Yes, in many ways it’s different this year at Villanova. But in others, it’s not.
After all, Mark Ferrante’s voice is a familiar one, since he’s been on the scene long before any of them were born, let alone arrived on the Main Line campus. Only now his voice, rather than Andy Talley’s, is the one that matters most.
“Honestly not much has changed,” said nose tackle Ricky Young, as the Wildcats prepare to open the 2017 season Saturday at Lehigh. “The coaching switch was a smooth transition, and a lot of the same coaches stayed on. But I think this camp has gone better than those in the past.”
How that translates once they start putting those practices into game action remains to be seen. But with 15 returning starters and 32 letter winners, including quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, leading rusher Aaron Forbes, top receiver Taurus Phillips, leading tackler, Jeff Steeb and ballhawk Rob Rolle (seven interceptions) it’s not like Talley left the cupboard bare.
“We have a strong nucleus returning on both sides of the ball,” said the 56-year-old Ferrante, who joined his former St. Lawrence University coach Talley’s staff in 1987 and simply never left, serving as assistant head coach the past 16 seasons. “We’re hoping for more consistency on offense and to maintain a strong defense and build on the consistency that we’ve had. Coach Talley has built this program from the ground up. The winning formula is already in place.”
That formula resulted in an NCAA championship in 2009 along with 11 other post-season berths. After an injury-plagued 6-5 year in 2015, the ‘Cats made it to the second round of the tournament last season, before falling at South Dakota State, 10-7.
In their minds they underachieved.
“That’s been the story our whole careers here at Villanova,” said senior safety Rolle, who was in on 63 tackles — 39 unassisted — and recovered a fumble last season. “Our freshman year we were 11-3 and lost all three games by a total of five points. Last year we lost to South Dakota State by another three points. Losing by such small margins makes you go back and be hungrier. You realize what you have to do to get that last score to put your team on top and not be on the bitter end.”
For the most part it’s been more sweet than bitter for Bednarczyk, who was pressed into duty as a red-shirt freshman when 2014 Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson blew out his knee. Last year, while guiding the Cats to a 9-4 mark, Bednarczyk threw for 2,158 yards and 19 touchdowns, while rushing for 539 and two more scores.
Knowing it’s his job makes a difference for the kid from Wallington, NJ.
“It gives me more confidence in my teammates and gives my teammates more confidence in me,” said the 6-foot1, 200 pound junior. “I’m way more comfortable with the offense this year. I feel like I understand the plays more and know what coach wants me to do.”
With Forbes (799 yards rushing and eight scores) and Matt Gudzak (533 and three touchdowns ) doing most of the ground work, while Phillips (36 catches for 497 yards and three scores) and Jarrett McClenton (30 for 334) serving as Bednarczyk’s favorite targets Villanova figures to have a balanced offense. That will come in handy in the deep and talented CAA, which features defending National champs James Madison, among others.
Defensively, the Cats should be tough as well, led by pre-season All America safety Rolle, linebackers Steeb and Ed Shockley, cornerback Malik Reaves and Young.
“We have a lot of play makers on our defense,” said Shockley. “You can’t just focus on one person on our defense. If so that will open the door for others.”
Just like the door that’s finally opened for Ferrante, after 30 years waiting in the wings.
“There’s no need to change what the formula is,” said Ferrante, whose club gets to renew hostilities with neighboring Temple, before taking on Lafayette in the home opener. “Some little things will change but they won’t be noticeable. But they’ve heard me before. The difference is now I’m doing it all.”
The wait is finally over on the Main Line. Let the Mark Ferrante era begin.