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QB DeMarco the linchpin of ODU's first top-level season in CAA
Of the two largest things Old Dominion quarterback Thomas DeMarco possesses, only one is immediately apparent: his oversized feet. The other has far greater value.
“I definitely play with a chip on my shoulder,” DeMarco said, “because I want to prove that I can play at this level. It doesn’t matter how short I am.”
DeMarco enters his third season as the unlikely starter for the Monarchs, who play their first full season of Colonial Athletic Association competition.
“I feel very strongly that he is, potentially, one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said. “If we’re going to win this year, he has to be an All-CAA player.
“If you look up at the end of the year and we’re 5-6 or 4-7, there’s a good chance DeMarco didn’t play well, that he didn’t have a good season. If you look up and he’s an all-conference guy and throwing for a high number every game, then I think we can compete with the best teams in this league.”
DeMarco, a robust 5-foot-9 3/4 and 200 pounds, helped the Monarchs become the most successful start-up football program in NCAA history. ODU finished 8-3 last year after a 9-2 inaugural season, albeit against schedules tailored for a favorable jump-start.
There are no such breaks this season, not with a schedule that runs 11 consecutive weeks and concludes with a gauntlet of Villanova, James Madison, Richmond and William and Mary.
“I’m excited,” DeMarco said Friday at ODU’s media day. “It’s deemed as one of the best conferences in Division I-AA. When you watch film, you can certainly see that. A lot of good players. Guys are aggressive. You see some ‘Oooooh’ hits every time you watch film.”
The Monarchs are respectful, though hardly intimidated. They hear outside chatter of what they shouldn’t be able to accomplish, much like their quarterback has heard for most of his playing career.
“People ask all the time: How do you do it? You’re not 6-4 or 6-5,” said DeMarco, a native of Palm Desert, Calif. “There’s a lot of quarterbacks in the (NFL) who are 6-1 or 6-2, and there are linemen that are 6-8. I’m not very good at math, but that’s a lot shorter. How do they do it? They find a way.
“Drew Brees has a (Super Bowl) ring and a lot of 6-4 and 6-5 quarterbacks don’t. He found a way. I’m just glad Coach Wilder said, I don’t care if you’re short, as long as you can play.”
Early indications were that DeMarco would not be a short quarterback. In fifth grade, he wore a size-12 shoe. By eighth grade, he was 5-8 and 155 pounds, with size-15 feet that in retrospect were nothing more than a tease.
“I kept waiting for that growth spurt where I’d add six inches in one year,” he said with a chuckle. “Never happened. Just my feet.”
DeMarco isn’t particularly fast. He possesses a decent arm, not to mention a sturdy handshake. He compensates with heart, effort, strength and study.
“He knows that people see this 5-9 guy who shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing, but he kind of sees that in himself, too,” said wide receiver Prentice Gill, who is also his roommate. “He knows he’s not that fast, but he mostly runs north and south, and not east and west, which makes him seem a little faster than he is.”
DeMarco’s serendipitous journey to Old Dominion came about because the Monarchs were scouring the California junior college system in order to balance their early recruiting classes.
They needed a punter, which DeMarco was as well, but he informed them that he also played quarterback. Because of his size, he attracted zero attention from Bowl Subdivision programs. California has few FCS programs, which also exhibited little interest.
DeMarco played one year at College of the Desert, which ran a similar offense to ODU’s spread, and provided enough proof for Wilder to offer a scholarship. A chance to play quarterback at the Division I level was all that DeMarco asked.
DeMarco’s coming out party occurred Sept. 19, 2009, when he led a 92-yard drive for the winning touchdown in a 28-27 upset at Jacksonville.
“That’s when he established himself as the starter,” Wilder said, “and that’s when it became clear to us that he could win football games. The players believed in him. That’s when they thought he was special as a quarterback.”
DeMarco has thrown for 4,677 yards and 44 touchdowns in two seasons, with a 56-percent completion rate. He has rushed for another 1,315 yards.
Along with that production, however, has come punishment. He was knocked out in the season finale a year ago and was beaten up by the end of the year.
The focus this preseason is on reducing the number of hits he absorbs and distributing the ball to the Monarchs’ wealth of skill position players.
“I’ve told him that the reckless style with which he occasionally played the past couple of years won’t be tolerated by the coaches or by the linebackers in our league,” Wilder said. “Jake Trantin and Dante Cook up the road at William and Mary won’t tolerate that, and they’ll let him know it.
“He needs to play smart and understand that if he takes chances and gets hurt, he ultimately hurts the team.”
DeMarco is smart enough to realize that. A young man focused enough to be pushing toward his MBA understands gains and losses, risk and reward.
“I’m going to play the way I’ve always played,” he said wryly, “but I’m probably not going to get 30 carries a game. I’ll do whatever the coaches want me to do.”
As long as the chip doesn’t obscure DeMarco’s vision, he and the Monarchs might be fine.
By Dave Fairbank, Newport News, Va., Daily Press