Proud as he was of his team's accomplishments last season, Old Dominion football coach Bobby Wilder periodically reminded his players this winter that the program finished second — twice.
"We finished second in the league, and we finished second to Georgia Southern," Wilder said, referring to the Monarchs' Football Championship Subdivision playoff loss. "We haven't won anything yet. We don't have any rings on our fingers. We don't have any championship banners. That's the ultimate goal."
The Monarchs head into spring practice heavily validated and motivated after continuing their run as the most successful start-up in the history of FCS football.
ODU finished 10-3 and runner-up to Towson as Colonial Athletic Association champ. The Monarchs advanced a round in the playoffs in just their third year of competition and first year as a competing member in what's widely considered the nation's best FCS conference, top to bottom.
"Last year did two things for us," Wilder said Friday on the eve of the start of spring drills. "Number one, it gave everybody in our program a new level of confidence. Everybody realized we can be successful. The second thing it did was it made everybody even more hungry."
Wilder said that the team's offseason conditioning performance was the best he had witnessed in his 24 years as a coach.
The priorities this spring, he said, are fundamentals, overall defensive improvement, the running game and specific areas of special teams.
Start with defense, where Wilder himself made the biggest offseason change. In the days after the season, he replaced defensive coordinator Andy Rondeau with Bill Dee and shook up the defensive staff. Dee, the longtime Phoebus High coach, had been working with the offensive line. The emphasis this spring will be tackling and pursuit.
"We weren't the type of tackling football team we needed to be or wanted to be," Wilder said. "We're going to work on getting as many helmets as we can to the football."
The Monarchs figure to use a four-linemen scheme and two safeties most of the time. In terms of personnel, they will move all-conference outside linebacker Craig Wilkins to middle linebacker, to get him closer to the snap and to roam sideline to sideline. They also will move linebacker Alex Arain to a stand-up defensive end, to take advantage of his quickness and ability to get into backfields.
The offense is in good hands, with rising sophomore quarterback Taylor Heinicke. He had an astonishing freshman season, coming in at mid-year and completing 69 percent of his passes for 2,385 yards and 25 touchdowns, with one interception. Most of his receiving corps returns, led by Nick Mayers, Reid Evans and Larry Pinkard.
Though ODU averaged a respectable 168.2 yards per game rushing and 4.5 yards per carry last season, Wilder said the running game was inconsistent. Part of that was due to injury, since at various times all four of the Monarchs' primary backs were hurt.
Angus Harper, Colby Goodwyn and Tyree Lee all figure to be in the running back mix come fall. Mario Crawford, the presumptive starter who suffered a neck injury during preseason and was shelved for the entire season, will no longer play due to health concerns.
Wilder's other spring priority is special teams. Both kickers, Jarod Brown and All-American punter Jonathan Plisco, return, and the Monarchs earned a reputation for blocking kicks and for any and all manner of trick plays. But Wilder said those units' effectiveness in some areas masked deficiencies in punt and kick coverage and kick returns.
"Everybody talked about how good we were on special teams," he said, "but the truth is we were not a very good cover team."
Wilder also is encouraged by the Monarchs' experience, as well as the depth. Forty-seven players with experience return, 37 of which are third- and fourth-year players. The staff also redshirted 20 players last season.
"They've got that shot of life," Wilder said. "Instead of just practicing, they're competing to play."
Wilder and the staff have not hesitated to play underclassmen if they demonstrate the ability. Given that the Monarchs have recruited a better caliber of athlete in the past couple of classes, don't be surprised if redshirt freshmen, or even a sprinkling of true freshmen, find their way onto the field.
The Monarchs named Wilkins, Heinicke and defensive tackle Chris Burnette as permanent captains for next season. The spring game will be held April 21 at Foreman Field.