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April 17, 2013

Monarch Blog

One of these days, Old Dominion's football team might actually play a real spring football game. The Monarchs might actually have enough of a roster on both sides of the ball to create a situation where a score might be in order. But I'm not counting on that happening anytime soon for three reasons.

                  The first reason: risk of injury.

                  The second reason: risk of injury.

                  The third reason: risk of injury.

OK, so I sound like a broken record (for those of you under the age of 30, that's what music was once recorded on, thus why they called it a record).

But honestly, I was there a few springs ago when wide receiver Marquel Thomas' elbow bent the wrong way. In the first series of that year's spring game, mind you. Injuries happen. Sometimes they happen in spring games, which is why football coach Bobby Wilder's three goals for Saturday sounded kind of like my list from above.

"We want to accomplish three things Saturday: play a game, put on a good show, and get out of there healthy," Wilder said.

Amen to that, brother.

That doesn't mean there's no reason to come out and watch Saturday as most of what should be the 2013 roster is paraded before its adoring Monarch faithful at 3 o'clock at Foreman Field. Make that S.B. Ballard Stadium at Foreman Field. Soon to be something longer and more complex when the football complex is added on to (hey, we all know that's the bit of news the fans really want, stadium expansion).

But I'm getting off subject. The three big reasons to watch Saturday's spring game/scrimmage/extended practice are No. 42, No. 18 and No. 90. Or, as fans will come to know them, middle linebacker D.J. Simon, cornerback Jevon Neal and defensive lineman Gary Scruggs.

Those are three of the mid-year additions to ODU's maligned defensive unit, a squad that needs to improve vastly as ODU steps up to the big time with this much-documented move from the Football Championship Subdivision ranks to the ranks of the bowl teams.

This past Saturday, the Monarchs scrimmaged at Foreman Field in front of about 100 people. Simon was all over the place, chasing quarterbacks left and right. Neal was playing a lock-down defense in the flats. And Scruggs, well, he fills a doorway and fills lanes up front. All told, the Monarchs had 13 sacks Saturday (although it was the touch kind because Wilder doesn't want to get his quarterbacks injured).

Simon, a junior college addition from Navarro College, caught the attention of the coaching staff early and often throughout the spring as ODU's defense attempts to play catch-up with quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the Monarchs' record-setting offense.

With middle linebacker Caleb Taylor sidelined with a surgically repaired meniscus in his knee, Simon got a lot of reps in practice, which was OK with Wilder, who strives to create a two-unit defensive approach to the Monarchs' game.

"Taking a page out of Oregon's game plan, if your offense is going to be as explosive as ours can be, you need two defensive units to keep up," Wilder said. "We need at least two sets of linebackers ready to go to achieve that."

Right now, that two-set would be Simon and Taylor at middle linebacker, Larry Alston and John Darr and Robert Mahan at the other.

The defensive unit has been everybody's focus since the season ended and Wilder began to shake the foundations of his staff. Exits were made by Keita Malloy and Rich Nagy as defensive coordinator and secondary coach and Jeff Comissiong as the new defensive line coach, yet another reason for the curious to show up Saturday and watch.

The additions of Simon, Neal and Scruggs signals a resurgence in junior college recruiting by the Monarchs, something Wilder and company moved away from but will likely return to in the next couple of years. The reason is simple: Wilder has 22 more scholarships to mine the ranks with.

"Our January of 2009 crop that included Thomas DeMarco was pretty good," Wilder said. "California has 75 junior colleges and the players we've brought here from California have been hungry players who were willing to travel 3,000 miles for the opportunity to prove themselves. Junior college kids are usually late bloomers, whether that's socially, academically or with football.

"I think this class can be as impactful as that 2009 January bunch."

Wilder believes Nagy and Commisiong will bring a talent for evaluating talent. And the last couple of recruiting classes have been a case of hit or miss for the Monarchs. There certainly have been hits, like the Payton Award winner the Monarchs landed with Heinicke. But there have no doubt been some misses.

Sidenote: After a substandard Saturday, Heinicke did what he always seems to do and bounced back Monday by completing 22 of 26 passes in practice during controlled scrimmage situations.

So on Saturday there will be an event at Foreman Field. Uniforms will be worn. Tackles will be made. At least some tackles will be made.

But if you are looking for a spring game, you may have to look elsewhere. And nothing indicates that like the approach Wilder will be asking of his offensive linemen.

"We have nine offensive linemen available for Saturday," Wilder said. "They will be asked to play for both squads. I've asked them to be Switzerland."

Ah, Switzerland, the most neutral country there is. Switzerland doesn't pick sides.

So what will we have once Saturday's spring game or whatever it is ends? We'll have 133 days until ODU gets it on with East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

And there won't be any Switzerland involved when that day arrives.


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