By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - His first-year program was about to make its initial road trip last season when Old Dominion head coach Bobby Wilder learned something, just days before the Monarchs' visit to Jacksonville University:
Among the 60-player travel squad, about half had never been to Florida previously. Roughly 20 players had never been on a flight. During the week, Wilder and his staff worked as hard on calming nerves as he did on a gameplan.
When the charter plane took off out of Norfolk, Va., Wilder received one of the bigger surprises of the season.
"There's kids sitting back there behind me that are nervous about the flight," he remembered. "So I'm up front, I'm trying to go through all these scenarios in my head, (like) how am I going to talk to them pre-game? We get ready to take off, the plane's going down the runway, and as the plane starts to lift off, I look back and I see 60 kids all with their hands in the air, screaming at the top of their lungs like they're on a roller coaster.
In their first campaign since 1940, the biggest surprise of ODU's season was the 9-2 record, which represented the most wins for a start-up program in FCS history. The Monarchs ranked fifth in the FCS in home attendance average (19,782) with seven sellouts at renovated Foreman Field. They scored at least 28 points in each game, finishing with a 35-point average to tie for third in the FCS. They lost only to Monmouth (31-28) and at Fordham (34-29).
Now about that roller coaster ride...
ODU did so well so quickly that nobody will be happy if the Monarchs fall back to earth when they start to play a tougher schedule. This year, they will remain an independent school for a second straight season, adding the likes of William & Mary, Gardner-Webb and Cal Poly to the home schedule as well as a trip to neighboring Hampton. Next season, they will join the Colonial Athletic Association - the top conference in the FCS by any objective measure.
"Coming off this first season, I really feel like we absolutely exceeded all our expectations that I had or the people associated with Old Dominion had in our first season," said the 45-year-old Wilder, who knows CAA Football intimately after spending 22 years as a player and assistant coach at the University of Maine.
"As many people have been reminding me in a fun sort of way, we really set the bar high for this program. That's the way I wanted it. I want us to build a championship program here at Old Dominion. I feel like we can do that with the area that we're in, the recruiting, the school that we have here, the facilities that we have at Old Dominion, we have everything in place to build a championship program. And that's the goal."
The team's motto for 2010 - "Humble & Hungry" - seems to start with the team's increased depth. Even quarterback Thomas DeMarco, who rushed for 892 yards and 17 touchdowns and threw for 1,921 yards and 21 touchdowns against only four interceptions as a redshirt freshman, was pushed during spring practices by transfer Dominique Blackman, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound left- hander. Blackman has a stronger arm than DeMarco and showed he can run the offense, but DeMarco still holds the No. 1 job.
The Monarchs played many freshmen and redshirt freshmen last season, and competition thrived when newcomers joined the fold this spring. Tailback Angus Harper pushed his way into a deep rotation led by Mario Crawford. Hofstra transfers Ronnie Cameron and Deron Mayo earned starting roles on the defensive line, while West Virginia transfer Dominik Davenport joined the mix up front. Linebacker J.J. Williams, who redshirted last season, earned a starting role. Among returnees, standout strong safety Craig Wilkins was moved up to linebacker and free safety Devon Simmons moved into Wilkins' old spot, bringing more speed to the defense.
"We're now at the position for the first time with our program," Wilder said, "where we have depth and we have competition at positions all across the board. And I've always felt like in order to develop a championship team, you've got to have competition every day at practice, you've got to have competition in your winter workouts, you've got to have competition with your summer workouts. And we know have that. Our team clearly understands that if they don't show up every day and give their best effort, there's somebody else who might take their position.
"We can't look beyond anybody because, to be quite honest, we're not that good. We're not an established team like a William & Mary that we're going to play. We've played football for one year."
AROUND THE FCS
- Tim Hawkins emerged out of spring practices as the No. 1 quarterback at Texas State, which is replacing four-year starter Bradley George. Hawkins, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall, won the job over Eric Soza, who is in the process of transferring from the Southland Conference school. Incoming freshman Tyler Arndt, who threw for over 7,100 yards and 75 touchdowns during his high school career, will make his case for the top job this summer.
- Tony Robertson's injury-plagued career at Appalachian State has come to an end, although the defensive end will remain with the program as a student assistant coach this season. Robertson was an All-America honorable mention selection by The Sports Network in 2007, but has played in only three games each of the past two seasons because of a foot injury. Robertson injured his shoulder while lifting weights in January, and surgery on it wiped out his final season of eligibility.
- Senior-to-be Sean Creadick should fit nicely as quarterback Greg Denham's favorite target at UC Davis after the Aggies lost All-Great West first-team selections Chris Carter and Bakari Grant. Creadick caught nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown as the Blue squad, led by Denham, beat the Gold squad, 14-3, in the intrasquad scrimmage which ended spring practices.
- The Ivy League is at the head of the class among the 19 FCS football programs that earned NCAA Public Recognition Awards. The awards are given each year to teams in the top 10 percent of their sport based on the most recent multi-year Academic Progress Rate.
The NCAA recognized all eight Ivy football programs: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale. Honorees from CAA Football were Maine, Northeastern, Richmond, Villanova and William & Mary. Bucknell, Colgate and Holy Cross of the Patriot League, Davidson and Dayton of the Pioneer Football League, and Presbyterian of the Big South Conference also earned the recognition.