Athlon Magazine has the Wildcats ranked 17th in their 2011 Preseason FCS Top 25, but Villanova is entering a year that can only be characterized by one word: "rebuilding." That ranking was likely influenced by three straight seasons that saw the 'Cats rise to the top of the I-AA world. They had always been a good program, but the class that graduated this spring took them to new heights.
"I think we're really going to be trying to get this thing back on track again," said Head Coach Andy Talley.
"I would say with five starters back on offense and five or six back on defense, I think that speaks for a year when you're probably in harm's way a little bit," Talley said, "just because of the severity of the league."
That league, the Colonial Athletic Association (at least for the moment), is changing. This season marks the entry of Old Dominion to the conference and in 2012 more seismic changes are coming. According to Talley:
For us right now, we’re in the middle of the league and we’ve travelled to New England and we’ve travelled to the South and now I think it’s one of those things where we’re fortunate that we have new teams coming in and seemingly are committed to football and have some strength and want to be good at football.
For 2011, Old Dominion will join the CAA schedule and visit the Main Line in their first season. A year later, Rhode Island and UMass will both move on to new conferences — URI to the less-expensive Northeast Conference and UMass to play the second of two transition years to FBS and the MAC. Georgia State will bring the largest FCS stadium (the Georgia Dome) to the conference in 2012, to replace the loss of the two New England schools.
While not all conference realignments are happening at the speed of lightening (the Big East has chosen a more glacial model), internal changes with a team can often resemble a revolving door. That resemblance is perhaps more acute this season than any other.
When the New York Jets were looking to rebound from a 4-win season in 2005, they used two first round picks in the 2006 NFL Draft on offensive linemen, D'Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle and Nick Mangold at center. Though linemen rarely get the major accolades, star treatment, or supermodel girlfriends (don't worry, they do alright) that quarterbacks and other skill position studs might get, they are perhaps the most important players on the field.
Linemen protect the quarterback and create room for the running game. They do the heavy lifting that lets the offense get the ball downfield.
For Villanova, an offensive line that has been a program strength over the past three seasons is about to undergo an overhaul. Starting left tackle Ben Ijalana was a second-round draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts and starting left guard Brant Clouser will also be moving on after graduating.
If it were only those two players, you would expect a step back in level of play after losing two of the program's best, but it might not be the biggest concern. However, after Chidozie Ekweozor, a likely starter at tackle, re-tore his ACL in Spring practice the offensive line is short on returning players. He will miss the entire 2011 season.
Coach Talley tells us that entering Spring practice, Ekweozor was expected to to start at one of the tackle spots with redshirt-sophomore Josh Bucci sliding over to the other tackle from guard. Bucci is still pencilled in as a starting tackle, but instead of looking over and seeing Ekweozor at the other side of the line, he will see Billy Vogel.
Vogel is a 6'4" and 280-pound tackle who will transfer to Villanova from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and major in Physics. UNO was a Division II school that dropped football after the 2010 season because they were re-classifying to Division I and their new conference (the Summit League) does not offer football as a sport. Accordingly, there is no sitting-out required and Vogel will be able to play immediately.
Ross Hall is another new name you will likely see lined up at guard from game one. The redshirt freshman broke his foot last season, but wasn't likely to have seen much action on the field anyway. He was a highly-regarded player coming into the program and the coaching staff is confident after spring practices that he is ready to play.
That leaves one starting spot at offensive guard undecided. It will be filled by either redshirt freshman, Josh Polonio, or one of the three freshman linemen coming in. Polonio is, "still trying to grow through spring practice and not ready to play right now," according to the coach. Ready or not, however, Polonio is probably the best bet to earn the position. As Talley noted:
You really don’t know about incoming freshmen. Ben Ijalana and Brant Clouser were slam-dunks for us to start as freshmen because they were so talented. I think the three kids coming in are not in that position yet because of their size. Offensive linemen usually need a year to two years to get big enough and strong enough to play at our level.
Despite there being no slam-dunks to throw into the mix at guard, Talley knows that freshmen, be they redshirt or true, will be involved in his offensive line.
The man those linemen will be charged with protecting is also undecided, with at least four players vying for the starting spot at quarterback in pre-season practices. Christian Culicerto and red-shirt freshman Dustin Thomas are already with the program, and will be joined in the fall by highly-touted incoming freshmen, Chris Polony and John Robertson.
Culicerto started last season third on the QB depth chart — and maybe fourth if you consider that prior to Matt Szczur's injury he was considered an option at that position. He moved up to second on that chart for game-days after an injury to Thomas lead to his redshirting, but saw very little action outside of some junk-time at the end of blow-outs.
According to Coach Talley, "Culicerto did a great job this spring."
Despite Culicerto's great spring, Dustin Thomas may still have the inside track on the position. "I think Dustin Thomas potentially has the ability to be the quarterback," Talley told VUhoops.
"We just haven’t had a chance, obviously, with the freshman not being here to really understand and know the offense," he explained, "so they’re going to have to come in and try to learn the offense quickly in pre-season."
Chris Whitney is an obvious example of a Villanova quarterback who won the starting job as a freshman, but Talley still expects to see a slightly more experienced player at the helm this season. He predicted, "I think right now the two kids we have [Thomas and Culicerto] are probably going to be the two guys for us." Thomas, we are told, has had more practice reps over the last season and is a bit more experienced because of it.
As for Robertson and Polony, while it is strange that two highly-touted quarterbacks would commit to the same school and in the same class, neither is being considered for a position-change. The coaching staff believes that both players can develop at quarterback and plan to "let the chips fall where they may." According to the head coach:
Well they are both very athletic . . . and both of these guys are very fine quarterbacks. I don’t think we would even consider another position for them. They need repetition, they need work, and depending upon how they adjust to the offense and how they handle college football, depends on how the situation is going to end up. We fortunately had the opportunity to get two outstanding quarterbacks – I don’t like to normally put them in the same class – these two guys were available and they both wanted to come . . . But usually you like to space them out to avoid quarterback controversy.
With the departure of the fifth-year backfield tandem of Aaron Ball and Angelo Babbaro, one might be worried that the running game will suffer, but the Wildcats have restocked and reloaded the position. Senior running back Lawrence Doss, at 5'7" and 185-lb, will see an increase in his workload.
"He has the most experience," the head coach said of Doss, "and we think that he can be a very fine tailback for us."
Austin Medley was last season's top recruit and after an injury last season kept him sidelined he still has four years of eligibility left. He came in to Villanova with a bad back, but assuming that has been cleared up, the coaching staff believes he can be very good. According to the coach, Medley had a "real nice" spring, but, "he’s not quite ready, but he’s going to have to be . . . we are hoping that Austin continues to come on."
This incoming freshmen class is again highlighted by a running back. Two of them, actually, Jamal Abdur-Rahman and Kevin Monangai will both potentially compete for playing time and contribute right away as freshmen. The coaching staff is very high on both players and Talley believes that they, "now have have four very talented guys."
Doss is the experienced and reliable veteran, while the other three backs are young players that the coaching staff will have to "bring along" to get to the right level. If their talent can be properly harnessed, however, the position could again be a strength and help the inexperienced quarterback (whoever it may be) by taking pressure away.
Where the offense will be strongest, however, is the receiving corps. Norman White and Dorian Wells will surely be starters after both becoming strong contributors during Matt Szczur's absence last season. White, who had 69 catches for 886 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, was named one of the top-10 FCS players at his position and his junior season got the attention of some NFL scouts.
The 5'6" Mikey Reynolds will continue to see action in the slot, where he proved that sometimes good things come in small packages. After those three, expect contributions from any of a number of WR's on the roster. Redshirt freshman Corey Reeder may be a player to keep an eye on, and true freshman Clay Horne will be the only new face at the position.
The 'Cats return three starters on the defensive line, which can easily be designated as an area of strength for this team. Last season, Antoine Lewis was pressed into service as a freshman and emerged as one of the stars of the Villanova defense. Lewis will likely move inside to nose tackle as a sophomore, while Rakim Cox and Marlon Johnson (who was sidelined in 2010 with an injury) will be slated to start at defensive end.
"Our defense is built around our linebackers," Talley noted adding that the young corps, "[are] going to have to grow up very quickly."
The problem, of course, is that all three starting linebackers for the past few years — Terrence Thomas, Marquis Kirkland and Anthony Johnson — have graduated.
Junior Devon Bridges is one option to fill the void in the middle of the defense. The coaching staff is also high on former back-up Delano Ferguson, another junior with good size and skill set for the position. Sophomore Tyrone Armstrong, junior Pat Haggerty and freshman Emeka Ndichie will all compete for playing time at linebacker as well.
"All of those guys fit the mold of those guys we’ve had here, but they’ve had no playing time," Talley opined. "We have enough talent in those positions, but those guys just need to get on the field."
Talley also likes his returning secondary. The team lost John Dempsey and Fred Maldonado from the starting line-up, but they still return plenty of talent. James Pitts is the top returning DB, lining up at cornerback, he lead the team in interceptions and pass break-ups last season and was second on the team in tackles. Eric Loper will start at the other corner again this season.
At safety, Ronnie Atkins and Craig James may be in line to see some time, as might Shane Harris. Incoming freshman Joe Sarnese was a First Team All-New Jersey safety, and could absolutely challenge for playing time in what will likely remain a 3-3-5 defense (three defensive line, three linebackers and five in the secondary).
Overall, the defense will have a lot of speed, which is really the reason why a 3-3-5 defense will work, assuming the 'Cats will stick to that.
In addition to Special Teams now falling under the control of Assistant Coach Billy Crocker, the major change will be in the kicking game.
Kicker Nick Yako struggled last season and will have to re-prove himself in order to get opportunities to kick field goals again. The coaching staff hasn't figured out what caused last season's struggle, but as Talley stated, "He just lost something in his leg last year, I don’t know if he overtrained or lost his confidence, we haven’t really put our finger on it, but he needs to have a comeback year." Even if Yako can't win back the field goal kicking job, he will likely still handle kickoffs.
Punter Dominic Scarnecchia graduated in May and will not return to the team for another season.
Both players will be replaced by Mark Hamilton, who took over some kicking duties from Yako late last season and will be taking over the punting duties as well. Talley noted, "Mark Hamilton is coming in and taking over our kicking chores for us and will be our Punter. I think he’s very capable in both spots." Hamilton is capable of punting with the same "rugby-style" that Scarnecchia used, or a more traditional style.
The only real departure on the coaching staff was linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Clint Wiley, who left to become a high school coach, effectively ending his college career. Wiley wanted to spend more time with his family, be closer to home and avoid his long commute from South Jersey to the Main Line.
Billy Crocker will move from defensive line coach into Wiley's former job. It is a big promotion for him, according to Talley, who noted that, "the natural progression on the defensive side of the ball is defensive line then linebackers." The linebackers coach is involved in both the run and pass parts of the defense, and is an important step on the way to becoming a defensive coordinator.
Defensive line will now be coached by Dave Sollazzo, a career defensive line coach at the I-A level. Coach Talley is highly impressed with Sollazzo's resume, noting that, "we really have a tremendous career football coach who is coming into our football program with a tremendously strong reputation as a recruiter in North Jersey, which is where he’ll be recruiting."
Sollazzo comes to Villanova from Maryland where he coached with Villanova wide receivers coach Brian Flinn. It was Flinn who brought Sollazzo to his employers' attention.
Andy Talley had nothing but glowing comments to make about Sollazzo's experience, which includes ten years at Maryland, two at Georgia Tech and eleven at the Citadel, as well as nine bowl games. Sollazzo was also the recruiting coordinator at Maryland and has been successful recruiting Northern New Jersey at the I-A level.
For Sollazzo, the move is perhaps a better way of life. He reportedly liked the stability of Villanova's staff and, as Talley puts it, "the lifestyle of a Villanova football coach." He has a young child and Villanova brought him to a great place to raise his family while working in the college environment.
According to Talley, "Dave [Sollazzo] doesn’t have any ego, but he has a tremendous reputation on the field and off. It just was one of those situations that worked."
As noted above, 2011 is undoubtedly a re-building year. Despite Athlon's preseason hype, the turnover at almost every position will thrust some inexperienced players into the line-up.
Talley notes that:
The biggest thing is that you have a quarterback – whoever the quarterback is going to be has no experience – and when we’ve been good here, we’ve had a really good quarterback. I think our QB situation, we have to find out that we have a high-caliber QB at some point in time, someone who can help you win games. Chris Whitney had a lot of great players around him but he was also a guy who could win you games with his knowledge and leadership and just his overall toughness.
The good thing is that the players who have departed the program after the last three years have left a great legacy and their leadership has instilled a great work ethic in the younger players who will replace them.
For the coaches, however, Talley said, "We’re going to have to do a great job coaching."
Up next for the 'Cats is the third edition of the Mayors Cup game against the Temple Owls. "The city game is a big game for us and for Temple, but it’s a tough one," according to the Coach.
Will it be too tough for the rebuilding Wildcats?