Old Dominion's Ronnie Cameron was CAA Defensive Player of the Year

Jordan Anderson of James Madison loses his helmet as he is hit by Ronnie Cameron of Old Dominion during the fourth quarter Saturday at ODU. (Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press / October 29, 2011)

Bobby Wilder tells the story of Ronnie Cameron's first weight-lifting session at Old Dominion with his new teammates a little less than two years ago. When players began to disperse after their scheduled series of lifts, Cameron spoke up and said, in essence, where are you guys going?

The transfer from Hofstra told his fellow Monarchs that the expected wasn't enough — not if they intended to compete in the Colonial Athletic Association, not if they wanted to play for championships. He, and they, needed to do more.

Cameron's time at ODU has been an object lesson in doing more. After earning his undergraduate degree in three years, he will have completed work toward an MBA in a year-and-a-half and is scheduled to receive his degree in December.

"I'm very proud of Ronnie Cameron," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said, "and most of the reasons I'm proud of him have to do with the things he does off the field."

Cameron has been no less remarkable on the field. The senior defensive lineman was voted CAA Defensive Player of the Year — the first pure defensive tackle to earn the award since William and Mary's Craig Staub in 1993 — and was one of the ringleaders of a team that surprised everyone but those within the program.

"Before I got here," Cameron said, "a lot of teams that were recruiting me told me (if) you go to Old Dominion, you'll never have a chance to play in the playoffs. So to be able to prove those people wrong means a lot to me."

The Monarchs added to their legacy as the most successful start-up in Football Championship Subdivision history. Picked to finish 10th, they are 9-2 overall and tied for second place in their first year as competing CAA members, earning a berth in the FCS playoffs. They will host Norfolk State on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Foreman Field.

"He set the standard for our work ethic as a football team," Wilder said. "He set the standard academically with the fact that he graduated in three years and now he's completing his MBA in a year-and-a-half, and he's also done that on the football field with his performance."

Cameron's journey to Old Dominion began in early December 2009 when he was informed that Hofstra planned to ax its football program, effective immediately.

After considering approximately a dozen schools, Cameron narrowed his choices to Old Dominion and Massachusetts. UMass is closer to his Long Island home, but the Minutemen announced their intentions to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision and leave the CAA. Postseason wouldn't be an option in 2011.

After falling just short of the playoffs as a freshman at Hofstra, Cameron wanted the opportunity to compete for a playoff berth. He chose ODU, but for academic reasons more than football, he said.

All of his undergraduate credits transferred, so he was able to earn his bachelor's degree after one semester at ODU. He spent the time since then on his MBA, as well as his playoff quest.

"Old Dominion had everything else that I wanted from a football program," Cameron said. "It was an opportunity to help build something special. I came from a program that was dying to a program that was just born."

He embraced the school and the program, which has played before sellout crowds in every home game. He talked about how a playoff berth was a way to pay back the school and the fans for their support.

"I wasn't here for the first year," he said, "but the past two years I've seen how much everyone — starting from our president, our athletic director, all the way down to each and every student — how much they love this football team and how much they put into it. It means the world to us and to this community."

Cameron, 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, was just what the Monarchs needed: a leader and a defensive anchor who was familiar with the CAA and the experience to compete in one of the best FCS leagues in the country.

"I came in and definitely had to earn the respect of my teammates," he said. "I didn't come in thinking I was above anyone. I came in trying to earn their respect."

Cameron has led in many ways. He is ODU's second-leading tackler (67) behind all-conference linebacker Craig Wilkins. He leads the CAA in tackles-for-loss (15.5) and is the league's No. 2 tackler among defensive linemen.

Most notable is his ability to make plays at critical times. For example, late in the game against James Madison, he busted through the line and threw Dukes' Jordan Anderson for a three-yard loss on third-and-3 at the ODU 31. The play forced JMU to attempt a 51-yard field goal that sailed wide and preserved the Monarchs' lead in an eventual 23-20 win.

Wilder said that throughout the second half that day, Cameron made what he called "NFL-caliber plays." Pro scouts have visited campus to evaluate him. The NFL is a goal, just as the playoffs were a goal, but one he puts off to the side as he concludes his academic and athletic career at ODU.

"This young man is a tremendous football player," Wilder said. "He's an NFL prospect. The scouts have all been through to see him and they like what they see. He's the total package as a person, a student and an athlete."