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2018 Villanova Football preview: A look at the defensive backs

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An All-American caliber player and a few new faces in starting roles make for an interesting year for the Villanova secondary.

NCAA Football: Villanova at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

To help count down to the start of the 2018 football season and the Sept. 1 showdown between Villanova and Temple, we will highlight and breakdown each position on the Wildcats’ football roster. We’re wrapping up our previews of the defense with the new look secondary.

Other Previews: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide Receivers | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers


Returnees

#4 Rob Rolle (6-0, 190) RS Sr.
#21 Isaiah Alicea (5-9, 180) Sr.
#38 Chucky Smith (5-11, 205) Sr.
#7 Julian Williams (6-3, 205) RS Jr.
#18 Dage Davis (5-10, 175) RS Jr.
#13 Gabe Cohen (6-0, 215) Jr.
#1 Terrell Vassel (5-11, 175) RS So.
#17 Nowoola Awopetu (5-11, 190) RS So.
#6 Jaquan Amos (5-10, 180) So.
#34 Drew Ehrlich (5-10, 185) So.
#32 Darryl McDaniel (5-11, 190) RS Fr.

Departures

Rasaan Stewart (5-11, 200)
Trey Johnson (5-11, 170)
Malik Reaves (6-0, 200)
Korey Stevens (5-9, 155) — Transferred to Shepherd University

Newcomers

#24 Darius Pickett (6-0, 190) — Nottingham, Md./McDonough School
#28 James Lawson (6-0, 165) — Harrisburg, Pa./Bishop McDevitt
#30 Elijah Trent (6-2, 180) — Rockville, Md./Thomas Wootton
#39 Anthony Siragusa (5-11, 185) — Florham Park, N.J./Delbarton
#41 Christian Benford (6-0, 190) — Randallstown, Md./Randallstown


Entering the 2017 season, there was plenty of hype for the Villanova #NoFlyZone. With experienced and talented upperclassmen filling out the secondary and a STATS FCS pre-season All-American safety in Rob Rolle leading the way, things seemed great for the stalwart Villanova defense.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse for the Wildcats. The Villanova #NoFlyZone took a big hit early in the year, when Rolle went down with a torn ACL in a loss to Albany. The impact was felt as Villanova went from having one of the best pass defenses around, to falling to dead last in the conference for allowing opponents to complete 63.7 percent of their passes, as well as throw for an average of 258.3 yards per game. It wasn’t all bad, as Villanova only gave up 10 touchdowns—tied with James Madison at the top in the CAA for the fewest in the league.

While ‘Nova gave up the most passing yards per game in the CAA, this season is a fresh start and a new chance for the Wildcats. It’ll be redemption campaign for Rolle, who is once again a STATS FCS pre-season All-American. He’s returning to his post at free safety after taking a medical redshirt last season. Rolle is preparing for his final year on the Main Line, and is a game-changer when he’s on the field. He is a ball hawk and a big play-maker, racking up turnovers and tackles. He’s a dynamic athlete and if he can get his hands on the ball, you can bet that he’ll return it for big yardage or even a defensive touchdown. Rolle is poised to be one of the top players in the CAA and even the country, it’s no surprise that he’ll be one of the captains this season.

Aside from Rolle, the other returning starter in the Villanova secondary is Julian Williams. Williams, a redshirt junior, looked good in an expanded role last season. Through nine games, he had 42 tackles, three for loss, a pair of interceptions, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He brings an element of size with his 6-foot-3 frame and is great at filling in for stopping runs and short passes.

Apart from the returners, the Wildcats have three starting spots to fill after the graduation of Malik Reaves, Rasaan Stewart, and Trey Johnson. There were tons of starting experience between that trio that will need to be replaced in Villanova’s 3-3-5 stack defense.

There are a few candidates that come to mind. Jaquan Amos looked great as a true freshman last season. He came in and contributed right away, finishing the year with 42 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery that went 99 yards for a touchdown. Amos displayed great football smarts and the ability to be a solid pass defender. Nowoola Awopetu was solid on special teams in his first season back from a redshirt year, but this year he will have a chance to show what he can do on defense, as a cornerback. Then there’s Gabe Cohen and Dage Davis, who are primed to take on bigger roles this year.

As a redshirt junior, Davis is well-versed in Villanova’s system and is familiar. Although he didn’t get an overwhelming amount of playing time last season, he looked great on special teams and in his appearances on defense. The same could be said for Cohen, although he was able to play in all 11 games. He’ll be a leader on special teams again, as well as make his mark on defense.

With the departures of some key secondary players between last year and at the end of this season, Villanova welcomes a bunch of new defensive backs. Darius Pickett, James Lawson, Elijah Trent, Anthony Siragusa, and Christian Benford will be part of a new wave to keep the #NoFlyZone going.