NCAA

St. Joe's eyes collective step forward after injury-plagued 2016-17

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St. Joe's eyes collective step forward after injury-plagued 2016-17

Just 18 months ago, Saint Joseph’s was only a possession away from pulling even with No. 1 seed Oregon in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

The following season, the Hawks won only 11 games, 17 less than the season prior that resulted in an Atlantic 10 championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.

The difference in success has a lot to do with the fact that St. Joe’s simply didn’t have the bodies to compete on a nightly basis.

Five Hawks missed at least seven games because of injury in 2016-17. That includes key cogs such as senior guard Shavar Newkirk (19 games, torn left ACL), senior forward James Demery (10 games, stress fracture in left foot) and junior guard Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble (seven games, left foot fracture).

In addition, forward Lorenzo Edwards missed all but one game because of shoulder surgery, while forward Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva missed the entire season after having knee surgery.

The Hawks have healed and now return their top-six scorers from a season ago, plus four guys that played at least 14 minutes in that tournament loss to Oregon. However, while a full roster is certainly a benefit, head coach Phil Martelli assured that merely having healthy players won’t turn around the team’s fortunes.

“We are returning starters from an 11-win season, so it isn’t that important,” Martelli said. “The way I have described this — when you have the year we had, you can get stripes. You can have a guy that gets a 20-point game, but it’s just a stripe. You only get a tattoo when your team wins. We have guys that understand that.

“I like the pieces that we have, but the pieces have to fit to where there is role acceptance. Who plays well with whom and when you are told what you get, will you maximize your 12 or 16 minutes on the floor?”

The roles for the backcourt tandem of Kimble and Newkirk are pretty clear.

While Newkirk continues to work his way back from ACL surgery by doing agility and stamina drills with the training staff, Kimble has returned in what he hopes is an even better version of himself.

“I definitely learned that I needed to improve my game,” said Kimble, who finished second on the team behind Newkirk with 15.5 points per game. “This summer, I got in the gym and slimmed down about 10 pounds and I feel like I am a step quicker and a step stronger.

“Last season was very humbling for us. Hopefully, we will be able to change things around and everyone will come in with a new mindset this year. You always need that balance between veterans and the young guys to keep everyone on a straight path.”

Martelli has been impressed with Kimble’s improvement as a basketball player and a leader.

“Lamarr has matured in the way he is going about his practice but making sure his team is organized and set,” Martelli said. “He is attentive to detail and I am a big fan of him as a leader, human being and as a player.”

Much like Kimble and Newkirk, Demery saw a big jump in scoring in 2016-17 before being sidelined. He posted 14.5 points per game and was the Hawks’ leading rebounder with 6.5 a night.

Despite the personal numbers, Demery is ready to move on from what he called a “down year.”

“We are not trying to repeat 2016-17 this season,” Demery said. “We have strong team chemistry and the young guys look up to myself and 'Fresh' because we have been in the ring and know what it takes to win an A-10 title.”

When prompted about what it will take for St. Joe’s to return to form, Martelli was direct that everything must be about the group and not individuals.

"We need to rebound and grasp the idea of role acceptance,” Martelli said. “We need to grow in the idea that we have to respect the 'we' and forget about the 'me.'"

Penn State using creative plays to get most out of Saquon Barkley

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Penn State using creative plays to get most out of Saquon Barkley

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley's first career touchdown pass didn't look as good on replay as he envisioned it would. But it worked, unlike the first time the running back tried to throw one.

"You can tell, I can't throw the ball at all," Barkley said of his fourth-quarter jump-lob last week. "I was completely nervous because you can ask my teammates, that play didn't go too well in practice."

In practice, Barkley's release was bad and the ball stuck in his palm on the follow-through. It went straight into the ground, drawing groans, laughs and -- as Barkley put it -- politically incorrect ribbing from teammates.

But it didn't stop offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead from turning right back to it in a playbook that's loaded with ways to unleash No. 26. After all, most of them work thanks to the 5-foot-11, 230-pound back's frenetic ability to spin, juke or leap over or through defenders seemingly at will.

"I don't think that anything the kid does can surprise you anymore," Moorhead said. "I think the Iowa game was a microcosm of the kid's skillset: 350-plus all-purpose yards, he did it on the ground, did it catching the ball, did a very good job in pass protection. I don't get to see every player in the country on a weekly basis but if there's a better one, I'd be hard pressed to believe it."

Moorhead has tried a lot -- swing passes, shovel passes, dump-offs and laterals just in the last game -- to get his star more action. Most of it has worked.

Barkley leads all FBS players with 243.6 all-purpose yards per game through five games and averages a first down per play. He's scored rushing, receiving and return touchdowns and only four players have more touches than his 121, 23 more than he had at this point last season.

His rushing responsibilities haven't changed, however. Barkley's 86 carries equal what he had at this point last year. But as defensive coordinators have pledged to limit Barkley's running room, Moorhead has opted to utilize his best player's receiving skills. Barkley has responded as the team's leading receiver so far with 386 yards on 27 catches.

He's excelled in all other areas, too.

Moorhead notes Barkley's prowess in pass protection -- like his block of blitzing Josey Jewel that gave quarterback Trace McSorley time to throw the game-winning touchdown against Iowa -- enables him to stay on the field in every passing formation. His 98-yard kickoff return touchdown to open last week's game was what Franklin envisioned when he and special teams coach Charles Huff penciled him in as the team's primary kick returner long before camp started.

Franklin was confident his star running back could handle this kind of workload. Strolls through the weight room where he's seen Barkley increase his workout intensity year after year have reinforced that.

"As a freshman, you get in the weight room and you lift and you run and your body really reacts because you've never worked so hard in your life," Franklin said. "But by the time you get to your third year, you don't get the same type of results. His body is still reacting, and I think that's probably the difference with him is even at as high of a level as he was last year, he was still able to take another step."

That's shown up for anyone who's watched Barkley with the goal of game planning against him.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has that task next.

"Barkley is maybe the best player that I've ever seen on tape," Fitzgerald said. "I've played against some pretty good backs, I've coached against some pretty good backs, but he's just absolutely spectacular. He's great in the run game, he's great in protection, catching the ball out of the backfield, he's a great return man, he does it all and he's an outstanding football player."

All of these numbers and highlights have already added up to what Barkley knows is a legitimate shot at the Heisman Trophy. As a user of social media, Barkley said he can't avoid the hype even though he tries.

"I care about (the Heisman) because I'm a competitor, and I want to be the best," Barkley said. "I'd love to try and win it, but that's not my focus. My focus is on the team, my focus is on the game, my focus is on coming out every week and pushing my team to continue to try to be the best possible."

Injuries continue to mount for Villanova football

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Injuries continue to mount for Villanova football

While injuries often influence a team's season, 12th-ranked Villanova has been especially challenged in recent weeks.

On Monday, the Wildcats were awaiting MRI results for quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, who suffered a knee injury early in a 24-9 win at Towson on Saturday night.

It occurred one game after senior safety Rob Rolle, the CAA Football preseason defensive player of the year, suffered an ACL injury and was lost for the remainder of the season. Two other starters, tight end Ryan Bell and running back Matt Gudzak, also were injured in that loss to Albany and missed the Towson game.

Earlier last month, top wide receiver Changa Hodge was lost to a season-ending foot injury.

"It's been difficult. We don't have a huge roster as it is," first-year coach Mark Ferrante said Monday. "When you lose guys of that magnitude, it's never an easy thing and it's always going to be a challenge.

"Unfortunately, we're playing a lot of first-year players. Not just redshirt freshmen, but we're playing probably more true freshmen than we anticipated playing and had to take some redshirts off from guys. I'm sure that will gain them some valuable experience and things for down the road. But we've got to try to do the best we can in the present."

Bednarczyk, a 2 1/2-year starter, has been one of the top quarterbacks in CAA Football this season. The left-hander has completed 70.2 percent of his attempts for 1,068 yards and six touchdowns without an interception, and rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns.

He was replaced in the Towson game by redshirt freshman Jack Schetelich, who accounted for all three Villanova touchdowns.

The Wildcats (3-2) will host Maine on Saturday.