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First Down (cont’d.): A look at Villanova’s running backs

We continue our preview series of the 2017 football season by putting the spotlight on the Wildcats’ running backs.

NCAA Football: Villanova at Lafayette Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next four weeks, we will be dissecting and previewing Villanova's football roster, breaking it down by position as part of our "Four Downs" series. Each week, we will highlight two positions.

Schedule:

First Down: Quarterbacks (Aug. 8) | Running backs (Aug. 10)
Second Down: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends (Aug. 15) | Offensive Linemen (Aug. 17)
Third Down: Defensive Linemen (Aug. 22) | Linebackers (Aug. 24)
Fourth Down: Defensive backs (Aug. 29) | Special Teams (Aug. 31)

It will transition right into Villanova's Sept. 2 season opener against Lehigh. We continue the series with a look at Villanova's running backs.


Returnees:

#20 Matt Gudzak (5-9, 205) Sr.
#25 Aaron Forbes (5-9, 220) Jr.
#6 Corey Russo (5-8, 195) Jr.
#8 D'Andre Pollard (5-7, 175) So.
#30 Justin Covington (5-11, 205) RS Fr.

Departures:

Javon White (5-11, 205) Sr.

Newcomers:

Damone Drew (5-10, 195) Fr. — Stafford, Va./Brooke Point HS, Va.

After Kevin Monangai graduated in 2015, the Wildcats have followed the recent trend of how football teams treat the running back position--doing it by committee, instead of having one individual workhorse.

This past season, they had four different leading rushers. Zach Bednarczyk fulfilled his duties as a dual-threat quarterback in Villanova's spread offense, but the Wildcats also distributed the load among three different running backs--who were all effective.

Top rusher Aaron Forbes enjoyed a breakout year, leading the Villanova ground attack with 799 yards and eight touchdowns off of 132 carries. Matt Gudzak came back from a shoulder injury to rush for 513 yards and three touchdowns over the last nine games of the season. Then, there was Javon White, who capped off his five-year Wildcat career with 515 yards and seven touchdowns.

As a team, the Wildcats ran for just under 2,700 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, which is not a bad amount had they chose to stockpile the workload on just one or two players instead of the four-headed (if you include Bednarczyk) rushing attack. The Wildcats had the second-most rushing yards in the CAA and averaged 206 yards per game.

Villanova ran the ball more than it did in the 2015 campaign and did so for the right reasons. Back in 2015, the running game felt more like a crutch to help keep the offense alive, as Bednarczyk was thrusted into the starting role. Now, with Bednarczyk transitioning out of just being a game manager and starting to come into his own, the ground attack felt like a nice complementary piece to the Villanova offense.

Forbes, who chose Villanova over a number of FCS and FBS offers—most notably SEC school Vanderbilt and Army—relished in the chance to prove his worth this past season. Sitting behind Gary Underwood, White, and his current teammates as a freshman, Forbes stepped right into a bigger role and became the Wildcats’ leading rusher. He’s a tough runner that is a nice combination of speed and power. Once he accelerates to top speed, he’s not an easy person to tackle, he can lead with his shoulder and bulldoze one or two defenders before coming down. He also has a swift cutback and juke step that can throw off opponents.

Last season, Forbes was a third team All-CAA selection. He should build off of last year’s success for this year. While Villanova might still go with its running back by committee approach, it wouldn’t be shocking if Forbes breaks the 1,000-yard mark. With White graduated, it could mean more carries coming his way, if Mark Ferrante doesn’t choose to fill the void with another player.

With Gudzak in the backfield, the Wildcats have a pass-catching threat at the running back position. He possesses the best hands out of the running backs and is a reliable target on dump offs or on short routes. Despite missing the first four games of the season, he caught the fourth-most passes (22) on Villanova’s roster and averaged 9.9 yards per reception along the way. He helps keep defenses—especially linebackers—honest. On the ground, he is another tough runner that hits the gap hard. He excels mainly in between the tackles, but he can bounce to the outside as well.

As for the rest of the running backs, Corey Russo and Justin Covington will add depth to the position. Russo, a walk-on, saw action in four games and ran for 87 yards off of 17 carries. Covington is coming off of a redshirt year. The last time he was on the gridiron, it was when he was a senior at Cardinal Hayes (N.Y.), running for 1,612 yards and 24 touchdowns.

D’Andre Pollard mainly saw time as a kick returner. He had a few carries last season, but got most of his action on special teams and should continue his returning duties this season. It’s hard to see where Russo, Covington, and Pollard fit in for now, especially since it isn’t clear how Villanova will handle them in relation to its incoming freshman and the other running backs.

The one newcomer, Damone Drew, certainly has the makings of creating an impact as a freshman and the potential to be one of the conference’s best by the time he is an upperclassman. The Stafford, Va. native topped off an illustrious career at Brooke Point High School with 31 touchdowns and 3,767 yards of total offense his senior year.

Drew's journey to Villanova is an interesting one and the circumstances surrounding his recruitment is one that was mutually beneficial and timed perfectly for him and Villanova.

The Wildcats had their heart set on Chris Chukwuneke (Holmdel, N.J./Peddie School), who originally committed to Villanova. Chukwuneke, who attended St. John Vianney (N.J.) at the time, decided to de-commit and reclassify to 2018.

Meanwhile, Drew was ready to attend Syracuse University, until the Orange denied his commitment, reopening his search for a new school. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound three-star running back (according to 247 Sports) eventually chose Villanova over Temple, Virginia, Cincinnati, and Appalachian State. He is the highest-rated Villanova prospect in the class of 2017.

Drew, a two-sport standout in football and track at Brooke Point, is looking to bring his speed to the Main Line. He seems to bring the total package—speed, agility, elusiveness, and the ability to be a game-changer.

While it might not be Drew's time to shine right away, Villanova’s rushing attack is looking good to go for this upcoming season and even brighter for the future, as he grows at the collegiate level.