Brian and Chris took some time out of their weekend to discuss what to expect from Villanova football in 2013.
CHRIS: I'm sure you saw my initial post where I talked about how I would rate the vaunted Villanova rushing attack if I were to create them in EA Sports 14. What did you think about my ratings? What would you have done differently and would you include any other players in that 3-headed monster?
BRIAN: I can definitely see a couple different guys getting carries wedged into the mix. At the very least, I would have included Jamal Abdur-Rahman, who is likely to split time between slot receiver and running back like he did as a freshman. He has good speed and break tackle ability that makes him a home-run threat every time he gets the ball. Nova uses him like they used to use Matt Szczur, where he spent time in the backfield as well as lined up at receiver -- of course, Szczur also got snaps at QB, which won't be likely for Jamal.
I also think you may have underestimated John Robertson's speed. He's probably at least as fast as Austin Medley is, which is absolutely blazing-fast for a quarterback at any level. When Robertson gets on the move, he's usually going to break off a huge play if he gets through the first level of defense.
An offensive line that can buy Robertson some time in the pocket and push defenders around to create holes for the running game is going to be key for Villanova this fall. They've got a big and experienced group coming back, how do you think they will compare to some of the better lines in FCS and Division I generally?
CHRIS: Abdur-Rahman definitely came to mind, but I only saw 1-2 games during his freshman season and didn't have a good feel for his skillset, other than speed and shiftiness. As for the line, two things jump out at me. Both coming off a good season, either Kyle Wallace or Ross Hall is getting bumped to the second unit because of the return of All-American Dan Shirey, which speaks to the quality of depth at Andy Tallye's disposal. Second, any coach in the country would be thrilled of a line coming back that consists of 3 seniors and 2 juniors. And among them, they've all got at least one full season as a starter, so there's a ton of game experience as well.
The right side of the line, including Shirey at center, is massive. You could put Shirey, Bucci and Kowalski out there and it looks like a trio of FBS linemen. The left side, as with most lines, is a little on the lighter side and I'll be interested to see how Ross Hall handles the transition from center to guard since he'll now be relied on for more one-on-one responsibility than last season, but I love the makeup of the line and it should create huge holes for the running game.
We all know Robertson can run, but what do you expect from the passing game this season with the departure of Norman White?
BRIAN: Last season's passing game was anemic to say the least, but it wasn't really a focus for a team that was still working in a freshman quarterback, and where the offensive line didn't seem to be able to buy Robertson a ton of time to go through his reads. The coaching staff put a premium on the running game in that system and simplified the passing game for Robertson -- but that won't necessarily be the case this season.
On the plus side, I think the receiver corps are built to benefit Robertson this season. He'll have a lot of height on the outside with Joe Price, Clay Horne and Mike Burke all checking in over 6-2, and they've got some reliable hands as well. Inside, he'll have a tall and athletic Earnest Pettway at TE and Abdur-Rahman in the slot as well. I don't want to predict huge passing numbers, since it will likely remain a run-first team, but when they go to the air, it should be a pretty reliable option.
We know the Villanova offense returns almost everyone this season, so expectations are high, but what about the defense? Will they have enough firepower to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone?
CHRIS: The front 6 should be the strength of the team. Antoine Lewis is on the Buck Buchanan watch list for the nation's best defensive player, and I think the emergence of Pat Williams allowing him to play more on the edges this season should really help the run defense as that is 3 big players on the line.
The linebackers should be a strength as well with Dillon Lucas and Joey Harmon returning on the outside, and I expect big things from Corey Majors, who has big shoes to fill with the graduation of Devon Bridges. I think Majors has the talent to get it done and having a talented defensive line in front of him should be a huge boost.
The secondary seems to be a bit more of an unknown heading into the season, what's your take?
BRIAN: Joe Sarnese and Craig James at safety and corner, respectively, are two budding stars for Villanova in the secondary, but losing a playmaker like Ronnie Akins will definitely hurt, and there is a serious question about who will nail down the other cornerback spot. Definitely worrisome, but the 'Cats play in a league where the best offenses seem to run well, so getting back to run-stopping is probably the key, and the secondary will be able to hang back in zone coverages pretty often.
That takes at least some pressure off of the secondary, where nobody is necessarily going to have to put their man on an island all game. My guess is that the secondary will be schemed up to ensure that they don't give up the big plays, but they'll bend enough to allow some short passes. When Villanova faces teams with more potent passing attacks, expect to see the defense give up yardage. If they play that scheme right, they'll face their share of red zone situations, but maybe get enough stops to keep opponent scores down.
Which players are absolutely necessary for Villanova to succeed this fall?
CHRIS: It goes without saying really, but John Robertson is the key on offense. We saw how poorly the Chris Polony experiment was, and if (God forbid) Robertson gets hurt, we're back to square one. The other thing nobody seems to be talking about - what if Robertson regresses? Seems like he can only get better, but last year was pretty spectacular and he didn't have any truly bad performances, which is very rare for a freshman QB.
On defense, I'm going back to Corey Majors. I have complete confidence in the defensive line, but I'd like to see Villanova with a playmaking LB. Majors had FBS offers coming out of high school and is capable of being a dominant force at this level. If he plays up to his talent level, the Villanova defense should have a stellar season.
Your thoughts on the schedule? That William & Mary through James Madison stretch looks brutal.
BRIAN: I feel like there is at least one brutal stretch of three games or more every season, so as tough as it may be, the brass ring isn't ever out-of-reach. Fordham is going to put up a fight in week two and Penn always throws the kitchen sink at Nova, so it really won't be easy, but those two are expected wins as are Maine at home and at Rhode Island.
Stony Brook lost Maysonette, but they're the kind of program that is reloading from the transfer market every season, and that makes them the tough early test for Nova. That William & Mary to JMU stretch is going to be one that gives the 'Cats a big challenge, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with it, especially the three away games at Towson, UNH and JMU, and all have been pretty tough venues to play at. Villanova struggled last year with Towson's big offensive line and JMU is always a contender.
What does Villanova absolutely need to do better than last year to be a contender?
CHRIS: We're talking national title contenders, I hope! Coming off a CAA title and bringing a lot of people back, I'd only like to see a couple of things fine-tuned. First, the run defense has to improve. 'Nova was gashed a couple of games last season, most notably Stony Brook and Towson as you pointed out. Championship teams at any level typically stifle the run pretty well. I think the team is well positioned to do just that with some of the changes on defense, but we won't know until the actual games begin. BC should be a good early indication even though they're FBS.
I'd also like to see a more consistent passing game develop. The run is the bread and butter, and should be, but the 2009 team that won it all was able to do both and it helped keep defenses off balance. Now, if we're running for 300 yards a game, we're probably winning, but there are going to be times when we can't lean on Monangai/Robertson on the ground and we'll need to air it out. That was an issue last year for Robertson.
What's your gut feeling on the 'Cats this year? Any titles? Any big individual honors?
BRIAN: Barring injuries, I'd have to think that this Villanova team should be right back in the mix for a CAA title again. They have a tough schedule ahead, but so does everyone else, so as long as they can keep up with the other top schools, it should be attainable. The Sports Network projected Villanova as the CAA's only top-10 FCS team preseason (though Towson is close behind) and they picked Villanova to win the league. I do think that some schools like Richmond and Stony Brook are potentially being underrated, but the overall consensus is that Nova will be very good and if the stars align, I could see they jetting off to Frisco in January, but a good playoff run seems a likely goal.
Last season, we saw John Robertson burst onto the scene, do you have any predictions for a breakout player this season?
CHRIS: Hopefully it's Jamal Abdur-Rahman. Villanova could use a homerun threat on offense, and JAR showed enough during his freshman season where it sounds like he is the most likely candidate. It will be interesting to see how a year away from competitive action affects his play. We know JayVaughn Pinkston went through some struggles on the basketball side before really turning it on in the 2nd half of the season. I would expect something similar from JAR.
On the defensive side, Joe Sarnese is really solid and should be the leader on the backend of the defense, but we need a playmaker to replace Ronnie Akins. I expect Sarnese to step into that role well and take a lot of responsibility onto his shoulders in a relatively inexperienced secondary.
Thanks for the time Brian - hopefully I'll see you and many more of the VU Hoops community at Boston College for the season opener!