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2018 Villanova Football Preview: A look at the running backs

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The ‘Cats are fully reloaded heading into the season.

NCAA Football: Villanova at Temple Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s day two of our 2018 Villanova Football preview series and another day closer to the Sept. 1 season opener at Lincoln Financial Field.

After looking at the quarterbacks on Thursday, Friday is dedicated to the running backs.


Returnees

#20 Matt Gudzak (5-9, 210), RS Sr.
#25 Aaron Forbes (5-9, 235), Sr.
#6 Corey Russo (5-8, 195), Sr.
#8 D’Andre Pollard (5-7, 165), RS Jr.
#3 Justin Covington (5-11, 210), RS So.
#12 Damone Drew (5-8, 190), So.

Departures

None

Newcomers

#36 Jalen Jackson — Richmond, Va./Thomas Jefferson


When it comes to Villanova running backs, it will be a matter of reloading. Lack of experience and depth won’t be an issue for the Wildcats this season, as they will be returning every single running back from last year, as well as welcome a newcomer to the team.

The ground game played an important part for Villanova last season. With quarterback Zach Bednarczyk going down early in the fifth game of the season, the Wildcats passing attack struggled at times after their seasoned veteran went down.

For the next six games, without Bednarczyk, the Wildcats only had 549 passing yards for the rest of the season, averaging below 100 per game. As a result, Villanova’s offense needed its running backs to produce. During that same stretch of six games, the Wildcats ran for a combined 749 yards. Including that Towson game when Bednarczyk got hurt, the Wildcats enjoyed a streak of four-straight games where they ran for at least 100 yards as a team.

Overall, Villanova rushed for 1,510 yards last season, accounting for 47.3 percent of the Wildcats’ total offensive yards. Sure, Villanova’s vaunted defense primarily set the tone and kept the Wildcats afloat last year, but the ground game was important on the other side of the ball, especially as the young Villanova backup quarterbacks were undergoing growing pains.

For the last couple of seasons, the Wildcats’ rushing attack has been characterized by a squad of running backs to get the job done, as opposed to a single workhorse. Villanova has used a multi-faceted ground game that features a handful of different running backs that can hurt opposing defenses. Apart from the quarterback, it seems like the Wildcats will get to enjoy a three-pronged approach at this position, with a couple more sprinkled in.

Leading the way is co-captain and senior Aaron Forbes. Since his breakout sophomore season, one that saw him earn a spot on the All-CAA Third Team, he has been the team’s leading rusher over the last two seasons. Forbes provides the Wildcats with a combination of speed and power at the running back position, possessing a tough-to-tackle, bullish 235-pound frame.

Although he ran for a team-high 568 yards, it was a bit of a step back from his 2016 season, where Forbes led the team once again, but with 799 yards and eight touchdowns. However, with less pressure on the ground game entering this year and opponents unable to simply load the box, it’s likely his numbers will surge upwards once again for his senior year.

Forbes can also catch out of the backfield and was tied for a second-best 18 receptions. He added 124 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns last season.

Aside from Forbes, also keep an eye out for redshirt sophomore Justin Covington and fifth-year senior Matt Gudzak.

Covington showed glimpses of promise last season for the Wildcats. His best performances came against Lafayette (nine carries for 74 yards) and then in the season finale with Delaware (12 carries for 62 yards). He didn’t reach pay dirt last season, but might be able to notch his first career touchdown this season. Covington is likely to receive a chunk of carries this season, as a member of the running back rotation. Last year, he ran for 288 yards off of 57 carries, standing in as the second-highest rusher on the team behind Forbes.

As for Gudzak, this season is a second chance at making a final, lasting impression. His hard-nosed and intense approach to the game first got him playing time as an underclassmen, and he eventually became one of the featured players as a junior. Gudzak was one of a few other Wildcats that took a medical redshirt last season. He went down in the Albany game with a season-ending injury. Until then, he had 197 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He also had nine receptions for 58 yards. Gudzak is a tough runner, but he can do just as much damage with his hands as well. He is a running back that excels as a receiver out of the backfield and can be a threat in that area of the game.

Damone Drew and D’Andre Pollard might see some burn this year, but will likely have to wait their turn. They will possibly be sprinkled in after the Forbes-Covington-Gudzak trio. Drew is a shifty, speedy runner and certainly has potential, but might be limited due to the congestion at this position. As for Pollard, he’s returning from his own injury that sidelined him last year.

With all this talent at this position, the Wildcats seemed to have bolster their stock some more, as they’ll be bringing in freshman Jalen Jackson. The Richmond native was a standout at Thomas Jefferson (Va.) in a variety of ways. He played quarterback, running back, linebacker, safety, and returner for the Vikings and excelled at every position he played.

However, at Villanova, he’ll be focusing at being a running back. In his senior season at Thomas Jefferson, he had 1,446 yards and 21 touchdowns. He clocked in at a 4.49 second 40-yard dash time, with a 37-inch vertical jump to boot. He selected Villanova last August, opting for the ‘Cats over Old Dominion, Delaware, and Elon—among many others.

Heading into this season, the running back position will be a fun one to the watch.