“I like our defense, I think that’s the strength of our team right now," Villanova football head coach Andy Talley projected.
Villanova returns 10 starters from last season's defense, with the only loss being cornerback James Pitts. Junior Craig James (not related to the ESPN personality and Texas senate candidate) (EDITOR'S NOTE: THANK GOD!) will slide over to line up against the number-one receiver, while Eric Loper -- who had moved to safety last season -- will move back to corner this fall.
Ronnie Akins will again start at free safety, while Joe Sarnese will return from an injury suffered last season to play strong safety. That leaves the weak-side safety position up to either Matt McCann or Jerry Miles, neither of whom really played last season. The Wildcats also added a few other young defensive backs as well. Marc Mauro, who transferred prior to Spring practices from a junior college on Long Island, does not appear to be listed on the Fall roster.
If the younger players struggled, Mauro could have offered the Wildcats a more-experienced option in the secondary.
The team will be without Mikey Mayock for at least a while, as the senior DB had ACL surgery as preseason practices were getting under way.
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“Where our strength probably is is in our defensive line," Coach Talley explained. That strength should make things easier for the secondary to operate.
All three starters return up front with Rakim Cox and Marlon Johnson at the ends and Antoine Lewis in the middle. Keelan Malone also emerged last season as a pass-rush specialist, and will return to that role again this season. Moreso than in previous seasons, however, the Wildcats will be deeper this season.
“Pat Williams is a guy who is really going to help us a lot inside," the coach said. "Pat is 300-pounds right now."
Another option for the 'Cats on D-line will be Jordan Hunter, who played a little bit last season as a freshman. Talley believes that both he and Williams can make plays and strengthen the line.
"We can even move Antoine [Lewis] outside if those guys can come through for us inside."
Another addition to the defensive line depth is a familiar name for some. Brennan Erbeznik, who is also known as the producer/director of some videos recently, was playing tight end for the Wildcats previously. He lost significant ground on the depth chart with the arrival of Earnest Pettway and Morgan Craig last season and the coaching staff decided to move him over to defense -- and apparently the move was a smart one.
“We moved Brennan Erbeznik over from tight end to defensive end and [he] was the most improved player on defense for us this year and he’s been a tight end since he’s been here. He had a phenomenal spring. He almost took the starting job away, so he’ll be on the field.
"We have two years with him, so if he can play, he’s one of those guys who is on the rise."
Another area where the 'Cats added significant depth is at linebacker. With all three starters slated to return, Talley added four more linebackers in his 2012 recruiting class, and all of them can potentially contribute this season.
“I like our linebacker corp that we have now, but we certainly weren't deep there, so you’re going to see those [freshmen] on the field," explained Talley. "Corey [Majors] is the headliner, but Donny Cherry from Trumbull, Connecticut had a spectacular summer with us -- he was head-and-shoulders above everybody running and lifting.
Unlike last season's CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year, Dillon Lucas, who played as an undersized freshman, all of the new recruits have plenty of size for the college ranks.
“Austin Calitro and T.J. White . . . these kids are all legitimately 230, there are not any of them who are less than that at 230-235. Corey is struggling with his weight right now, he’s right up around 245 and we’re trying to get him down a little bit, but if he can play at 245 and run and do the things we want him to do then he can stay there.
"He’s not fat in any sense of the imagination."
None of them are expected to take a starting job away in preseason, however. The starting line-up of Lucas, Joey Harmon, and Devon Bridges is pretty much locked down, but that's not to say there aren't any changes. Lucas played injured and under-sized last season, but won't be either at the start of this one. He had shoulder surgery for a labrum tear during the offseason and is now 100% healthy.
"He now looks like a college player," Talley commented on Lucas' weight gain. "He was awesome last year at 205 pounds and he got knocked around a bit, but he’s not going to get knocked around anymore."
"That one year of weight training has helped all of them -- we’re starting to look like the old Villanova football teams again, instead of a lot of undersized, pencil-necked kids.”
Though the starting defense will look a lot like it did last season, Talley expects his defensive unit to perform better.
“We weren’t that bad defensively last year, we just offensively put them in a bind a lot, but I think this group right now lines up real well with a lot of talent."
“In this league if you can hold people under 20 points, you have a chance to win," Talley said. "I think this is a defense that is 20 points or better, but in this league people are going to score on you for sure."
While Villanova will look to hold opponents under 20 points, they will also be hoping that some longer offensive series will give the defense a chance to rest and put some points on the board as well. Last season, the offensive struggles often put the defense in tough yardage situations or kept them on the field longer than they needed to be.
In other words, sometimes, the best defense is a good offense.
|Rakim Cox||Antoine Lewis||Marlon Johnson|
|Devon Bridges||Joey Harmon||Dillon Lucas|
|Craig James||McCann/Miles||Ronnie Akins||Joe Sarnese||Eric Loper|
|Mark Hamilton||Chris Gough||Mark Hamilton|
Please also check out our preview on the OFFENSIVE side of the team.