Phoebus graduates Staton, Morant emerge as starting linebackers for ODU

Freshman says coaching staff helped him transition from safety

True freshmen are not supposed to start in college football. True freshmen who play close to the ball absolutely are not supposed to start.

So coaches will tell you. The closer to the ball they are, the harder it is for rookies attempting to adjust to the college game's speed and mayhem.

Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder ignored both conventions this preseason when he not only moved freshman Richie Staton from outside linebacker to middle linebacker but also named him the starter for Saturday's opener at East Carolina.

A defensive end and tight end last season at Phoebus High School, Staton emerged quickly this month.

"His video in high school showed he's a very explosive player," Wilder said. "It took him about 10 practices to understand the language and to get himself comfortable to play at a high speed. In the second scrimmage he really jumped out. Everybody could see it on the field, and the video confirmed it.

"That's when he was moved (from outside to middle linebacker). … He was clearly the most explosive player on the field in that scrimmage, and he has not disappointed (since)."

At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Staton is undersized for his position. But as Wilder noted, his athleticism was apparent at Phoebus, where last year he caught seven touchdown passes and also scored on kick, punt, interception and fumble returns.

A three-year starter at Kecoughtan before transferring to Phoebus, Staton wanted no part of redshirting this season.

"My expectations are always high just because I know how hard I work and how much my coaches are going to push me," Staton said. "I knew coming in I had a chance to play just off of effort."

But middle linebackers need more. As the defense's quarterback, they need football smarts and coaches' trust.

Staton must have both. He unseated incumbent starter Caleb Taylor, ODU's second-leading tackler last season, who's now No. 2 on the depth chart.

"I had to learn calls," Staton said. "I had to learn what gaps to play in. I'm still getting there. The coaches are doing a really good job of helping me and being patient with me learning."

Staton has familiar teachers on the field. Taylor is a Phoebus graduate, as is starting outside linebacker Paul Morant, a senior who this season moved from safety.

"They've been a great help to me," Staton said. "They've been helping me since I was a younger guy. When I don't know something, they take me to the side and tell me how it's done."

Staton was sharing reps with Morant at the rover linebacker earlier this month.

"There's a lot of Phoebus on that linebacker level, a lot of Hampton, 757," Morant said. "We're athletes, and he came out and showed he's an athlete from the jump. … They moved him to (middle linebacker) and he came into his own."

Like Staton, the 6-foot, 210-pound Morant is small for a linebacker. He hasn't missed a game in three seasons at ODU, starting six at safety and making 141 tackles, 50 last season.

Wilder believes lining Morant up about 5 yards closer to the line of scrimmage and involving him more in run defense fits the Monarchs' schemes best. Craig Wilkins, the team's top tackler last season as a senior linebacker, also began his career at safety.

"He's done such a good job with this transition," Wilder said. "It's an unselfish move. It makes us a better team, because now we're faster. Paul Morant's a faster linebacker. … It's almost like we're in a nickel package with him playing up there. …

"With all the spread offenses … you need somebody like a Paul Morant who can match up a little better on an inside receiver."

ODU is upgrading to the Football Bowl Subdivision and this season faces FBS competition for the first time: East Carolina, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Idaho and North Carolina. Whether the Monarchs can challenge any or all of those teams hinges most on the defense.

Morant and Staton appear unaffected by the prospect, even while acknowledging the superior size and speed in FBS programs.

"I'm still not linebacker big," Morant said, "but I feel like I'm good at my size. It's not about weight, it's about the heart."

He and Staton are about to test that adage, with considerable resistance from opponents like they've never seen.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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