Bobby Wilder proved in short order that Old Dominion can compete in the FBS ranks after a six-win 2014 campaign. Replacing a superstar like Taylor Heinicke will be nearly impossible but seven other offensive starters are back. In C-USA's tougher division (East), the Monarchs were nice story a year ago, and Wilder has some equity built up heading into what appears to be a tougher sophomore campaign.
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Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2015
For four seasons, quarterback Taylor Heinicke was the face of Old Dominion football. Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award — the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy — and threw for nearly 15,000 yards, giving the Monarchs the luxury of predictably solid quarterback play as they navigated the transition to the FBS level. With Heinicke gone, Old Dominion’s offense faces the kind of questions it hasn’t dealt with in a several years.
Redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley will be the player most likely to fill Heinicke’s shoes. The 6'1" Shuler threw a South Carolina state-record 71 touchdown passes as a senior in high school and spent last season as the backup Heinicke never needed. Junior college transfer Joey Verhaegh will also have a shot at the starting gig. Whoever ends up with the job will have tools with which to work.
Sophomore running back Ray Lawry will again have a big role after rushing for 947 yards and being named Conference USA’s top freshman. He leads a stable of solid backs that also includes promising sophomore Vincent Lowe and speedy freshman Jeremy Cox. After the loss of standout receiver Antonio Vaughan to graduation, Zach Pascal, David Washington and Melvin Vaughn become the prime targets in the passing game.
The Monarchs lost an all-conference center in Josh Mann but return 10 linemen who have significant playing experience, leading coach Bobby Wilder to be optimistic about the offense in the post-Heinicke era.
Previewing Old Dominion’s Defense for 2015
The Monarchs’ defense took its lumps last season, giving up 38 points per game, including 56 to Marshall and 66 to Western Kentucky. But that wasn’t a surprise as Old Dominion’s defense relied heavily on young players. However, the result is that, with much of the unit back, Wilder expects to see improvement.
“This is going to be a young, developing, growing football team that’s only going to get better,” Wilder says.
Senior Poncho Barnwell, who led the team in sacks last season, will be the most experienced member of the defensive line.
TJ Ricks and Martez Simpson, two of the team’s top tacklers last season, will team up with junior college transfers Richard Thomas and Shadow Williams to give the Monarchs a solid group of linebackers. Senior safety Fellonte Misher and junior cornerback Devon Brown, a UAB transfer, will be worth watching in the secondary.
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Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2015
Junior Ricky Segers was an effective kicker before tearing his ACL seven games into last season. In his place, Satchel Ziffer, now a junior, handled the job, kicking two game-winning field goals. Wilder expects them to compete for the job in the preseason. Ziffer will also be in a battle with Joe Pulisic and Jarrett Cervi for punting duties. Pascal, Nick England and Isaiah Harper will all be in the mix to become the Monarchs’ primary return man.
Old Dominion’s first season as a full-fledged FBS school was a pleasant surprise. The Monarchs weren’t eligible to go to a bowl given their status as a first-year member of Conference USA, but their 6–6 overall record — including a 4–4 league mark in C-USA’s tougher East division — would have been good enough to get them there.
“It was a really good first step for our program,” Wilder says.
This season, with the loss of Heinicke, repeating that success could prove tricky. To his credit, Wilder is realistic. He pegs a reasonable goal for this team at contending for the division and earning a bowl trip. For a school that only restarted its football program seven seasons ago, pulling off such feats would be cause to celebrate.