Nick Rice ranked 45th in field goal efficiency, and while punter Bailey Cate’s kicks weren’t long (39.7 average), they were high enough to prevent returns (4.3 average). This should still be a decent unit.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|7-Sep||at Virginia Tech||30||-30.7||4%|
|2-Nov||at Florida International||88||-16.7||17%|
|23-Nov||at Middle Tennessee||104||-10.8||27%|
On September 28, Blackwell’s former employer (ECU) and Stinespring’s former employer (new ECU head coach Mike Houston) will come to Norfolk for a game that will set the table for the rest of the season.
ODU will almost certainly be 1-2 at that point, after a likely win over Norfolk State and likely losses at Virginia Tech and Virginia, so the ECU game will define expectations. Win, and ODU will likely be in the hunt for bowl eligibility (especially with a home win over WKU the next week). Lose, and it’s hard to figure out where to find five more wins.
This is an awkward time for ODU. Wilder built up a ton of goodwill, but athletic directors don’t like trying to positively spin three down years in a row, and boosters aren’t usually receptive to spin. Wilder probably needs more proof of concept soon, but after two dire years and then turnover, he’s in a youth movement.
Wilder inked nearly a lineup’s worth of JUCOs (a tactic that tends to have drawbacks a couple of years down the line), and he’ll need them to thrive if he wants a serious shot at seven wins or so. Otherwise, this lineup screams “pretty good in 2020” … for a coach who might need to be pretty good in 2019.