NORFOLK, Va. (Release via ODU Athletics) – When Old Dominion’s football team opened fall practice a year ago, the Monarchs did so with a young, inexperienced team.

Because the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, the Monarchs hadn’t played a game in almost two years. Nearly half the players were freshmen or redshirt freshmen, and there was also a “new” coaching staff, which had for the most part been on board for nearly two years but had yet to coach a game. 

Yet as the Monarchs began practice Tuesday morning for their second season under head coach Ricky Rahne, they did so with a lot more experience. Ten starters return on offense, seven on defense and two on special teams from the team that earned the program’s first bowl bid since 2016.

ODU lost some talented players, including linebacker Jordan Young, the school’s career tackling leader, and center Isaac Weaver. But 43 of the 60 letter winners return and a ton of talented high school and transfer portal recruits add to ODU’s depth.

ODU goes from being one of the least-experienced teams in the country in 2021 to a veteran team this fall.

It’s difficult to tell much from the first day of practice, but the Monarchs seemed more confident, bigger and faster than they were a year ago. Practice was crisp. The players, dressed in helmets and jerseys, hustled and executed well.

Asked how he felt about the first day of practice, Rahne said he was “satisfied.”

“There’s a lot of stuff we need to work on,” he said. “I thought we made some major improvements in some areas. There are other areas I wished we’d done better on.”

Rahne said he also wished the returning experience necessarily equaled a better team.

“You’d love to think that, but every season you’ve got too many new pieces,” he said. “The way college football is nowadays, with freshman, with the transfer portal, you’ve got to build from the ground up, teach your culture from the ground up, teach how to practice from the ground up.”

Just how good the Monarchs will be this season is a matter of wide speculation among college football pundits. ODU plays its first season in the Sun Belt Conference, a big step up from Conference USA, and begins a difficult non-conference schedule when it opens on Friday, Sept. 2, at home against Virginia Tech.

Most prognosticators have the Monarchs finishing fifth in the seven-team East Division. However, Sun Belt coaches and the media tabbed ODU to finish last, and the vote wasn’t close.

Phil Steele, the prognosticator whose preseason magazine is perhaps the nation’s most respected, picks ODU fifth, ahead of James Madison and Georgia Southern.

As Rahne often says, preseason prognostications are wildly flawed. No one has seen ODU work out, nor can injuries be accurately predicted.

Yet I agree with Steele’s assessment: “My power ratings have them anywhere from 3-9 to 9-3 but I give the Monarchs a great shot at getting back to a bowl.”

This team has a lot of talent, and almost certainly will be better than the Monarchs were in 2021. But the schedule is much tougher. ODU follows up the home game with Tech with road trips to Virginia and East Carolina.

Sun Belt dates with Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State loom large on the schedule.

And you can’t control injuries, officiaiting or the ball not bouncing your way.

Rahne said Steele’s prediction could be applied to a lot of teams given the narrow gap that often exists between winning and losing.

“I think about 2016, when I was at Penn State, and we won the Big Ten championship,” he said. “We beat Minnesota in overtime and had an unbelievable win against Ohio State.

“But if those games go the other way, it could have been bad.”

Things looked bad for ODU last season, when the Monarchs began the season 1-6. Among their losses was an overtime defeat at Marshall, a 1-point loss to Buffalo in which the Monarchs missed an extra point and a 6-point loss at UTEP in which replays clearly showed the winning touchdown pass should have been ruled an incomplete pass.

ODU showed an incredible amount of heart by winning its last five games and earning its first bowl bid since 2016.

“Having that season together, and with as many guys as we’ve got coming back, we do have game experience,” tight end Zack Kuntz said last week at Sun Belt media days in New Orleans.

“I feel like last year a lot of guys were trying to figure out their roles figuring out what we needed to work on.”

“We’re definitely further along than we were this time last year,” added offensive guard Nick Saldiveri added. “But personally, I like to start from the ground up. If you do that, you build a better foundation.”

Kuntz and Saldiveri are noticeably stronger than last season. Saldiveri credits Chad Snodgrass, ODU’s first-year director of sports performance and Aaron Rittgers, the third-year assistant director.

“Coach Snodgrass’s program has done a lot of great things for my body and everyone else,” he said. “He implemented a lot of things that make you functionally strong and strong on the football field rather than chasing numbers.

“The things he’s had us do have been tough and have put us through the fire already so we will be prepared for adversity.”

Quarterback Hayden Wolff, who started the second half of last season, also added about 15 pounds of much-needed muscle.

“He seems more comfortable,” Rahne said of Wolff. “I saw him drive the ball a couple of times today and he showed that muscle mass.

“He and I talked about this last year. It’s been his plan, his mission, the entire time. He’s dedicated himself to it and done a nice job.”

Yet Wolff won’t necessarily start this fall. D.J. Mack Jr.  the Central Florida transfer who started six games last season; and Notre Dame transfer Brendon Clark remain very much in the mix, Rahne said.

“All of our positions are open,” he said. “Nothing should be earned on what you did last year.

“People are allowed to get better, to improve. Everyone gets the opportunity to do that.

“We have a good number of returning starters, but we also know there are some guys who’ve been working really hard who deserve the chance to compete for a starting position.”

He says he won’t necessarily announce a starter before the Tech game.

ODU’s home opener against Tech is a big game for both programs – it’s the first game for new Hokies’ coach Brent Pry, who was the defensive coordinator at Penn State when Rahne was the offensive coordinator.

Yet Rahne and his staff haven’t mentioned Virginia Tech to their players and won’t until they begin game preparations the last week of August.

It’s all part of the “1-0 mentality” that Rahne persuaded his players to embrace last fall that led to that give-game winning streak.

Embracing 1-0 means focusing on each play, each practice, each team meeting, etc., individually and not looking ahead to next week or even tomorrow morning.

“Quite frankly, it starts at lunch,” Rahne said shortly before players dined at the Broderick Dining Commons. “We want everyone to get hydrated so they can come back and have a great practice tomorrow.”

“You can’t be looking forward,” Saldiveri added, “because that’s when you get lost.

“I want to have a good meeting and lift this afternoon and then wipe my hands clean and come back tomorrow morning and do it again and again and again.”

Cornerback Tre Hawkins III certainly wasn’t looking beyond Tuesday’s practice. The first day of practice, from community leagues and high school through college, have always been special for him. It’s his last first practice in college and he drank in the experience.

“It’s just about the joy of playing football,” he said. “We’re coming out here and having fun.

“Putting on the helmet and feeling like a kid again. For me, it was about feeling that love for the game.”