Villanova football entered the 2012 season with very low expectations, but the 2013 season will be different. After winning the CAA football conference's NCAA Tournament bid, the Wildcats are setting a high bar for themselves in the Fall season.
"Well, we have, we certainly have aspirations to be a playoff team, and we expect to contend for the title," head coach Andy Talley said. "I really feel we'll be right there with some of the very best teams in the league and the country.
"I've been around a long time and I go on feel. I've watched a lot of spring practices and this spring, I really liked what I saw."
For the first time in a while, the Wildcats return the majority of their key players from a successful season and have had stability in the coaching staff, with no major changes. The effect of that scenario on team chemistry and morale has been noticeable. Last off-season, Tony Trisciani and Roc Bellantoni joined the coaching staff as Billy Crocker moved up to the Defensive Coordinator role, and that defensive staff has learned to work together over the past year to do a better coaching job.
"90% of the Football team that we're going to play with is here, and there's a lot to be said about that," Talley explained. "Mostly from a morale standpoint, a comeraderie standpoint, that all of the players are working together through the Spring, that they've been together through Winter conditioning and running and lifting together. There's a very good bond."
Talley doesn't expect his eight incoming freshmen to come in under pressure to be a factor immediately on the field. That could change if one of the four recruits expected to come in at defensive back impresses in preseason practices. The coaching staff would be just as comfortable going with an older player, however, and using a redshirt to give most of that class a chance to mature and develop before being foisted into a role.
The team brings back almost all of the key offensive players this fall, but there are a few hits taken on defense. Linebacker Devon Bridges is gone, two key players were lost in the secondary at corner and safety, respectively, and the 'Cats will be working in a new defensive lineman as well.
There is some confidence that the young rising-sophomore linebackers will step up to the job this fall, and there were veteran backups available to slot into roles on a defensive line that will hopefully remain a strength for the 'Cats. The biggest question-mark will be over who starts at corner opposite Craig James.
If the Villanova defense can get back to it's run-stopping strength this season, things will be looking up for the 'Cats, who were ripped apart on the ground by a couple of opponents with big and physical offensive lines.
The Wildcats suffered a few injuries both before and during Spring ball, but none were so severe as to keep guys off the field in the Fall.
"One of the things you hope you can do is to get out of Spring practice without any major injuries," said Talley.
Both defensive end Keelan Malone and linebacker Dillon Lucas had shoulder surgery at the end of the season. It was the second shoulder operation for Lucas, with his other shoulder being repaired after his freshman year. Both players should be ready to practice in pre-season after sitting out the Spring.
Coaches were tempted to use a redshirt on Lucas, but the talented linebacker doesn't want to spend a season off the gridiron, so he will most likely be on the field this Fall, once he heals.
The most disappointing injury may have been Jordan Hunter, a big nose-guard type defensive lineman who coaches hoped to be able to slot into a starting role this season. He injured his meniscus and wasn't really able to participate in Spring practices -- it will take between six and eight weeks for him to recover, making preseason practices likely for Hunter.
Rising-senior receiver, Joe Price, was out of Spring practices after undergoing hand-surgery as well. Coach Talley wasn't too concerned about the absence, however, since Price is heading into his fifth-year with the program. A veteran receiver, he noted, didn't need as many reps in Spring to be ready for the Fall season.
Most other injuries weren't serious, however, more like the usual wear-and-tear that is expected on the football field. Robertson had a relatively minor hamstring injury while Shane Harris was sidelined all Spring with a hamstring injury. Jamal Abdur-Rahman tweaked his knee, causing coaches to be careful with him in practice.
Villanova brings back a veteran offense and most of a defense that surprised many last season with an 8-3 regular season record, a share of the CAA title and a bid to the FCS playoffs. Without any major injury concerns this Spring, the team has high hopes that they can be ready to do battle against Boston College over Labor Day weekend.
Expectations going into 2013 will be much higher than they were a year prior. This is a team that is expected to reach the playoffs and make some noise once they are there.
Check back later this week for more-specific post-Spring updates on the offensive and defensive units.