ODU Football

It's almost here. So in the meantime, get to know your 2016 Monarchs (per Harry Minium)

Five questions as ODU kicks off summer practice on Monday

The' N. Pham | The Virginian-Pilot

The' N. Pham | The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK

Mercilessly for Old Dominion football followers, the scoreboard at Foreman Field shut down minutes after the regular-season finale last season.

Florida Atlantic had just kicked two fourth-quarter field goals to come away with a victory that knocked ODU out of a bowl game and added a bitter punctuation mark to the Monarchs' first losing season .

The score has been on the minds of the ODU players ever since. Coach Bobby Wilder made sure by having staff members place a poster on a wall that faces players as they enter the locker room.

It says, simply: FAU 33, ODU 31.

"That loss was heartbreaking," said redshirt senior TJ Ricks, who was Conference USA's leading tackler last season. "Our seniors, I came in here with them, and I felt so bad for them. No one wants to have that feeling again.

"It's so important that we go to a bowl game this season. It's the most important thing."

ODU would become bowl eligible with six victories, and a year ago, that would have been good enough. But C-USA's bowl line-up decreases from seven bowls to six, meaning seven victories might be necessary.

Prognosticators aren't optimistic . The C-USA media picked the Monarchs sixth in the seven-team East Division and USA Today picked ODU fourth. The Orlando Sentinel ranks ODU 95th nationally, and there are 84 bowl bids.

As the Monarchs begin fall workouts on Monday, here are five key questions they face:

Will the offensive line struggle again as it did last year?

New offensive line coach Chris Malone, a former Virginia Tech standout, has brought a more demanding work ethic .

Offensive coordinator Brian Scott installed a pass-option attack that should lessen pressure on the line. ODU also will employ a tight end, which should provide some additional blocking up front.

But two starters and four backups are gone from a line that often could not open holes for running backs or ODU's quarterbacks consistently.

Four players have starting experience, including redshirt seniors Troy Butler and Tyler Compton. Yet, three redshirt freshmen will play key roles, including Devin Hannan. He is slated to start at left tackle, where he will protect quarterbacks' blind side.

"We're going to be fine," Malone says. If so, that bodes well for ODU.

How is depth elsewhere on offense?

It's outstanding. ODU ended last season with just two able-bodied quarterbacks, but has six as practice begins. David Washington, who is coming off knee surgery, and Shuler Bentley split time at quarterback in 2015, and they should give Scott plenty of options.

There are nine running backs, led by Ray Lawry, the league's leading rusher last season. Backup Jeremy Cox ran well as a freshman. Josh Marriner, a transfer from UConn, will find a place on the field somewhere.

ODU has 22 receivers, including three returning starters and Melvin Vaughn, a 6-foot-3, 259-pound senior who is set to start at tight end.

Injuries to Vaughn and Adam Swann forced ODU to abandon plans to employ a tight end last season. But ODU goes eight deep in tight ends this fall, including four freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

Will the defense be better?

Yes. ODU has made gradual improvement the last two seasons under defensive coordinator Rich Nagy, who has patiently rebuilt with younger players.

There is more depth this season , with 12 safeties and 10 cornerbacks on the roster. "We've never had that kind of depth," Wilder said.

Justice Davila, a preseason all-conference pick at safety, is battling for his starting job with Rob Thompson and Denzel Williams.

Rashaad Coward, a 6-6, 310-pound senior from Brooklyn who has star potential, anchors a good defensive line. ODU will start three seniors at linebacker.

The special teams were poor last season. Will they be improved?

They need to be. ODU was last in C- USA in kickoff and punt return coverage and ninth in punting.

Wilder hired former Vanderbilt special teams coach Charles Bankins, and the Monarchs focused on specials teams much of the spring. It helps that ODU returns 42 players with significant playing time, which should give Bankins more options on punt and kickoff teams.

Freshman Bailey Cate, who averaged 44 yards per kick at Orange Park (Fla.) High last season, will be the punter. Chris Kirtley, another Floridian, is coming off a solid freshman season as placekicker.

Is the schedule more favorable than last season?

Not really. Ten opponents are the same, with Hampton and Massachusetts as the newcomers replacing Norfolk State and Eastern Michigan. ODU also plays six home games instead of seven.

The road to six victories is passable but will be difficult to traverse. ODU likely will be favored in four of its first six games, but the last six come against very good conference teams.

Early road games against Appalachian State and North Carolina State, which defeated ODU in Norfolk by a combined score of 87-14 last season, will be difficult challenges, too.

Victories in the first three home games – Hampton, Texas-San Antonio and UMass – likely are musts for the Monarchs to go bowling.

Harry Minium, 757-446-2371, harry.minium@pilotonline.com

Twitter: @Harry_MiniumVP