The offseason strength and conditioning program is over and preseason practices underway, the first kick-off of the college football season is getting close. The Wildcats promise to be a young, but exciting program transitioning from a class that won 40 games over 4 years and brought home a national championship as juniors.
Justus Galac has worked with and worked on the team since the end of Spring Practices. He spends more time with the players than any other member of the football staff. He is a constant presence in their lives and the first coach the incoming freshmen have when they arrive on campus in the summer.
"He’s the guy who helps those guys become what they become." Talley said of Galac.
"He’s developed a lot of these kids physically over the time he’s been with us, from scrappy 165-pound runningback to a 200-pound guy. He’s the guy who turns the I-AA player into the I-A player; he turns the Ben Ijalana into a professional football player, the Matt Szczur into one of the best in the country."
Galac has been dedicated to football since his college days at SUNY-Brockport, where he played Nose Guard. There, prior to his senior season in 2001, he discovered a tresticular lump, which he knew could have meant cancer, chemo, radiation and the end of his playing days. Such a fate was not acceptable to the strongman, who opted to play through increased discomfort and pain to finish his season. He finally sought a doctor when he was released after three months on the Rochester Brigade Arena Football team. To Galac, football was more important than life itself.
Galac's dedication to the game makes him a demanding coach, but one who gets results. Those results are what makes a tight competition in Spring a clearer picture in preseason.
This year's team will feature a lot of young talent, but most of the faces in the starting line-up will still be guys who have put their work in behind the departed starters from 2010. That said, a few freshmen from what could be the nation's best FCS recruiting class, could play significant roles this season.
ON OFFENSE: Four starters are returning for the Wildcats in 2011, after the loss of Chidozie Ekweozor to a torn ACL. The biggest question-marks will be on the offensive line as well as at Quarterback, where either a redshirt freshman or a true-freshman will likely start. Receivers will be a strength with one of the strongest receiver corps in the CAA returning — even without Matt Szczur.
""I think the emphasis will still be to run the ball effectively because it helps our defense," Talley said. "The thing I don’t know is if we’re going to have the ability to run it well, and if we can’t, Dustin is going to be called on throw the ball a little more.
"We have very good wide outs in Mikey Reynolds, Norman White and Dorian Wells, and two or three other guys coming along — I think we’ll be alright in our passing game. My concern is really our protection up front, we really need to rebuild our offensive line. That’s going to be critical to us."
Quarterbacks: 2008 prospect Chris Johnson came to Villanova as the heir-apparent to Chris Whitney, but he left school after the 2009 season for undisclosed reasons. Dustin Thomas and Christian Culicerto were left as the only two quarterbacks really getting a look in Spring practice, and since neither has much live game experience, it really may be an open competition this summer.
According to Coach Talley, Dustin Thomas has the potential to be a four-year starter if he steps up to the challenge. The wildcard is whether the two freshmen can step up and impress coaches this month, but the leader in the clubhouse isThomas.
Thomas' skillset will play well in the spread offense that Villanova has employed in recent years.
According to Talley, "Dustin can run. He’s not the overpowering runner that Whitney is, but he’s very fast, he’s quick and he can make you miss. I would say he’s a 4.6 kid. He can run and he’s got a strong arm."
The question is not whether he has the physical tools, but whether he is mentally ready for the job. If not, it's possible that either John Robertson or Chris Polony, two highly-rated freshmen could steal the job.
"Robertson was one of the elite quarterbacks in North Jersey, if not the best, and Polony was one of the elite quarterbacks in Eastern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately they were in the same class," Talley noted.
"All these guys are pretty much all around the same class, all athletic, they can all throw, so now the question is: which one’s the quarterback? Which one has the best quarterbacking skills?"
Wide Receivers: Matt Szczur was the only major contributor to be lost from the 2010 team. His stint on the "DL" last season allowed some younger players like Mikey Reynolds to have a chance to play bigger roles, and they didn't disappoint.
Though White is likely to be the team's top receiver again this season, Dorian Wells is no slouch either. Wells will play on the outside and in the slot and was very productive for the 'Cats last year.
Mikey Reynolds is a small but quick and shifty receiver who will work out of the slot to help get the 'Cats some tough yards over the middle. Joe Price is another guy who the coaching staff really likes and at 6-3, he will add another big target for the young quarterback to throw to.
"Norman White, I think is the best receiver in the league," Talley glowed, "he’s as good as there is in the country at our level, I’m not sure why he would be overlooked [for preseason All-American teams]."
Running Backs: Lawrence Doss is name that you have heard before, but never seen in a feature-back role. The 5-7, 195lb senior will get one season to be a star before graduating, and he is expected to make the most of it. Despite limited reps in the last four years, Doss has averages 4.5 yards per carry, and has shown himself to be a very good receiver out of the backfield.
Behind Doss, redshirt freshman Austin Medley will likely get first crack at earning his carries. He was possibly the top recruit in his class, but was held out in 2010 due to an injury. Medley still has some work to do before he will really be able to shine, but the potential is there; he scored 35 touchdowns as a senior in high school.
After those two, there may not be many carries left over, but freshman Jamal Abdur-Rahman is this year's most highly-touted recruit. He will compete this month for opportunities to carry the rock, as will his fellow freshman, Kevin Monangai.
"[Monangai] was very impressive this summer, very impressive, he's going to give Jamal a run," coach said. "We like those two guys as upcoming freshmen."
In addition, Ransford Quarrie will return to his duties at Fullback, where he saw significant playing time last season as a true freshman. At 6-0 and 250lbs, Quarrie is a big player who has the ability to move the pile and become a factor in short-yardage and goal line situations.
"[Quarrie] just hasn’t realized his potential yet. If he ever really learned how to run downhill and get some body-lean, he would be awesome in short-yardage and on the goal line.
Tight Ends: Brennan Erbeznik is the only returning tight end on the roster, he has good pass catching skills and the coaching staff is hoping that the offseason strength program will help him become a stronger blocker. Morgan Craig and Earnest Pettway are the two freshman additions to the position, and one of them could win the job if Erbeznik struggles as a blocker. A freshman is also a lock to get playing time in two-tight end sets that might be employed liberally if the offensive line needs more help.
Offensive Line: Returning are junior center Dan Shirey and sophomore Josh Bucci. Both players were forced into starting duty as freshmen and were standout players for the 'Cats. Bucci played guard last year, but is expected to slide out to tackle in 2011 -- and as the second-most experienced lineman, he might just find himself protecting a young quarterback's blindside. That job should have fallen to Chidozie Ekweozor, but the 6-6, 200lb junior suffered an ACL tear in the Spring while hang-cleaning in the weight room. He will sit out this season and likely return to the field in 2012.
Ekweozor will be replaced on the roster by Bill Vogel, a 6-4, 280lb transfer from University of Nebraska-Omaha, who cancelled their football program after the 2010 season. Vogel played tackle at Omaha, a Division II school, but if he can't win the job at Nova, he will likely move inside and play guard.
Also in the mix at tackle are Donald Davis, who is moving over from the defensive line, and Josh Polonio, a redshirt freshman, who at 6-3 and 310lbs is one of the biggest linemen on the roster. Size like Polonio's is going to be hard to come by this season, and like Vogel, I would expect him to fight for a starting spot at guard as well.
ON DEFENSE: The 3-3-5 defense isn't going away any time soon. With speed being a strength, loading up on the secondary is one way that the coaching staff feels that it can gain an advantage. While the complete turnover at linebacker creates a question-mark at that position, the coaches are comfortable enough with the players coming up at the position that they haven't rushed to replace the scheme with a more traditional 4-3 front or a TCU-like 4-2-5.
"We have a lot of speed on defense so I mean we are definitely restructuring the defense in terms of plugging players in, but we’re going to stay with the same scheme," Talley notes.
Defensive Line: Antoine Lewis performed excellently at defensive end as a freshman in 2010 and will move to a more natural position at Nose Guard this season. Marlon Johnson returns to action at end after being held back by injuries in 2010, and Rakim Cox will line up and start at the other defensive end position.
In addition to the returning talent, Keelan Malone and Joe Makoid will battle for playing time on the defensive line, as will two big-bodied and athletic freshmen. Pat Williams is a two-star lineman from Florida who signed with Nova after previously committing to Buffalo. Jordan Hunter is a South Jersey prospect.
"We have two freshman defensive linemen, and those guys, I just like them physically and on tape. I like what they’re doing this summer."
Both will add depth to what is already a very good defensive line and should see the field this season.
"The strength is in the defensive line. We should be able to control the line of scrimmage, that’s where in this defense, linebackers make a lot of tackles because they're freed up to run."
Linebackers: There are no returning linebackers from 2010, but there are a number of players with experience as backups and practice players who may be ready to fill that role. The position will be the biggest question-mark for the defense, and one of the more important positions of any scheme since they are active in run and pass protection.
Devon Bridges is the most experienced of the linebacker corps and a likely starter at the inside linebacker position. On the outside, expect to see Jeremy Rodriguez and Delano Ferguson filling in those duties.
"We do have a group of talented linebackers," Talley claims. "Devon Bridges who played most, more than anybody, last year; a kid by the name of Jeremy Rodriguez, who I think is finally healthy can help us; we have Delano Ferguson, who is probably the best athlete back there.
"If we can just get [Rodriguez] honed in there a little bit and squared away, he’ll be good."
The darkhorse candidate for a starting spot os Pat Haggarty. The coaching staff really likes what Haggarty has done in practice and workouts.
"Another guy that came on for us in the spring, Pat Haggarty, he was our most improved player in the spring. I really like Pat, he did a really good job.
"We have a freshman kid coming in, Joey Harmon, that we like a lot, and a kid by the name of Dillon Lucas from south jersey, those are the two incoming players who could potentially help us at linebacker."
Secondary: Starting corners Jimmy Pitts and Eric Loper return for the Wildcats, but Loper may be taking his talents to the safety position in his junior season. Loper will battle with sophomore Craig James for the starting spot at right corner, but the loser of that battle will likely still factor into the 3-3-5 scheme at safety.
"We have some young guys coming up through the program who I think can fit in in the backfield really good because we play five secondary guys."
Ronnie Akins is a lock to start at safety as well, and redshirt freshman Shane Harris may be ready to fill in as well. Mikey Mayock, not to be confused with his NFL draft analyst father, will provide depth and can maybe challenge for a starting role in the defensive backfield as well.
Newcomers Matt McCann and Joe Sarnese will also provide depth, but with so many options at the position, it won't be a surprise if either or both use the year to redshirt. Sarnese has a bright future ahead either way, however, after being named First Team All-State in high school. McCann will be transitioning to safety from linebacker.
ON SPECIAL TEAMS: Special teams has been strong the past few years for the Wildcats, and despite losses, the 'Cats shouldn't expect drastic downgrades this season.
Return game: Dorian Wells returned punts for the 'Cats last season and unless another player emerges to take the job, he will likely fill that role again this season. Wells is a player that the coaching staff trusts to make the right call when receiving a punt and to protect the ball.
"Normally we have a guy with good safe hands back there," Talley stated, "not really that get-up-and-go type of punt-returner, but if I can get a guy I trust back there that’s going to catch the ball, that’s really what I’m concerned about."
As for kick-offs, Lawrence Doss is a strong possibility for the job if being the top running back doesn't eliminate him from the competition. The coaching staff believes he can be very good in that capacity. The freshman running back, Jamal Abdur-Rahman is another player who might get an opportunity in that role.
"We have a freshman Jamal Abdur-Rahman from LaSalle, and potentially he’s a kick-returner as well, so we’ll see.
"We’ve been blessed with Matt Szczur and Babbaro for a few years, and Szczur really took the job from Babbaro early on. The thing that Matt had is that he was as fast as Angelo, but when he hits the hole, he’s stronger, so he breaks a lot of arm-tackles coming through that gauntlet"
With Dominic Scarnecchia graduating and leaving the team, Mark Hamilton will take over punting duties in 2011 as the only punter listed on the roster. Hamilton also passed Nick Yako on the depth chart for placekicker, and will handle all field goals and extra points this season unless Yako is able to win the job back.
Yako is expected to contribute to the team on kickoffs, however, as his strong leg still provides an advantage there.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: "While we’d all like to reload, I don’t think you can reload in this league. When you play this many top teams, you’re rebuilding."
In any other FCS conference, the Wildcats might still be favorites after graduating one tremendously-talented class and replacing it with another. However, in the CAA, there are so many teams with high levels of talent, you need to combine it with experience to really dominate.
"With this team, I don’t think we will know [what kind of team it is] until we start playing. We don’t hit a lot in preseason because you are worried about getting guys injured. We might have one scrimmage; we’re so thin we can’t afford to get anybody hurt."
The 'Cats will start playing against Temple on September 1, and the Bowl Subdivision Owls will be among their toughest opponents. Their new head coach, Steve Addazio, was previously the offensive coordinator at the University of Florida.
"I think Temple will be a good test for us. If we can hang with them, if we can be competitive with them, I think we’ll be alright. If we get out there and they blow us off the field, then I’ll be ducking for a while.
"We watched a lot of Florida tape offensively. I’m sure they’ll run the same stuff pretty much. Defensively, they retained their defensive coordinator, so I assume they’ll be close to what they were — I think they were a 4-3."
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART*
*Projected depth is based on information gleaned from interviews, media guides, personal opinions and a little bit of guessing on the 3rd-options. Surprising or disappointing camp performances, injuries , behavioral problems and a host of other issues can change the depth chart at any point.