HARRISONBURG — The urgency at Villanova isn’t there just because the Wildcats are trying to return to the FCS postseason for the first time in three years.
It’s there because Villanova’s season begins a week earlier than most.
“We’re going to start preseason practice before our guys are done with summer school, so we’ve never done that before,” third-year VU coach Mark Ferrante said. “Normally they get a few days, if not a week, between school ending and reporting for camp, so the guys will be walking out of their last day of class and heading to a team meeting. That’ll be a little different.”
Villanova, which finished 5-6 overall and 2-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association last year, kicks off its new campaign on Aug. 24 against Colgate at Andy Kerr Stadium in Hamilton, N.Y. — the same place James Madison had its 2018 season end when it fell in the second round of the FCS playoffs to the Raiders.
The Dukes and Wildcats meet in CAA play on Oct. 12 in Harrisonburg, and Ferrante’s bunch will look slightly different than when the two sides met last year and JMU blanked Villanova 37-0.
Longtime offensive coordinator Sam Venuto decided to retire and former defensive coordinator Joe Trainer left the program. Ferrante promoted Ola Adams from within to the run the defense and hired former Villanova quarterback Chris Boden to run the offense.
“Refreshing, to say in a word I guess,” Ferrante said of the staff changes. “It’s not like we’re coming out and going from what we did offensively to something drastically different or what we did on defense (Villanova’s 3-3 stack scheme is still around) to something drastically different, so we still have the core of what we’ve been doing in place philosophically, and it’s getting introduced and taught in different angles.
“But it was good because I think some players feel a little refreshed as well. Maybe they didn’t feel like they were getting the opportunities with the previous members of our staff and now they feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a new guy that’s in my room and I can start at the beginning again.’ So I guess refreshing is the best word I’d use for just a little new enthusiasm and new ways of introducing things.”
Another change for Villanova comes at the quarterback position. Though the Wildcats had a few different signal-callers start games over the past few years, their No. 1 quarterback was Zach Bednarczyk as long as he was healthy, but Bednarczyk graduated, so someone new will line up full-time behind center.
Ferrante said junior Jack Schetelich, who played against JMU in each of the past two seasons due to injuries to Bednarczyk, and sophomore Qadir Ismail, the son of former NFL receiver Qadry Ismail, competed throughout the spring for the role.
“It was a lot of give and take from one practice to the next, so we’ll take it into the preseason,” Ferrante said, “and see how it shakes out, but Jack and Qadir had better springs than the previous.”
Incoming freshman quarterback Connor Watkins, who had 20 offers from a mix of FBS and FCS schools, will also join the competition once he arrives, according to the coach.
The primary source of continuity for Ferrante is his defensive personnel.
Players who earned starts for the first time because of injuries this past fall, but kept their job because of strong play, return on that side of the ball for this coming one.
Back are four of five starters in the secondary including 2018 CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year Christian Benford at cornerback as well as linebackers Keeling Hunter and Drew Wiley in addition to defensive lineman Malik Fisher.
With five interceptions last season, Benford tied former JMU cornerback Jimmy Moreland for the most in the league to go along with 49 tackles and six pass breakups. Fellow corner Jaquan Amos led the Wildcats with 57 tackles while Hunter and Wiley combined for 98 takedowns and Fisher tallied a team-best five sacks.
“We feel a little stronger with what we have returning on defense as far as experience and level of players to rotate through,” Ferrante said. “But I’m sure we’ll have freshman not knowing who they are yet step up and start like Christian Benford did last year or Jaquan Amos did the year before, and hopefully we hit on some of those guys to add to that depth.”
As always the case at Villanova, the Wildcats’ health is vital in order to compete so their lack of depth doesn’t become a problem like it has the past few years. Ferrante has about 90 players on his roster whereas league foes like the Dukes, Delaware and Towson all have rosters that exceed 110 players.
Aside from Bednarczyk, Villanova had to play without former running back Matt Gudzak, former tight end Ryan Bell and wide receiver Changa Hodge on offense due to different injuries in recent seasons.
Ferrante said he’s hoping Hodge stays on the field to give whoever wins the quarterback job a reliable target. Hodge had six catches for 40 yards in Villanova’s upset victory over Temple in last year’s season opener. All-CAA second-team running back Aaron Forbes, who rushed for 828 yards and nine touchdowns last year, will still likely be the focal point of the offense, though.
“The number one thing I liked, especially after the last two falls we had, is that we came out of the spring pretty much injury free,” Ferrante said. “As you know, we’ve had a little bit of the injury bug upon us over these last couple of seasons.”
As far as returning to the postseason, it’s always the objective for the Wildcats even though Ferrante and company have realized over the last two years the path to do so isn’t easy.
“It’s important and our goal is winning season, win the league, get in the playoffs, win a national championship,” Ferrante said. “But there are a lot of baby steps for doing that. You can’t look at the final, and you’ve got to stay true to task to what you’re doing.”