NORFOLK (Harry Minium & ODU Athletics) -For 2 1/2 hours Monday afternoon, Old Dominion University football coaches, players and staff endured the 2 1/2-hour annual ritual known as media day on Kornblau Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium.
They took a team photo, then met with nearly a dozen reporters. And while coach Ricky Rahne was asked dozens of questions, some that elicited long answers, it was a short answer to a short question that stood out to me.
Asked to describe his team, he responded: “A team that is hungry and is ready to go. A team that has taken to coaching and is focused on the fundamentals. A team that’s very fast and plays very physical.
“They will run and they will hit. We’ll live on two things. We’ll run and we will hit.”
That’s just the kind of team ODU fans should be looking for when football returns to Ballard Stadium for the first time in nearly 22 months when the Monarchs host Hampton University on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m.
The Monarchs missed the 2020 season because of COVID and were 1-11 in 2019, so they’ve been waiting a long time to make amends for a record that center Isaac Weaver says “doesn’t represent what ODU football is all about.”
While many positions remain up for grabs, Rahne named what, for now, is ODU’s five starters on the offensive line.
Weaver (6-foot-6, 303-pounds), ODU’s senior left tackle or center, depending on where coaches want him to play, is surrounded by good talent. Transfers Tyran Hunt (6-7, 313), a tackle from Maryland. and Gerrik Vollmer (6-5, 313), a guard from Virginia who can also play center, will also start as will veteran tackle Nick Saldiveri, (6-6, 307).
The surprise starter at guard is Leroy Thomas, a 6-3, 275 redshirt freshman from Stafford, Va., who had been a walk-on, but recently earned a scholarship.
“You should have heard the guys when they heard he’d been put on scholarship,” Rahne said. “We’re very excited about all of the work that he’s done.”
“I’ve really been pleased with the offensive line.”
Rahne likely won’t name a starting quarterback until late next week, just prior to ODU’s opener on Friday, Sept. 3, at Wake Forest. But internally, the decision is close to being made and the team likely will be told sooner than later, he added.
Rahne said ODU is fortunate to have three with FBS starting experience: D.J. Mack Jr., Stone Smartt and Hayden Wolff.
Smartt, a senior from California, started much of the 2019 season and was a junior college standout. Wolff started three games that season as well, in which he played well and redshirted.
Mack, from Norfolk’s Norview High School, played two seasons at the University of Central Florida. In his first season on the field, he completed 19 of 27 pass attempts for 348 yards and two touchdowns and ran for four more TD’s to lead UCF over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
“I think it’s a rare situation where you have three guys who have started Division I games,” Rahne said.
Asked what he’s looking for from his quarterback, he said: “We are looking at things across the board. Some are better runners, some are better passers.
“We’ve got to find the guy who executes the best and we can always tailor the offense to whoever we have.”
“Whatever we do, we’ll talk to our guys first, then tell the team and then tell you guys a week and a half later,” he added with a smile.
Rahne reiterated that offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell will call plays. As offensive coordinator at Penn State, that was something Rahne was accustomed to doing. As ODU’s offensive coordinator, he says it is now Campbell’s role.
“I’ll be involved in game planning. Obviously, he’s going to ask my opinion and obviously some opinions he’s not going to ask for he’s going to get.”
If his three quarterbacks are taking the battle for the starting position personally, it doesn’t show.
“Whoever starts, we’re all going to support him, regardless of the situation,” Wolff said.
“We’re a very tight group. We do everything together. Those guys are my brothers.”
“We’re all ready to go,” Mack added. “It’s been two years since we’ve played football. We’re ready to start playing games.”
Whoever starts, Smartt says he and the others on the bench will do all they can to help him succeed.
“Our bond is stronger and deeper than it is between the lines,” he said. “If someone else starts, I would do all I can to help develop him and I know the others would do the same.”
Smartt is mobile and a good passer and said he has worked much of the spring and summer in the film room, looking to breaking down defenses to make his reads quicker.
Wolff likely has the best arm of the three but isn’t as mobile or as experienced as Smartt and Mack. A redshirt freshman, he is the youngest of the trio.
Mack is mobile and throws well but has had the least time learning ODU’s offense.
Whoever runs the offense, Rahne said he expects it will be productive.
“I’m really excited about what we’re going to do on offense,” he said. “It’s a matter of putting our guys in the best position and making sure we make it simple enough to execute.”
Opening at Wake Forest, a Power five school, is a tough way to start.
The Deacs return 20 of 22 starters from the team that defeated Virginia and Virginia Tech, narrowly lost to North Carolina and N.C. State and lost to Wisconsin in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte last season.
“We didn’t get to play last year, so we could open up the season in a parking lot and we would be happy,” Rahne said.
Scouting ODU will be difficult for Wake Forest. The opener will be the first game for ODU’s staff as a unit and the only game film of the Monarchs is from 2019. All the coaches and most of the starters from that team are long gone. ODU’s offensive and defensive schemes and personnel are much different they they were in 2019.
But even though his practices and scrimmages have largely been closed to the media and public, Rahne suspects Wake Forest’s coaching staff knows a bit about the offense and defense ODU will put on the field.
“I’m not naive enough to think some of this stuff hasn’t gotten out,” he said. “Somehow coaches always find out.
“We’ll have an advantage for about 19 minutes and then when the game gets going, those coaches at Wake Forest, they’re going to know, going to understand pretty quickly what we’re doing.”
Rahne also had a message for ODU fans who have yet to buy tickets.
“Come out and support us from the jump,” he said. “We’ve got to have some faith in each other.
“I know some of you want to see how we play first, but if you come out, you will help us play well. Let’s build something together. Let’s make this the biggest party in Virginia.
“We have a great stadium and let’s fill it up. We’ve got some great ticket prices. Come on out.”