Few things can speed up a rebuilding effort like a good quarterback, which is where Old Dominion has been lucky. When Taylor Heinicke took over as the starter as a true freshman in 2011, the Monarchs were in the midst of just their third full season since the program had been re-established.
Heinicke finished that season with 25 touchdown passes and only one interception (a Russell Wilson-esque debut, in that regard), taking ODU to the second round of the FCS playoffs in the process. The following season, ODU reached the quarterfinals in the playoffs, finishing in the top five in both the AP and Coaches polls.
He accounted for 55 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign--even led the team with 11 rushing scores--and threw for more than 5,000 yards. That was good enough to earn him the Walter Payton Award, which is given each year to the best offensive player in the FCS.
The team wasn't as successful in 2013, slipping to 8-4 after a couple of double-digit win seasons; they were also shot into the sun by UNC, which was a regrettable outcome for everyone involved. Still Heinicke put up big numbers, throwing for more than 4,000 yards on the season, with 33 TD passes against eight interceptions. He completed a career-best 70% of his throws and averaged a solid 8.3 yards per attempt.
With nearly three full seasons of video game-lookin' numbers already in his pocket, he is approaching an elite level in the record books. Already he is 26th all-time in passing yardage, a few spots behind Tajh Boyd and Byron Leftwich, but he'll pass those guys this weekend, barring injury. He is sixteenth in passing touchdowns with 105, four scores and two spots behind Russell Wilson.
Making the FBS jump is never an easy thing, but Old Dominion has an accomplished veteran quarterback leading the way, which is a hell of a bonus. In that sense, the Monarchs timed this transition about as well as anybody could. They should have success against their new Conference USA foes.
Last season did raise some questions about how good the Monarchs can be against power-conference teams, though. They played three games against ACC schools--Maryland, Pittsburgh, UNC--and lost all of them by at least two scores. (And again, UNC shot them into the sun.) Heinicke was no better than mediocre in any of those three games; he threw three interceptions against the Terps, needed 52 attempts to crack 300 yards against Pitt, and completed only 14 of 31 attempts on his way to the sun and horrific football death.
Not exactly a group of world-beating defenses there, but they all managed to make Heinicke and the otherwise prolific ODU offense look average. That's the FCS-to-FBS struggle, or rather, a bunch of tiny struggles adding up to a sorry passing line and equally poor offensive output.
Old Dominion is likely to avoid a horrifying football death this weekend--I foresee a somewhat annoying football death--but Heinicke and the Monarchs still have a lot to get settled as they begin a run through teams that are generally going to be a little bigger, a little faster. Heinicke's production will in a lot of ways be an indicator of how well and how quickly they adapt.
Maybe they're a little ahead of schedule, or maybe the transition is going slower then they'd like. We'll know on Saturday night.