"I think defensively, in the league right now, it's hard because you're seeing so many different styles of offense and there are some terrific players in the league," Villanova football's head coach Andy Talley said.
The Villanova defense was hit harder by graduation than the offense. The Wildcats are replacing players at every level of the defense. Last season, the defense was good and had successes against a most opponents, but a few teams were able to have their way with the 'Cats.
"We really need to improve against the run. We consider ourselves a run-stopping defense, but last year some teams ran the ball against us; Richmond, Stony Brook -- and they were big and physical.
"I think the running back down at Towson, West, is probably a pro guy. You've got to handle the tailback up at Stony Brook, who was the third leading rusher in the Big Ten three years ago, he's back. I was impressed by the physicality of Richmond."
The defensive unit will need to be stronger in the trenches and get better play from the linebackers in stopping opponents running games. Run-stopping has been a constant factor around the Villanova defense in recent years, helping the secondary out by forcing opposing offenses to go to the air for yards. Bigger offensive lines and stronger running backs are forcing Villanova to adjust to the tougher running games around the FCS.
"On defense, you have to adjust to the styles of defense the other teams play and sometimes that takes some of the aggressiveness out of you. It will be interesting to see if we can be more physical on defense in stopping the run and I think that's where your linebackers are going to be critical for us this year."
One of the biggest changes at linebacker will be in the middle. Devon Bridges graduated, leaving a hole at middle linebacker that will likely be filled by one of the sophomores that the program added in their 2012 recruiting class.
"Corey Majors has come on really well for us as a rising sophomore, and Donny Cherry is another guy who has come on really nicely and, of course, Pat Haggerty returns as well as Joey Harmon," Talley explained of his options. "There's a good group of linebackers available to us. I think both Cherry and Corey Majors have a good chance to play a great deal at linebacker for us.
"I think we can make the transition more at linebacker, I think it will be seamless. In fact, I think we may run better at linebacker than we have in a while."
That change at middle linebacker could be the key that determines whether or not the defense improves against the run. The defensive line also lost a key player in Marlon Johnson, but with Antoine Lewis and Rakim Cox returning, the down linemen will look very similar to a year ago.
Coaches hoped that massive-body Jordan Hunter would be an answer for the team at nose guard, but the South Jersey native missed most of the Spring with a knee injury -- a meniscus tear -- that sidelines him for up to eight weeks. That leaves fellow rising-Junior Pat Williams as the biggest body on the line, and he could see significant time at the nose this fall.
"You've got Antoine Lewis, who was an All-Conference player, you have Rakim Cox who looked great all Spring - a pro-prospect - and Reggie Paris did a nice job at defensive end," Talley said of his defensive linemen. "Pat Williams did a real nice job at nose guard."
The five-man secondary was hardest hit by graduation, however, with the 'Cats losing playmaking safety Ronnie Akins and starting corner Eric Loper.
"The glaring losses would be in the secondary, you know, an All-Conference player in Eric Loper and also an All-Conference player in Ronnie Akins. Ronnie was a playmaker, and I think we're going to miss Ronnie more than anybody."
Akins spot is likely filled, however, with most-improved defensive player, sophomore Cameron McCurry, the likely starter in his place. Replacing Loper has been much tougher.
"We really haven’t tied that corner spot down yet, the way I like to see it. We have some younger players there that really aren’t ready to play yet," he explained.
"Unfortunately Shayne Harris was ticketed to be that guy, but he had a hamstring and missed all of Spring. So, we played with a redshirt Freshman to be in CJ Logan at Corner [in Spring Practice]."
If any freshman will have a good chance to make an impact this summer, it would be one of the young defensive backs that were brought in with the 2013 class. While Logan and Harris will be the leaders in the clubhouse to win the job, the 'Cats will be looking for someone who can fill some big shoes opposite Craig James on Saturdays.
This is the second season in a row with a stable defensive coaching staff, which is a powerful driver for the success of a unit that needs good coordination to be successful. Coaches Roc Bellantoni and Tony Trisciani are entering their second seasons at Villanova, while Billy Crocker now has a year as the defensive coordinator under his belt as well.
The 'Cats scheme hasn't changed dramatically, however, and if the new crop stepping into starting and key-reserve roles in the defensive front can combine to slow and stop opposing runners, who are often times as good as any running backs in college sports, then they will stymie most opponents.
The secondary remains a concern for the Wildcats, however, but if McCurry can handle the safety spot and a young corner steps up enough, they will have a chance to grow and get better during the season. A good effort at run-stopping, however, will make things easier for the secondary as it has in the past.