Minium: Drive Past the New S.B. Ballard Stadium on Your Way to Saturday's Spring Game, and You'll be Impressed
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder takes a detour every morning on his way to work. He steers down Hampton Boulevard and turns onto 49th Street to see what progress has been made in the last 24 hours on ODU’s $67.5 million overhaul of its football stadium.
The new S.B. Ballard Stadium, he said, “will be a dream come true.”
Wilder was hired in 2007 to help ODU build a football team from scratch. He did so successfully, and the team largely prospered at Foreman Field.
Now, after 10 seasons, both the stadium and the team are undergoing a major overhaul.
The changes should be apparent on Saturday when ODU hosts its annual spring game at 3 p.m. at Powhatan Field, the high school stadium just west of the intersection of Powhatan Avenue and 43rd Street.
On your way to the game, drive down 49th Street and you’ll see a stadium under construction that is already 95 feet tall, more than 40 feet taller than Foreman Field.
Photo by Chuck Thomas.
Although not yet open, the stadium is taking shape and drawing rave reviews.
Tweeted Oshane Ximines, the defensive end expected to be taken in the NFL draft later this month: “Sheeesh I'd kill to play a game in the new stadium."
We'll find out what former ODU star Taylor Heinicke thinks of the stadium on Saturday -- the Carolina Panthers quarterback is flying in Friday night and will attend the spring game.
In less than five months, contractors for S.B. Ballard Construction tore down the 82-year-old sideline stands, pounded 675 pilings into the ground, poured 24 million pounds of concrete for the foundation and are now piecing together 760 pieces of pre-cast concrete that will form the new stadium. The pre-cast was designed to be put together like a jig-saw puzzle.
Workers are also in the process of assembling 3.8 million pounds of steel and aluminum that will support the 15,932 new seats. Hundreds of seats have already been installed on the East Side.
When complete, the new stadium will seat 22,480, slightly more than the 20,118 at Foreman Field. Concessions and restroom facilities will be much nicer.
How much nicer? Announcements are in the works about the new concessions and other amenities, and it will be good news for fans, including ODU students, once everything is finalized.
Meanwhile, across campus at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex, Wilder is in the process of rebuilding ODU’s football team.
ODU finished 4-8 last season, and in spite of a 49-35 upset victory over Virginia Tech, the Monarchs' first over a Power 5 school, it was a disappointing finish for a senior-oriented team.
Messiah deWeaver, a junior college transfer, is one of three new ODU quarterbacks
Wilder fired and replaced three coaches and senior associate athletic director Bruce Stewart replaced two strength and conditioning coaches.
Among the most prominent hires: Bryan Stinespring, the former Virginia Tech offensive coordinator, who is the running game coordinator, tight ends coach and is helping offensive coordinator Brian Scott with the offensive line; David Blackwell, the former East Carolina defensive coordinator, who is making over ODU’s defense; and Dwight Galt IV, the new strength and conditioning coach who has brought a high-energy vibe to ODU’s weight room.
Wilder says ODU will be faster and stronger this year in large part because of Galt, who worked for his father as strength and conditioning coach at Penn State.
"What he's done is change a 4-8 team that didn't really feel good about themselves and inspired them to put the past behind them," Wiilder said. "He and his staff have so much energy. It's changed everything in our weight room.
"The kids want to be in there. They want to be around him and his staff. Our kids are spending more time in the weight room than ever, and I see them getting bigger and stronger."
The offensive and defensive schemes have been completely revamped. Gone is the high-octane, no-huddle offense the Monarchs previously employed – and that means, yes, you will see ODU huddle for the first time this season.
With most starters lost to graduation or transfers, this may be ODU’s youngest team since its first in 2009. If the Monarchs were to play tomorrow, no seniors would start with the exception of punter Bailey Cate.
There are only eight seniors and a small junior class was bolstered by the signing of 14 junior college players, all of whom enrolled in January.
The biggest question mark is at quarterback. Blake LaRussa, an honorable mention All-Conference USA choice last season, gave up his senior year to enter a Christian seminary and because of injuries, it’s impossible to tell who will replace him.
Redshirt freshman Jonah Fitzgerald and Juco transfer Messiah deWeaver, a 4-star recruit out of high school who originally signed with Michigan State before transferring, are the only true healthy quarterbacks, and both have looked good during spring practice.
Stone Smartt, a juco transfer, has a broken left wrist. And although coaches have been impressed with his passing and running, he hasn’t done so in live practice. He likely will throw some Saturday, but only when the defensive line isn’t playing live football.
Steven Williams Jr., the starter in 2017 and backup last season, and freshman Hayden Wolff, a 3-star recruit who turned down an offer from Kentucky, have been sidelined after undergoing shoulder surgery. Both are expected back for summer practice.
“This reminds a lot of the 2016 season,” Wilder said, referring to the season that quarterback David Washington didn’t fully recover from an injury until just before ODU’s opener. He led ODU to 10 victories, including Bahamas Bowl win over Eastern Michigan.
Photo by Chuck Thomas
“It’s going to take time for us to figure out things at quarterback,” Wilder said. “But we’ve got good players there. We’ve got a lot of talent.”
Regardless, ODU’s style will change. LaRussa was an outstanding drop-back passer, but wasn’t overly mobile. Smartt and deWeaver “both move as well as we anticipated, which will allow us to run our system like we did when we had David Washington.”
ODU featured the run-pass option and quarterback runs in 2016, and will again in 2019, Wilder said.
“I call it 12-man football, because the defense has to cover the quarterback as both a thrower and a runner,” Wilder said.
ODU has plenty of depth at running back, with Kesean Strong, Lala Davis and Will Knight among the leaders. The question marks on offense are the offensive line, where Isaac Weaver is the only returning starter, and wide receiver, where the Monarchs have a lot of talent, but most of it inexperienced.
Expect ODU to become a run-oriented team this season, and that should help the defense, which got worn down last season because the offense was so poor in converting on third down.
Defensively, ODU has gone from a traditional 4-man line to a 3-4 defense that Blackwell used successfully at ECU, before injuries decimated the Pirates.
When Blackwell interviewed at ODU, he asked Wilder if he needed to provide a resume. Wilder replied that ODU’s 37-35 loss at ECU last season “was your resume.”
A week after putting up 49 points and rolling to more than 600 yards against a Bud Foster-coached Virginia Tech defense, the Monarchs were held to 273 yards by ECU, which sacked LaRussa nine times.
Two long interception returns set up ODU touchdowns.
“Our kids love the system that coach Blackwell has installed,” Wilder said. “It’s built around being aggressive and confusing the offense with disguises and looks.”
ODU is strong at linebacker, where Lawrence Garner and Jordan Young return. The defensive backfield has been replenished with Juco transfers. Much of the D-line graduated, but Wilder has made some moves to bolster the depth there, including moving tight end Keion White to defensive end.
ODU’s special teams, led by a pair of Floridians, could be among the league’s best. Placekicker Nick Rice, from St. Petersburg, Fla., made his last 11 field goals last season. Cate, from
ODU coach Bobby Wilder says he and his players are fired up about the new S.B. Ballard Stadium.
Orange Park, Fla., has averaged about 40 yards per punt the last two seasons.
ODU opens the new S.B. Ballard Stadium on Aug. 31 against Norfolk State and the Monarchs are using the new stadium as a recruiting tool. And why shouldn't they? When you move from an 82-year-old facility with a storied history, but poor fan amenities, into what is essentially a new facility, it's a big step up for your program.
While I can’t name anyone, because they haven’t signed, ODU has verbal commitments from good players, including a transfer from a Power 5 school who would be eligible next season. ODU is hunting for other graduate transfers as well.
Wilder says his current players often go out of their way to stroll past the stadium while walking to class.
(The best view, by the way, is from the top of the 49th Street parking garage).
“What has caught their eye is the height,” he said. “It’s so tall.”
“And the seats are going to be so close to the field. We know from experience when we’ve gone on the road how that can affect games.
“When you’re not used to that, it changes everything. To have the fans right on top of you is intimidating. And I can only imagine how much louder the stadium will be.
“I can’t wait to play there.”
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