By Harry Minium
NORFOLK, Va. – Head coach Ricky Rahne wasn’t satisfied with everything he saw in Old Dominion’s annual spring game.
There were some passes dropped, missed blocks and a few missed tackles. But compared to last year’s spring game, in which the Monarchs were coming off a 2020 season in which they did not play because of the pandemic, ODU is in far better shape.
Last year the Monarchs were searching for a quarterback, and to fill a ton of holes on both offense and defense. And while there are roles to fill this year, there are far fewer.
ODU is coming off its best season in five years. The Monarchs won their final five games of the regular season to claim their first bowl bid since 2016. And 19 starters return.
Rahne held a dozen or so of the 44 players on his two-deep depth chart out largely because they were dealing some nagging injuries.
The Priority Charity Bowl ODU Spring Game was in essence ODU’s 15th practice of the spring, but unlike last year, when the fans were treated to more drills than actual scrimmaging, the Monarch offense and defense went toe to toe for an hour and 45 minutes in front of an S.B. Ballard Stadium crowd of about 2,000 fans.
“We wanted to be better the 15th practice they we were on the first and we were,” Rahne said. “The best thing about a spring game is that you’re able to see guys perform under a little bit more pressure.
“We had a good spring. We stayed relatively healthy. We held out some of our players today and I thought we had some guys step up and take advantage of that opportunity.
“We’re headed in the right direction. But we’ve still got a long way to go.”
ODU joins the Sun Belt Conference next season and will play its most difficult schedule ever, beginning with the home opener against Virginia Tech on Friday, Sept. 2.
Quarterback Hayden Wolff, who started last season, is for now, at least, running with the first team, but did not play after having some minor surgery earlier in the week. He will be recovered well before fall practice begins, Rahne said.
In his absence, the three candidates to start all played well. Although statistics were not kept, D.J. Mack Jr., the transfer from Central Florida who started the first half of last season, has improved since last season.
Brendon Clark, the transfer from Notre Dame, and a former 4-star quarterback at Manchester High School just outside of Richmond, led the offense on a touchdown drive and looked more comfortable with the offense than he did a month ago.
Redshirt sophomore Reese Poffenbarger also played well. Although he’s the least experienced of the quarterbacks, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said he has impressed with his throwing arm.
Clark played two seasons at Notre Dame, in which he played sparingly. He was No. 2 on the depth chart in 2020 but after he began having knee issues, which resulted him having surgery in December of 2020, he was relegated to the scout team. He announced he would transfer during the 2021 season.
“I thought he got better throughout the spring,” Rahne said of Clark. “You know, he hasn’t played football in a long time.
“You could see his movement start to get better every day.
“In general, I was happy with the quarterbacks. I just didn’t think we were consistent enough day to day. I think we’ve got to be a little more consistent.”
R’Tarriun Johnson, a redshirt senior safety, said the team made progress.
“You don’t go live every day at practice so today was good for us,” he said. “We’ve got a competitive defense. Everyone was flying around today and having fun.
“I think we grew. I think we took a step forward as a whole, not just on defense but on offense and as a team.”
Zack Kuntz, who was second nationally among tight ends in receiving last season, was asked about the traffic jam of players competing to start at quarterback.
“It’s a great problem to have when you have multiple guys slinging the rock well,” he said. “We trust the coaches. That’s why they make the big bucks to make those decisions.”
He said there were some “growing pains” this spring as the players adjusted to a new offensive coordinator.
“We had to get used to how our now OC calls things,” he said. “We had different quarterbacks throwing the ball.
“We had to make adjustments and that’s what you do in the spring.”
Partying with the Bacon Brothers Band
Shortly after the game ended, several hundred Charity Bowl sponsors gathered for a party in the Priority Automotive Club to eat, drink and listen to the Bacon Brothers Band.
Actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, Michael, head the Bacon Brothers Band.
Dennis Ellmer, president and CEO of Priority Automotive, brings in a major entertainer each year to party with the donors to the Charity Bowl. All proceeds raised by Ellmer will go to 45 area charities and all of them focus on children.
Ellmer raised nearly $800,000 last year and hopes to raise $1 million this year.
Rahne made the rounds for half an hour or so, shaking hands and thanking people for their support. So did ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D, who attended with Dr. Marisela Rosas Hemphill, ODU’s First Lady, and the couple’s twins, Catalina and Cruz.
“Selfishly, this is a great event for ODU to have on campus,” Athletic Director Wood Selig said. “And it’s terrific for the community in general.
“You’ve got so many worthy charities. It just speaks to the persistence of Dennis Ellmer He’s not going to take no from anyone. He’s going to give back to the community that he grew up in and in which he’s been so successful.”
Selig added with a smile: “And he’s gotten so many business leaders together to put on a first-class event here in his Priority Automotive Club.”
Ellmer donated $1.5 million in 2019 to have the club named for his business.
A Hokie was in the house
Former Virginia Tech standout Aaron Rouse, who now serves on the Virginia Beach City Council, attended the game with his wife, Jennifer, and both said they were pleased with what they saw.
They were invited to the game by tight ends coach Justin Harper, with whom Rouse played at Tech. Rouse also knows Rahne well and the two exchanged a bear hug just before kickoff.
“ODU is our home team,” Rouse said. “This is our hometown team and we’re going to support them until they play my Hokies.”
“It’s ‘Go Monarchs’ until they play the Hokies,'” Jennifer added.
ODU opens at home against Virginia Tech on Friday, Sept. 2. It will mark the coaching debut of Tech head coach Brent Pry, who was defensive coordinator at Penn State and is close with Rahne.
ODU is 1-2 against Tech. The Monarchs upset the nationally ranked Hokies, 49-35, in 2018 in old Foreman Field.
“I think it’s great that they are playing the Hokies here,” he said. “It’s good for the entire region and it’s a great look for both programs.
“We just want to make sure we win this year.”
Aaron Rouse is running for State Senate in District 22 in Virginia Beach in November while Jennifer is seeking a seat on the Beach City Council.
Former players returned for spring game
Zach Pascal, the former ODU wide receiver, was among dozens of former players who returned for the spring game. Oshane Ximines, the defensive end for the New York Giants; former wide receiver Jonathan Duhart, former placekicker Jarod Brown and former punter Jonathan Plisco were among former players on hand.
“When I was playing here, the stadium definitely didn’t look like this,” said Pascal, who recently left the Indianapolis Colts to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent.
He said Rahne and his staff have stayed connected with former players.
“They’ve been really good,” he said. “From the moment they joined ODU they reached out. They always reach out. I always talk to them and send them words of encouragement, they send me words of encouragement.”
Pascal was a fan favorite in Indy not only because he’s a blue-collar player who overachieves, but also because of his frequent interaction with fans.
He spends a lot of time in schools and before each home game, played catch with fans in the stands.
“The hardest part was leaving my teammates,” he said. “I created a bond at ODU and I created a bond in Indianapolis. Fans have been all over social media. They allowed me to understand that there’s more to football than just playing football. It’s being able to give someone the experience of a lifetime.”
Speaking of experiences of a lifetime, he had one on Monday when his first child was born, a daughter. He Tweeted about the first time he changed the diaper, and for a guy with sure hands, he had a bit of a fumble.
As he took off his daughter’s diaper, she urinated all over his hands.
“It was my first time changing her I didn’t expect that,” he said. When told it happens to everybody, he replied: “But nobody told me. Nobody warned me. It was a shocker.
“I’m looking at my hand like ‘Oh my God.’ And her Mom was like ‘change the diaper, change the diaper.'”