Villanova Wildcats

Villanova still a top FCS threat in first year without Andy Talley

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Villanova still a top FCS threat in first year without Andy Talley

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."

Special teams
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.

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

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As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

The decisions made by Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to remain in the NBA draft should ultimately be a good thing for the Villanova basketball program. DiVincenzo and Spellman join college teammates Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson in the 2018 draft class and there's a chance all four of them are selected in the first round. 

Having four players drafted in the first round will do wonders for Villanova on the recruiting trail. The caliber of high school players that Jay Wright recruits want to play in the NBA. Wright could point to the four first-rounders the program produced this year in addition to former players like Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono currently playing in the NBA.

While Wright's program will reap the benefits of producing NBA talent in the long run, there is no disputing the fact that DiVincenzo and Spellman deciding to leave is a significant blow to the program in the immediate future. DiVincenzo and Spellman would have been Villanova's two best players next season. Two guys capable of leading the Wildcats to a third national championship in four years. 

But their departures bring about a new reality for Wright — his four best players from last year's team are gone and he has only two proven players returning to lead his team into the 2018-19 season. 

The proven returners
Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall combined to start 69 games last season and each played a critical role in winning the program's third national title. Next year will be Booth's fifth in the Villanova program and Paschall's fourth. These are proven performers and, more importantly, reliable leaders for what will largely be an inexperienced team. Booth will be one of the best guards in the Big East next season. Paschall is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference and his improved perimeter shooting last season was a key factor in Villanova winning the national championship.

Other key returners
This group will be the most important variable in Villanova's success next season. Collin Gillespie heads into his sophomore season poised for a big year. He made significant contributions off the bench as a freshman, overcoming an early season wrist injury that sidelined him for the better part of six weeks. A healthy and confident Gillespie will be a huge part of the Villanova backcourt. 

Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree rounded out Villanova's seven-man rotation last season. Like Gillespie, he enters his sophomore season with a wealth of big-game experience. Cosby-Roundtree proved his worth last season as a high-motor big man specializing in defensive energy, rebounding and running the floor. He'll now be asked to contribute on a more consistent level offensively.

Jermaine Samuels will play a critical role. Another rising sophomore, Samuels was making strides as a freshman before a broken hand sidelined him for an extended stretch during the beginning of conference play. He was never able to re-establish himself in the rotation once he returned. Samuels has all the physical tools to be a high-level Big East wing player in the mold of Hart and DiVincenzo. Keep an eye on Samuels.

Then there's big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season. Painter showed promise towards the end of his freshman season in 2017. The hope is that a year spent working on his strength and athleticism will pay dividends. The redshirt formula has been a big part of Villanova's success. Painter could become the latest example of that. 

The new arrivals
Wright welcomes in his highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. The headliner is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who originally committed to Arizona but then de-committed in the midst of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Wright is confident that Quinerly will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will be eligible next season. Quinerly should make an instant impact, the next in a long line of terrific Villanova lead guards.

Cole Swider should also see significant playing time as a freshman. Swider is listed as a forward but is more than capable of doing damage from the perimeter thanks to his elite-level shooting ability. Swider is a natural scorer and should be a perfect fit for Villanova's three-point heavy offense. Brandon Slater is the third member of Villanova's freshman class, an athletic wing who will have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

Villanova will also bring in at least one graduate transfer for next season. Joe Cremo has already committed to Villanova after starring at Albany the last two seasons. He averaged just under 18 points last year and shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range. The question is whether Cremo's production will carry over to the Big East level. Wright is hopeful that it will. Look for Cremo to be a key addition to the Villanova backcourt. 

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

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Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

Another Villanova star is moving on ... maybe.

Donte DiVincenzo has declared for the NBA draft but will not hire an agent, meaning he can test the draft waters but will maintain his college eligibility should he chose to return to school. 

The redshirt sophomore was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 31 points in Villanova' national title win over Michigan. 

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. His numbers jumped to 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists 54.7 percent shooting during the NCAA Tournament.

He must decide by May 30 if he will enter the draft or return to school.

DiVincenzo is the latest Wildcat to declare for the draft, as the mass exodus of stars continues for Villanova.

Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson have declared and hired agents, marking the end of their collegiate careers, while redshirt freshman Omari Spellman will also test the waters.

On the bright side, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall announced they will both return for next season.