A new era for Villanova football begins Saturday as the Wildcats open the 2017 season vs. Lehigh (12:30 p.m.) with a new man in charge: Mark Ferrante.
But even though Andy Talley retired after a wildly successful 32-year coaching run, things may not look a whole different at Villanova, where Ferrante has preached to follow much of Talley's philosophy and the Wildcats once again enter a season as a national player in FCS football.
Here's a breakdown of the 10th-ranked Wildcats, who will aim for a title in the loaded Colonial Athletic Association before making a deep run in the FCS playoffs.
It all begins with junior quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, who is looking to take a big leap in his third year as the starter. He was thrown into the fray as a freshman two years ago after an early injury to star John Robertson and improved as a sophomore, throwing for 2,158 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for 539 yards and two TDs on 126 carries.
What can he do now with two seasons under his belt?
"Zach has made great strides," Ferrante said. "Obviously from his year two years ago to be forced into the starting role to what he accomplished last year, if he can make the same type of improvement from last year to this year, he'll be a really good one that people will be talking about."
Bednarczyk will have a lot of weapons, too — Villanova returns almost all of its skill players from last year, as well as most of its offensive line, after an injury-ravaged season from the offense in 2016.
Leading the charge will be running backs senior Matt Gudzak and junior Aaron Forbes, who came in strong last season and finished with a team-leading 799 rushing yards on 132 carries and eight TDs. And the 'Cats bring back every receiver, including the promising trio of senior Taurus Phillips, junior Jarrett McClenton and senior tight end Ryan Bell, who Ferrante called Bednarczyk's "go-to-guy."
"The chemistry looks great out here," Bednarczyk said. "Everyone gets a good amount of reps. It's great. It gives me more choices. I can look around the field."
The biggest thing Ferrante is harping on is consistency, considering the Wildcats averaged over 30 points per game in their seven wins last season and just seven points or fewer in each of their four losses.
That included their season-ending 10-7 defeat to South Dakota State in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
"We gotta work on finishing the game," Bednarczyk said. "Against South Dakota State, we had the opportunity to go down the field and potentially win. That's been one of our main focuses this year."
The Wildcats lose freakishly good defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and stalwart linebacker Austin Calitro, both of whom are now trying to make it in the NFL. Kpassagnon was a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs; Calitro is an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers.
And yet 'Nova still thinks it can build off its ferocious FCS-leading defense from a season ago. One big reason for that confidence? Senior safety Rob Rolle, who's been named the CAA preseason Defensive Player of the Year as well as a couple of preseason All-America nods.
As a junior last season, Rolle led the FCS with seven interceptions and scored two defensive TDs, including a 100-yard interception return.
"My goal is always to be around the ball, to change the game," Rolle said. "Ten to 15 tackles are good but interceptions are something everyone likes. And it's what I love to do."
The Wildcats have another dominant defensive player in senior linebacker Ed Shockley, who tied for the team lead in total tackles last year with 18, including 11 for a loss, and had four sacks and a fumble recovery.
And although the team does have to plug holes on the defensive line after losing Kpassagnon and Bryan Osei, Shockley thinks they have a lot of playmakers in Rolle, cornerback Malik Reaves and linebacker Jeff Steeb, among others.
"I think we've picked up from last year when we finished No. 1 in the country," Shockley said. "We lost pieces but I feel like a lot of young guys are ready to step up and take on bigger roles. ... The defense as a whole has a lot more mature, older guys."
The Wildcats are in good shape at punter as senior John Hinchen, a four-year starter, was named to the preseason All-CAA team after averaging 41.5 yards per punt with 10 punts of 50 yards or longer and 10 placed inside the 20.
Junior Gerard Smith is expected to be the placekicker. He was 5-of-7 on field goals and 36-of-40 on PATs last season.
Ferrante enters a tricky situation trying to fill in for Talley, who guided the Wildcats to the playoffs in six of the last nine seasons, including a 2009 national championship.
But heading into the opener, it's been a smooth transition for Ferrante, who had been Talley's assistant for the last 27 years.
"It's not too much of a change," Bednarczyk said. "I can still sense some of Coach Talley in him, just being around him so long."
Now it's time to find out if Ferrante can bring Talley's coaching chops on game day.
Player to watch
Last season, NFL scouts came in droves to watch Kpassagnon, and this year they're doing the same for Rolle, who Ferrante called the "quarterback" of the defense.
"He'll be a force to be reckoned with in our secondary," said the Villanova coach, who also marveled at how much the All-American does off the field.
For Rolle, the only thing on his mind is winning a ring in his final college season.
"It would mean everything," the senior said. "It's the storybook ending."
Game to watch
While all the CAA games are important, including an Oct. 14 tilt at defending national champion James Madison, the game of most local interest is probably Villanova's clash with Temple at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 9.
It will be an extremely difficult matchup for the Wildcats but they've performed well playing up a level in the past.
"We're excited to play Temple," Ferrante said. "That's a great FBS game for us and there should be a really good crowd down there."
Villanova's offense should improve and even if its defense takes a small step back, the Wildcats will likely remain one of the best teams in the CAA.
And if things break right for them, they can certainly not only challenge for a conference title but also make a run to the national semifinals.