2019 CAA Preview: Villanova Wildcats

Last season, the Villanova Wildcats were riding high after upsetting and defeating Philadelphia-area rival Temple. It was the first time in almost a decade that the 'Cats were able to pull off the FCS-over-FBS victory, finally doing so after coming close in previous installments of the rivalry game.

It was also the first time that 'Nova had bested Temple — or any FBS team — since 2009. When the Wildcats were able to do that, they ended up winning the FCS National Championship.

Unfortunately for Villanova, the opposite happened. The Wildcats' momentum was halted by a string of injuries to key players. Their promising start to the year ended in a 5-6 finish, with a four-game losing streak along the way. There was no national title, nor was there a playoff bid to be celebrated. The 'Cats missed the postseason for the second year in a row.

Injuries have derailed the Wildcats in each of head coach Mark Ferrante's first two seasons since taking over for his mentor and long-time coach Andy Talley. While the injuries have left some Wildcat fans wondering what could have been, Ferrante and his team are focused on the present and the opportunity that this upcoming season provides for the 'Cats.

With the team healthy, new offensive and defensive coordinators taking over, and some new incoming talent to look out for, the Wildcats remain optimistic and hopeful for what this year may bring.

Villanova finished with an identical 5-6 overall in each of the last two seasons. While preseason pollsters were hesitant on the Wildcats this year, marking them ninth out of 12 teams in the conference going into the start of the season, Villanova hopes to prove the naysayers wrong and reach its fullest potential now that the team has recovered from the last year's surge of injuries.

"Right now, we're excited about getting started," Ferrante said. "We'll get started, hopefully the health of the team will continue through the preseason — and into the season — and be able to carry it throughout the duration of the year. But it's a physical game, physical sport. Those things happen. Hopefully, it doesn't happen to our starters and premier players."

Offense: who will take the mantle at QB?

Villanova has some questions to answer with the starting quarterback job. The Wildcats have had some stable quarterback play recently, with 2015 Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson followed by three-year starter Zach Bednarczyk. Bednarczyk looked solid when healthy, but when injuries kept him off, his understudies had to grow up quickly and overcome their lack of in-game experience. 

Jack Schetelich and Qadir Ismail got some time in Bednarczyk's absence, but they had their ups and downs on the field. Together, they combined for just a 37-of-78 completion rate (47.4 percent) and 426 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions.

Perhaps they have learned from last season and will come back even stronger inside the pocket, but they will face some stiff competition from the newcomers. Graduate transfer Daniel Smith comes to 'Nova after setting a number of records at Campbell. Last season, the dual-threat quarterback threw for 1,582 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added another 668 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Freshmen Matt O'Connor and Connor Watkins also have something to prove. O'Connor comes from nearby Ardmore, Pa., where he was Lower Merion's all-time leading passer. Watkins fielded close to 20 scholarship offers, with some of those coming from the FBS level.

Senior co-captain Justin Covington will lead the Wildcat backfield. He ran for 263 yards and a touchdown on 61 carries last season as part of a Villanova running back rotation. With Aaron Forbes and Matt Gudzak graduated, Covington is likely to see a much bigger workload, but the Wildcats should still resume using running backs-by-committee. Promising sophomore Jalen Jackson and newcomers TD Ayo-Durojaiye, DeeWil Barlee, and Ike Osuagwu should also see some time in the mix.

In the passing game, Villanova will have to find a way to replace top targets Jarrett McClenton and Ryan Bell, two graduates that accounted for 11 of Villanova's 17 receiving touchdowns last season. Changa Hodge, Josh McGrigg, and Simon Bingelis are worthy candidates. All saw playing time year and will likely become a bigger part of the 'Nova offense.

Defense: an improved pass rush bodes well

With the surge of injuries that Villanova has experienced over the last couple of years, the Wildcats' defense has helped carry them through. This year should be no different.

While the Wildcats figure out how they will fill in and replace their skill positions on offense, Villanova has plenty of continuity and proven performers on the other side of the ball. Last year, the 'Cats had one of the better defenses in the CAA, giving up the third-fewest total yards in the conference (312.6 per game). 

Leading the way up front is defensive lineman Malik Fisher, coming off of a solid sophomore season in which he had a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He helped revitalize Villanova's pass rush, an area needing improvement going into last season after the Wildcats finished dead last for sacks created in 2017. Helping him on the defensive line is Peter Fallon, who's expected to be the starter at nose tackle, and Aaron Seigle. Both Fallon and Seigle have played in 21 games over the last two years, but they'll get their chance to play even more snaps as the next man up after graduation.

Keep an eye out for Villanova's trio of linebackers. This will be a crucial facet of Villanova's defense. All three members come in with a lot of playing experience and have been key players in the Wildcats' 3-3-5 stack defense. Senior linebacker Drew Wiley has played in every single game over the last three years, and he's shown the ability to have a hand at almost everything defensively, providing help in stopping the run as well as whenever he drops back into coverage. Last season, he tallied 55 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, and one recovery. Flanking him are senior linebacker Keeling Hunter and junior Amin Black.

Like Wiley, Hunter has also played in every single Villanova game over the last three years. Meanwhile, Black is coming off of a breakout season as a sophomore. All three linebackers were among the team's top-seven tacklers last season. 

Villanova's secondary is looking just as good, with experienced players in seniors Julian Williams and Chucky Smith, as well as juniors Jaquan Amos and Nowoola Awopetu in the mix, and sophomore Christian Benford.

Amos had a team-high 57 tackles last season, with two interceptions and two forced fumbles to go along with them. Also looking to build off of a strong season is Benford, the sophomore who burst onto the scene as a freshman. Benford showed that he had the tools to be an impact player right away but that he also holds tremendous potential. The 2018 CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year made a quick first impression at cornerback. Through nine games of action, he had 49 tackles and a team-best five interceptions. 

Altogether, this Villanova defense should be another formidable unit for the Wildcats once again.

Special Teams

Speedster Josh McGrigg should be the player to watch for in Villanova's return game. He can hit top speed quickly and once he has the open field, it'll be hard to catch him. He was responsible for a majority of Villanova's punt and kick returns, amassing almost 500 return yards over 36 total returns.

As for the kicking and punting game, the Wildcats have senior Drew Kresge and sophomore Nathan Fondacaro. 

With his strong leg, Fondacaro will resume his kickoff and punting responsibilities for the 'Cats. Kresge will handle field goals and extra points. 

The senior kicker will look to respond after taking a step back in 2018. Last season, he was solid in the point-after game, converting on 31-of-34 attempts. However, his efficiency in making field goals dropped. Kresge went just 6-for-14 in field goals, with six of those misses coming from the 30-39 yard range. It's possible that Fondacaro can fill in that role, but it'll be Kresge's spot to lose. He's shown that he's capable of being a reliable kicker, making 8-of-10 field goal attempts the year before.

The Schedule

@ Colgate, Aug. 24: Villanova will have the pleasure of kicking off the football season with the first Division I game of the 2019 campaign. The Wildcats will take on defending Patriot League champion Colgate. The Raiders are coming off of their first double-digit winning season in 15 years. They've lost almost half of their starters from last year, but they return a pair of FCS All-America players in defensive back Abu Daramy-Swaray and defensive lineman Nick Wheeler.

Lehigh, Sept. 7 | Watch Live: After an early bye week, the Wildcats will get their home opener against Lehigh. Villanova played the Mountain Hawks in each of the last three seasons, and it has beaten them every time. The Wildcats have averaged 31.6 points per game during this stretch, and they will look to make it four in a row against Lehigh.

@ Bucknell, Sept. 14 | Villanova will hope for a repeat of last year's showdown with the Bison, when the Wildcats racked up 609 yards of total offense and started the game off with 28 unanswered points in the first quarter. 'Nova went on to win in 49-7 lopsided fashion.

@ Towson, Sept. 21 | Watch Live: The last time these two teams faced off, it was a high-scoring 45-35 win for Towson. The Wildcats will certainly have their hands full, as the Tigers have the three key pieces to their powerful offense from last season. The trio of fifth-year seniors quarterback Tom Flacco, running back Shane Simpson, and wide receiver Shane Leatherbury will look to give opposing defenses fits and hope to continue Towson's standing as the top-scoring offense in the conference.

Maine, Sept. 28 | Watch Live: After facing a high-power offense in Towson, the Wildcats will go up against the stifling "Black Hole" defense of Maine. The Black Bears return eight starters on a defensive unit that was integral to Maine's surprising success last season. This time, its defense won't be a secret, especially when its top two tacklers — Deshawn Stevens and Taji Lowe — are back in action. The Black Bears allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in all of the FCS, and they were also one of the top sack artists in the nation.

@ William & Mary, Oct. 5 | Watch Live: The Tribe bested the Wildcats when these two teams met last season. With receiver DeVonte Dedmon graduated, William & Mary will hope to forge and identify new game-changing players that can help fill a gap left behind from the five-year player and jumpstart an offense that averaged a CAA-low 13.6 points per game. 

@ James Madison, Oct. 12 | Watch Live: The Dukes are looking to reclaim the CAA throne after previously winning back-to-back conference titles before Maine rose to the top last year. James Madison is looking like it has the tools to reload as an offense and defense juggernaut, with plenty of returning players including four preseason FCS All-Americans in Rashad Robinson, D'Angelo Amos, Liam Fornadel, and Ron'Dell Carter.

Stony Brook, Oct. 26 | Watch Live: The Seawolves will be an interesting team to watch out for. They are experiencing a large amount of roster turnover after graduating 20 seniors. They have a lot to replace on offense with eight starters gone, so keep an eye out for who steps up. On the defensive side of the ball, Stony Brook has a nice foundation with only three open starting positions to fill. 

@ New Hampshire, Nov. 2 | Watch Live: A battle between Wildcats! Aside from sharing the same mascot, both teams were hit hard by the injury bug last season, derailing hopes for a strong season. 

Richmond, Nov. 9 | Watch Live:  Like the Wildcats, the Spiders have a couple of different candidates in a wide-open competition for the starting spot under center. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Maurice Jackson is ramping up some preseason hype. The returning All-America sack artist has been named the preseason CAA Defensive Player of the Year and is also a preseason All-American. He's coming off of a strong junior season and will aid a Spider defense that doesn't want to give up another 45 points to Villanova.

Long Island, Nov. 15: Villanova takes on FCS newcomer Long Island, in the Pioneers' first season in Division I football after previously playing at the DII level. Long Island enjoyed a perfect 10-0 regular season campaign last year before losing to Slippery Rock in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament. The Pioneers hope to continue their recent success at the DI level, after going a combined 45-12 over the last five years in DII play.

Delaware, Nov. 23 | Watch Live: The Blue Hens have a sour taste in their mouths after the Wildcats had spoiled their playoff hopes in each of the last two seasons. Delaware will hope for revenge, but the Battle of the Blue has been dominated by Villanova, who is on an eight-game winning streak in the annual rivalry showdown.

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