It's hard to imagine, but Daniel Smith was almost never a Wildcat.
Before racking up touchdowns on the Main Line, coming out of high school he was recruited at one point by Villanova's Ola Adams, who is now the team's defensive coordinator. The Wildcats had already fulfilled their quarterback recruiting needs for the Class of 2016, leading them to move forward — and Smith to Campbell University.
After two great seasons for the Fighting Camels following a redshirt year, Smith had his name etched alongside multiple program records as an all-time leader in passing, rushing, and scoring. He was able to graduate early, allowing him to transfer and play immediately.
"At the time, I was looking for — I don't want to say better football — but competitive football," Smith said. "I wanted to see at the FBS level if there was anything there for me. The CAA, I obviously see that as a power conference in the FCS. When I decided that I wanted to go see what's out there, that burned my bridge with Campbell at the time, and I had to figure out somewhere else to play."
Smith looked at a variety of schools around the FCS, and Villanova re-entered the picture.
"We were going into my senior season and I hadn't heard from [coach Ferrante] in a while, and I reached out to him," Smith said of the recruiting experience with Villanova during his high school years. "He said we got our guy, I appreciate it, but we're moving on.
"Really, it was that honesty and I know in a lot of instances where not only for myself, but other people have been recruited by a school — they're recruiting them and then they kind of get blown off and ghosted by the coaches. The fact that he was upfront and honest with me, it really brought up a trust factor in a second time around when he reached out a second time after I graduated from Campbell."
Following the graduation of four-year starter Zach Bednarczyk, the Wildcats had some uncertainty at the quarterback position, with three different candidates set to battle for the starting gig. The situation got even more complicated as Smith and three other newcomers came to Villanova to compete at the position.
After an intense preseason camp, it was the battle-tested Smith who won out.
So far, he's delivered as the Villanova quarterback. Through four games, he's completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 765 yards, 13 touchdowns, and three interceptions — and added 142 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
He's had a hand in 17 of 23 Wildcat touchdowns this season, and at 4-0 with the top-scoring offense in the CAA (42.2 points per game), it's hard to see the 'Cats slowing down anytime soon.
"Dan's been great, he's very composed," Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said. "He takes what the defense gives you ... He doesn't look to do too much. He does a great job with pre-snap reads and post-snap reads after the ball is snapped. He's been very good out there as far as keeping composure and directing the offense."
Smith is coming off a big performance against Towson, where the 'Cats were able to outduel the Tigers in a 52-45 overtime victory. He completed 25-of-42 pass attempts for 279 yards and four touchdowns; he added seven carries for 70 yards and two touchdowns — including the game-winning score on an option keeper in overtime.
His play earned him CAA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
While everything has been going smoothly on the field, Smith hands the credit to offensive coordinator Chris Boden and his fellow quarterbacks.
"Having had experience playing before, and having been a guy that was looked up to at Campbell, to put myself down in a spot where I'm going to come in and learn from somebody now — it was a very humbling experience," Smith said. "Jack [Schetelich], Qadir [Ismail], and J.J. [Scarpello], all three guys who had been in the program for a while, they were fantastic. They sat me down, they helped me learn the offense and the signals.
"We built a relationship through the summer, (and) by the time camp rolled around, it was like I had been there for months because they were so great in their approach and getting me caught up and getting me integrated into the program."
Despite the success that Villanova has enjoyed starting the season, Smith and the Wildcats are trying to avoid looking ahead. They haven't given much thought to what the 'Cats are capable of, instead looking only to Saturday's matchup against Maine.
The Black Bears will try to frustrate Villanova's aerial attack, as they boast the top passing defense in the conference (152.8 yards per game). The 'Cats will aim to continue to produce on offense, where success has been commonplace early on.
Things have gone full circle for Smith and the Wildcats. Smith was looking to compete at a higher level, and found it in CAA football. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were looking for the next quarterback to rely on and take the reins after Bednarczyk — and they've done just that.
"I had no idea it was going to go to full circle," Smith said, laughing. "I had no idea that I was going to finish my career somewhere other than Campbell at the time. It's just funny how life works itself out and plays out."