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Four Questions During Spring Practice — Old Dominion

After choosing to opt-out of the 2020 season, football is back in Norfolk.

Old Dominion v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

After a one-win season in 2019, Old Dominion dismissed head coach Bobby Wilder, who coached the program since the school’s football rebirth in 2009. Former Penn State head coach Ricky Rahne was tabbed to take over in 2020 — and then the decision was made to opt-out of the 2020 season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, 15 months after he was hired, Rahne is in the midst of his inaugural spring practice with the Monarchs. In continuing with our offseason series of questions surrounding Conference USA teams during the spring, here’s our look at ODU.

Note: Players’ class year reflects 2020 eligibility that will carry over to the 2021 season.

Establishing An Identity

When the Monarchs chose to opt-out of the 2020 season, it certainly raised eyebrows especially coming off of a 1-11 campaign in 2019. However, given the benefit of hindsight (and a C-USA season that saw over 35% of its games canceled due to COVID-19) it appears that they made the right call, opposed to entering 2021 coming off of a winless season (see FIU).

“They felt like they gained a lot as far as having a spring practice during the fall, especially with it being a new coaching staff,” said Chris Vannini of The Athletic on the Underdog Dynasty C-USA Podcast.

The season away gives ODU an opportunity to have a clean slate following a three-season stretch from 2017-2019 that has yielded a 10-26 record.

Quarterback

Talented redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff took over down the stretch of the 2019 season and was the team’s most effective passer in a season that saw ODU rank second to last among C-USA teams in passing. The 6-5, 220-pound Wolff is a traditional pocket-passer, who was recruited by Wilder.

UCF transfer D.J. Mack brings a dual-threat dynamic that appears (on paper, at least) to be a better fit for the RPO-style offense that Rahne ran during his time as Penn State’s offensive coordinator. Mack, a Norfolk native, showed flashes of star potential during his tenure with the Knights. He was named AAC title game MVP after a performance that saw him account for over 400 yards and six total touchdowns.

Stanford v Central Florida
Norfolk native D.J. Mack has returned home to suit up at Old Dominion.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

If the trivia question asks who was the last quarterback to start a game for ODU, the answer is senior Stone Smartt, who also is a dual-threat option behind center. In ‘19, Smartt started seven games, throwing for 1,006 yards with one touchdown pass and seven interceptions.

Wide Receiver

The Monarchs have a lack of experience at the receiver position, but they’re not lacking talent. 2019’s top-two leaders in receiving yards are back in redshirt sophomores Aaron Moore and Nigel Fitzgerald.

In the Monarchs penultimate game of the ‘19 campaign, Moore set a program-record with 14 catches against Middle Tennessee.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Old Dominion at FIU
Aaron Moore led ODU in receiving yards in 2019.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Former four-star prospect Trey Blount transfers in from Georgia and brings 36 games of experience with him, although most of his appearances came on special teams. Behind them are a group of former three-star recruits in Braxton Collins, Jordan Bly and Noah Robinson.

Whichever quarterback is under center when ODU opens their 2021 season at Wake Forest will look to develop a rapport with a youthful group.

Defensive Losses

Despite the subpar record in 2019, ODU’s defense was among the better units in C-USA. The Monarchs finished fourth in total defense and among the top half of the league in both rushing and passing defense, in large part due to the play of standouts Keion White and Kaleb Ford-Dement.

However, both players found Power Five landing spots during ODU’s hiatus. Holdovers from the ‘19 squad include cornerbacks Lance Boykin and Geronda Hall, safety Harrell Blackmon and linebacker Jordan Young.

How the defense will fare in trying to replace two of the top players in the league will be worth keeping an eye on.