ODU Athletics

Minium: Bobby Wilder Talks Frankly About Fan Criticism, Play Calling and ODU's Offensive Woes

October 07, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Old Dominion football coach Bobby Wilder hears the noise. Some fans are frustrated because of ODU's 1-4 record, and are aiming that frustration toward Wilder.

Even when he led ODU to 11 victories in the Football Championship Subdivision in 2011, or when the Monarchs won the 2016 Bahamas Bowl, Wilder said someone was always telling him what he was doing wrong and when he wasn't doing something right.

"It's all part of the business," he said.

The noise is much louder this season than ever, but Wilder says all he's listening to are his friends and ODU supporters, his family, his team and University officials.

And the two ODU officials most important to Wilder gave him messages of support and encouragement following a 20-3 loss to Western Kentucky Saturday night.

President John R. Broderick texted Wilder immediately after the game and athletic director Wood Selig met him outside the locker room and gave him a 5-minute pep talk.

"Wood grabbed me right after I spoke to the team," he said. "And I admit I was down because we just lost a game at home.

"He said, "you're doing the right things. Keep focused on developing this young team and what you're doing," Wilder said, who added that President Broderick's text had largely the same message.

Coach Bobby Wilder says he's trying to transform ODU into a team led by its defense.

"I talked to them in detail after I made changes after last season. I explained to them that we're going to go with a youth movement. There are going to be some challenges with it and they understood and were supportive.

"Obviously, they want better results. I don't blame them. I want better results. That's what we're working on trying to do."

Wilder said many friends and athletic boosters have sent him direct messages and text messages and made phone calls.

"So many have told me to hang in there. We know what you're trying to do. We understand there are injuries. We believe in what you're doing and that this is going to be a good team."

After Saturday's loss, he told his team that "when times are tough, you've got to stick with your circle of friends and teammates.

"Well mine is this team, the program the athletic director and President and my family. That's who you've got to stick with. That's who you listen to."

After Wilder's weekly press conference, he sat down with yours truly and Virginian-Pilot reporter Ed Miller. And to his credit, answered difficult questions about his team.

Some background first: For his first 10 seasons, Wilder ran an aggressive, spread offense focused on passing first. The young team Wilder has this season doesn't have the explosive offense talent to do that. That didn't completely dictate what Wilder wanted to do -- he went to an offense that runs the ball first and relies on play-action to help develop his defense.

You might recall that ODU's defense has traditionally struggled.

The philosophy seemed to work in ODU's games at Virginia Tech and Virginia, where the Monarchs were competitive in the fourth quarter. It hasn't worked since, and that's in part because of key injuries -- offensive lineman Nick Saldiveri and wide receiver Eric Kumah haven't played the last two games. And while running back LaLa Davis and wide receiver Jake Herslow played sparingly against WKU, they are fall from full strength.

He had a lengthy answer when he was asked if he's happy with his play-calling.

ODU running back LaLa Davis is one of four key offensive players who've missed games because of injuries. 

"The way we're calling the game right now is different than how we've done it in the past," he said. "What our followers are used to is that hair on fire philosophy where the ball is in the air 50 times and every third down is a throw.

"We're making a transformation as a program to improve our ability to play defense. I'll give you a for-instance. Against Virginia Tech last season there were 220 plays. Against Western Kentucky last weekend, there were 155 plays. The less that you're on the field the fresher your kids are and the better they're going to perform. We're trying to build a program that's led by our defense."

So far, the defense is clearly leading. ODU's D ranks second in Conference USA rushing defense and third in overall defense. Linebacker Lawrence Garner is second in tackling with 9.4 per game and tackle Juwan Ross is third with 7.5 tackles for a loss.

Conversely, ODU is in the second division when it comes to offensive stats.

"Some of the calls that people get frustrated with are when it's third down and 15 and they ask, "why aren't you throwing the ball?'

"The answer is we're trying to play field position. We're trying to play smart. When it was third and 11 against U.Va., we hit a draw play for 14 yards. In our first drive against East Carolina, we got a quarterback counter for 26 yards. It's not as if we're trying not to get the first down; it's that we're trying to be smart.

"Would we be more aggressive on third down if we had those guys we think can become play makers developed right now? Absolutely. If Eric Kumah is out there and healthy, and it's third and 10, we're trying to get him the ball. Right now we have yet to develop a play maker.

"We're calling the game the way we need it called to develop this offense. With so many key guys out, we've got to be smart."

Wilder said he's challenged his offensive players this week by telling them that who starts, and who plays, will be determined by how they practice this week. If you practice hard and are productive. If you don't, you sit the bench.

Wilder said it's not one position that's the problem on offense. It's every position.

"There's not one thing out there where you look at it and say, 'that's it.' It's all 11 guys on the field."

Wilder had a meeting Monday morning with his leadership council, which includes the team's 13 seniors, Garner and offensive lineman Isaac Weaver. 

Wilder threw the conversation open to the players and said please be honest. Tell me, he said, what you want to do.

They could have asked for major changes to the offense. There could have been finger pointing. There could have been discord.

But there wasn't.

"I've never had a team in the 32 years I've coached who said some of the things those kids said this morning. They didn't ask for any changes except that we want to practice harder. The defensive kids said they want to practice more against the offense because, they said, 'we want to help those guys get better.'

"I said that we'll make changes to the practice schedule so we'll get them more head-to-head time.

"I was so glad to hear that. That was really encouraging, because I'm a human being and I've got feelings.

"And all I want," he added "is for this team to get better and win football games."

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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