Oh, what might’ve been for Villanova football in 2017.
Months before Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats would storm to their second national title in three years, their gridiron counterparts seemed well on their way to a big year of their own. First-year coach Mark Ferrante, taking over from Andy Talley, had the ‘Cats 2-1 when it all began to come apart in seemingly a matter of moments.
Three key starters, top defensive back Rob Rolle, running back Matt Gudzak and tight end Ryan Bell went down with knee injuries in the midst of a loss at Albany—and never returned all season. The following week, quarterback Zack Bednarczyk, off to a spectacular start with six touchdowns, no interceptions and a 70.2 percent completion rate, blew out his knee as well.
Ultimately, a four-game losing streak doomed the Wildcats to a 5-6 season, which most seemed to forget once Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges & Co. began doing their thing on the hardwood.
But now with the season opener against Temple at the Linc six days away, the 2018 Wildcats, finally healthy and deep, are confident they can put together the kind of season 2017 was supposed to be.
“Definitely, we had higher expectations for last year than what we ended up with,” admitted Bednarczyk, whose shown no ill effects from the injury and is ready to pick up where he left off.
“A lot of guys were bummed out when we got hurt and lost our season,” he continued. “We’re playing with a little chip on our shoulder this year.”
While STATS FCS Top 25 poll ranks them 19th in the nation, the Wildcats are only picked to finish sixth in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“They’re definitely sleeping on us,” said offensive tackle and pre-season All-American Ethan Greenidge, considered by many a legit pro prospect. “I think with all the weapons coming back sixth is a little too low for us.”
“Obviously injuries are part of the game. I wouldn’t say we got cheated last year, but we want to pick it up with all the guys back. We should be really good this year,” added Greenidge.
One reason why Villanova should be better this year is the wealth of experience, factoring in the injured players coming back along with those returning forced into action probably before they were ready.
“We can’t control it, so we put the injury stuff behind us,” said Ferrante, who’d been on Talley’s staff in various capacities for 30 years, before taking the reins last season. “The silver lining part of it, at least the way we’ve approached it, is the playmakers that were knocked out last year due to injury are all back and healthy as of right now.”
Ferrante also mentioned how young players who might not have been ready to contribute last year, will help the team in their quest to win the CAA.
“Then we have the young guys who got playing time that not have been ready to play as much as they did last year. So yeah, we are pretty experienced right now.”
“I think we are poised to do well and have a good season. But you know you have to play consistently and as we learned last season you have to stay healthy,” explained the head coach.
In addition to Bednarczyk, getting back Rolle, essentially the quarterback of the defense should pay huge dividends for Villanova.
“This injury has taught me more about myself in the last year than in the last 20 years,” said Rolle, the fifth-year senior who had seven interceptions in 2016.
“The biggest thing is patience. There are a lot of things you can’t control or manipulate. That’s not how it is in the real world. You have to rely on the 10 other guys on the field.”
There’s also trying to follow the lead of your fellow schoolmates who just hoisted another NCAA championship trophy earlier this year.
“It definitely motivates us,” admitted Rolle, a second-team pre-season All American. “You see guys you go to class with and eat in the cafeteria with every day. If they can stick together and get it done, we can do the same.”
With all that being said, the 2018 Villanova Wildcats are healthy and ready to roar—finally.