Old Dominion pulled off one of Conference USA’s biggest upsets in years last season when it defeated nationally ranked Virginia Tech at Foreman Field in Norfolk, Virginia.
Unfortunately for the Monarchs, that — along with a win over North Texas — was one of few highlights in what ultimately became a 4-8 season.
As nice as the Virginia Tech win was, it was trumped by lowlights — a 32-point loss to Liberty, a 34-point loss to Middle Tennessee and losses to Football Bowl Subdivision bottom-feeders East Carolina and Rice.
To complicate matters, quarterback Blake LaRussa, who was pivotal to the team’s offensive success, is also now gone. The competition that was supposed to take place in the spring to find his replacement never got off the ground due to injuries for three of the team’s top four hopefuls to start under center.
That means fall camp will be huge to former starter Steven Williams, junior college signees Messiah deWeaver and Stone Smartt and freshman Hayden Wolff.
Of that group, Williams has the most Division I experience, but deWeaver and Smartt are talented products who led successful campaigns at the juco level. Wolff is also a talented player, but a broken wrist plus a quarterback room of more seasoned players likely means a redshirt unless something wild happens.
A lack of returning skill players adds pressure to an already pressure-filled situation at quarterback once camp opens, so ODU coach Bobby Wilder’s quest to improve the Monarchs’ 4-8 mark from 2018 is a tough one.
Two NFL-level wide receivers, Jonathan Duhart and Travis Fulgham, also are gone, so new targets will have to be developed. Relief may come at tight end, where Keon White and Marcus Joyner are likely to get plenty of opportunities.
The running game returns a constant from 2018 in Kesean Strong, who rushed for 499 yards last season and led the team with nine touchdown runs. Strong is also the team’s leading returning receiver with 21 catches.
On the offensive line, the left side will be strong with Isaac Weaver and Tony Barnett returning, but replacing center Nick Clarke will be no easy task.
Defensively, tackles Jeremy Meiser and Juwan Ross return, but the loss of playmaker Oshane Ximines (a New York Giants draftee) is a big blow for a unit looking for playmakers. If there is a benefit, the linebackers feature lots of returning experience, which is good news. However, their success rate — especially late in games — was reason for concern in 2018 and needs to be addressed if the Monarchs are to turn things around.
The play of those linebackers becomes even more crucial with the safety position needing overhauled. Cornerback Joe Joe Headen does return to the secondary.
On special teams, kicker Nick Rice was a strong player in 2018, but punter Bailey Cate needs to improve to help the Monarchs flip the field for an inexperienced offense and defense.
After the season opener against Norfolk State, it is likely that the only game in which Old Dominion will be favored until mid-November is a home date with East Carolina. For a team opening up a new-look stadium this fall, that is not exactly something you want to hear.
For Wilder, a third consecutive dismal season could spell the end of his tenure with the Monarchs — something he’s looking to avoid. To do so, Old Dominion likely needs a bowl berth. The more likely scenario, though, is a three-win season.