NORFOLK — Old Dominion enters the 2014 football season after the most competitive preseason camp and with the deepest, most talented team in its brief history.
Much of that is a product of the Monarchs' jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA. The Monarchs have 105 players, which has helped to create depth at certain positions, particularly on defense, that they've never had before.
"We've been very consistent with the amount of contact we had this year, compared to last year," head coach Bobby Wilder said Monday at his weekly gabfest with reporters. "I feel like overall, we're fairly healthy coming out of this camp. The biggest thing that happened was it's just so much more competitive. I thought we played faster all throughout camp."
Wilder hopes that depth and pace will prevail in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. opener versus Hampton at sold-out S.B. Ballard Stadium.
ODU's coaches pared down the 105 on the roster to a squad of 70 that will dress Saturday. Forty-two of the 70 are veterans who have played at least one season, 28 are new players — freshmen, redshirt freshmen or transfers.
Teams typically tend to focus on themselves and their execution in season openers, rather than advanced game-planning for opponents, simply because there's no track record. ODU's task is all the more difficult because Hampton has a new coaching staff, a slew of new players, and the Monarchs haven't faced the Pirates since 2012.
ODU's staff pored over video of new HU coach Connell Maynor's tenure at Winston-Salem State, attempting to track tendencies. The Monarchs also watched video of HU games from last season, to get a feel for the capabilities of returning players.
"They're talented," Wilder said. "This is a talented football team. We know a lot of their players, because we've either followed them in recruiting, (or) we followed their career. We follow Hampton, Norfolk State. We watch how they do. We pull for them when we're not playing them."
One key, Wilder said, is imposing their up-tempo pace against Hampton. That falls to senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke and an offense that's breaking in several new starters.
Heinicke has more freedom and responsibility to call plays and to change into and out of plays at the line of scrimmage. Wilder said that his record-setting quarterback had an excellent preseason.
"Our biggest emphasis on him will be very consistent to what we've done with him since he was a freshman," Wilder said. "We'll talk to him about finding a way to get that first down. Find a way to get that first, first down and get the drive going, because we're a very efficient operation when we get that first down and we can go fast and get that tempo."
While ODU's offense hopes to duplicate last year's output of 42.3 points and 519 yards per game, the defense aims to improve on the 34 points and 452 yards per game it allowed. Opponents averaged 4.7 yards per rush and 6.3 yards per play.
For the first time, nearly all of the defensive starters will be seniors and juniors, with underclassmen scattered into the playing rotation. The Monarchs' only significant absence on defense entering the season is sophomore free safety Rob Thompson, who is expected to be out 4-6 weeks with a shoulder injury.
Wilder said that the staff is still evaluating a replacement, but there's no shortage of candidates, among them senior Paul Paulhill.
Left tackle Connor Mewbourne is battling a viral infection and a tight hamstring, Wilder said, and could miss two-to-three weeks. He's the only significant injury on offense, and veteran Ely Anderson is expected to take his place on a line replacing three starters.
"That first game, the biggest concern, particularly with a new coaching staff, is what are we going to see?" Wilder said. "The grease pen will be flying in that first quarter on the sideline if we don't see what we think we're going to see. Coaches love to make adjustments. But the tempo is always to try to go as fast as we can, try to run 80-plus plays a game, and we'll react to our players — how much they can handle and how quickly they can handle it."
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