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NCAA Football Preview - Old Dominion Monarchs

<p>The team played a mixed schedule of FBS opponents and FCS opponents, with incredibly polarizing results, as one would imagine. The Monarchs opened 2013 with losses against East Carolina and Maryland (52-38 and 47-10, respectively) but then went absolutely nutty offensively against FCS opponents Howard (76-19), The Citadel (59-58) and Albany (66-10). The team suffered just two more losses the rest of the way (a 35-24 defeat at Pittsburgh and an 80-20 thrashing at the hands of North Carolina in the season finale).</p>

The team played a mixed schedule of FBS opponents and FCS opponents, with incredibly polarizing results, as one would imagine. The Monarchs opened 2013 with losses against East Carolina and Maryland (52-38 and 47-10, respectively) but then went absolutely nutty offensively against FCS opponents Howard (76-19), The Citadel (59-58) and Albany (66-10). The team suffered just two more losses the rest of the way (a 35-24 defeat at Pittsburgh and an 80-20 thrashing at the hands of North Carolina in the season finale).

Essentially, Old Dominion played competition at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The team's first year in Conference-USA should land somewhere in the middle. This will be the first year Old Dominion is bowl eligible.

Bobby Wilder enters his sixth year as head coach of the Monarchs, where he earned a 38-10 record when the team was part of the FCS, which doesn't include his 8-4 mark from last year.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Offense for Old Dominion starts with senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Two years ago, Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award as the FCS' most outstanding player, and last season he dominated statistically again against some more upscale competition.

Heinicke completed 340-of-486 pass attempts for 4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. He completed a tremendous 70 percent of his attempts, and showed his versatility by rushing for 508 yards and five touchdowns.

But he certainly didn't do it alone. The Monarchs retain a total of seven offensive starters, including Antonio Vaughan - one of Heinicke's top receiving targets from 2013. Vaughan caught nine TDs last year with 843 yards. Both Blair Roberts and Zach Pascal are returning as well. Each caught six touchdowns in 2013 as part of Old Dominion's pass-heavy offense.

But the running game was effective as well. Colby Goodwyn and his 12 rushing scores are no longer on the roster, which means the backfield duties will be open for competition. Cam Boyd and Gerard Johnson each rushed for five touchdowns in 2013, but freshman Ray Lawry is expected to earn a large chunk of carries as well.

DEFENSE: Considering ODU's defense played five FBS teams and the rest FCS in 2013, the 452.2 yards per game its defense surrendered to opponents seems pretty high. Then consider the team's offense racked up 519 yards per game, and it doesn't seem as lopsided.

Still, there were some noticeable struggles for the Monarchs last year against superior competition. But the positive for that defense is of the 11 starters on the field, 10 are returning this season, including leading tackler Fellonte Misher, who registered 95 stops with five pass breakups and two interceptions. He'll retake his strong safety position, while second-leading tackler Andre Simmons (78 tackles) may make a move from free safety to a rover linebacker.

The defensive backfield seems set, with returning corners Reggie Owens and Sandy Chapman still on the roster and Jevon Neal adding depth at the position. The possible move from safety to linebacker for Simmons would fill the only void on defense left by a departing starter.

Since ODU announced it would make the jump up from the FCS to the FBS, the recruiting process changed with additional scholarships available to the program and the talent pool upgraded with the status change from a sub- division program to Division I. That means recruits challenging former starters for playing time will turn into key position battles as the preseason gives way to the regular season.

"Primarily what we do that is different than other schools is that we are not taking a hard look at the ones," Wilder said. "We are not taking a look at the guys that we already know can play, the veteran players that established themselves as good college football players. We are looking at the twos, the threes, the newer players."

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Monarchs will need to replace both their place kicker and punter from last season. Sophomore Ricky Segers is expected to win over the kicking duties, and freshman Jarrett Cervi is the favorite to handle the punting.

OUTLOOK: Old Dominion made the transition up to the FBS the right way - by announcing the program would do it early and allowing the Monarchs to ease into the competition jump by utilizing their 2013 schedule as a half-and-half FBS/FCS mix.

One thing's for sure: if Old Dominion had played a strictly FCS schedule last season, Heinicke may have challenged former Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for top statistical leader in the league. Now Heinicke will try his hand against an almost entirely FBS slate (though ODU does open against FCS opponent Hampton). With the solid number of returning starters and recruits chomping at the bit for playing time, a winning season in the team's first C- USA year is a very realistic possibility.

"The new players have shown a measure of respect and they want to learn," Wilder said. "The veteran players are taking them under their wing and teaching them. So developing that team chemistry within the football team is really critical in the first week and that?s what has happened. I am very pleased with that."

The team's non-conference schedule consists of Hampton, NC State and Eastern Michigan before the Monarchs launch into conference play Sept. 20 at defending champion Rice. On Nov. 1, ODU will travel to face Vanderbilt in its final non- conference tilt of the season. The Monarchs will also face Middle Tennessee, Marshall, UTEP and Florida Atlantic, among other conference opponents.

In the past, Old Dominion has been able to beat opponents using a brutal offensive force in which no team could overcome. That force was stifled last season by some tough FBS competition, when the ODU defense couldn't keep up.

The talent is there for Old Dominion, and this team could certainly contend for a bowl game appearance. It depends on how well the full-time adjustment to the next level serves the players on the field, and coach Wilder mentally. As long as Heinicke is under center with the weapons he possesses, anything is possible for Old Dominion in Conference-USA.

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