Villanova football preview: John Robertson and company return with sights on a title

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Has this ever happened before?

Villanova quarterback John Robertson is the reigning Walter Payton Award winner, a consensus All-American after throwing for 2,846 yards and 35 touchdowns last season — with just three interceptions—while rushing for 1,078 yards more and 11 scores.To no one’s surprise he’s an FCS pre-season All American again, not to mention the pre-season pick for Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year.

But he’s not alone when it comes to Wildcats’ excellence.On the other side of the ball linebacker Don Cherry racked up 82 solo tackles to go with 10 sacks and five forced fumbles. That made him an All American, too, last year.It also makes him this season’s CAA’s pre-season Defensive Player of the Year.

Yet neither is letting it go to his head.

“It’s quite amazing,”said Villanovacoach, Andy Talley, who’ll open his 31styear on the Main Line next week at Connecticut. “But these guys are really excellent players and kind of all-American boys.They’re really high achievers who worked hard to get where they are.John did it all last year and so did Don.They had spectacular junior years.”

Consequently, so did the 11-3 Wildcats who wound up ranked sixth in the FCS, losing a quarterfinal playoff game to Sam Houston State when Robertson benched himself due to a concussion.He’s never regretted that decision, preferring to look ahead instead, ready to make his last go-round one to remember.

“The first thing we have to realize this is this year’s team, not last year,”said Robertson, who spent the summer working on Wall Street and now will be going for his MBA. “That’s why we’re ranked so high.But we haven’t done anything yet.The first game will prove if we’re near what the rankings say.”

The rankings say Villanova is No. 4 in the FCS, mainly because Robertson is back to lead an offense that returns running back Gary Underwood, Nos. 2 and 3 receivers Kevin Gulyas and Mike Burke and three fifths of its offensive line.Meanwhile, the defense, which struggled at key points last season, almost can’t help but be improved.

“For the defense the way it ended last year left a bad taste in our mouths,”said the 6-foot-1, 240 poundCherry, of a defense that returns three of its top four leading tacklers, along with interception leader Jason Ceneus. “We had a chance to stop Sam Houston State late and didn’t do it.Our motto this year is ‘Every time we have a chance to finish we will.’ We definitely should be better than we were last year.A lot of guys got experience in the playoffs, so it was nice we all had a taste.We have that, plus having John healthy.”

As always it comes back to Robertson, who admittedly was slowed much of last season by injuries to his hip and non-throwing hand.While conceding it will be hard to toplast season, he’ll give it his best shot.

“At this point I have high expectations of myself, said the 6-foot-1, 220 poundRobertson, who has NFL aspirations. “I need to make all the players around me the best they can.Last year I had a great group of guys around me and a lot of them are back. But we can’t think because we were good last year teams are gonna hand it to us.Everyone’s gonna give us their best game, so we have to be ready.”

Talley’s confident they will be.

“John drives the train,”said Talley, whose biggest worry has to be the kicking game, which cost Villanova dearly last year due to a number of missed field goals and extra points. “When he plays well we have a chance to beat anybody.But I think our defense gonna be better than it’s been.Don Cherry is the guy that stirs the drink and I think our secondary will be better, too.”

Exactly what that adds up to for Villanova is hard to say, especially considering a brutal schedule that includes trips to Fordham, Towson and James Madison, with Delaware, William & Mary and Richmond coming to town.But when you’ve got both the offensive and defensive players of the year you figure to be pretty formidable.

“I don’t care about awards,” said Cherry, who also figures to have pro scouts paying close attention.“It’s definitely nice to have coaches and players around the country think you’re a good player. “But this is my last year.I want to make every practice, every game count.”

So does fellow All-American John Robertson, the other half of Villanova’s 1-2 punch.Together they figure to make Villanova quite a knockout.

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