Recently I was lucky enough to have VU Hoops' editor and writer, Brian Ewart, agreed to help us dissect the 2015 Villanova Wildcats. The bolded questions below are the questions I asked Brian, and his answers can be found below the questions. This format will be common weekly with UConn opponent writers chiming in with their current take of the next Husky victim. Enjoy!
While Villanova returns a potential Walter Payton Award winner in John Robertson, there are other significant losses on the offense (RB, WR, OL). Who do you see filling those spots, and which of these three units do you feel most comfortable with heading into September 3?
The biggest question-mark on offense heading into the season is going to be the offensive line. The ‘Cats lost Kevin Monangai (who got a couple of carries for the Eagles this weekend) from the backfield, and there have been a couple key receivers who have moved on as well. I think despite those losses, the skill position players are less of a concern for me than the offensive line.
There’s really no doubt that the offense lost a lot with the graduation of slot receiver Poppy Livers (987 yards, 9TD), running back Monangai (1138 yards, 12TD), and tight end Earnest Pettway. Two of those guys were signed by NFL teams as free agents, and the third performed the rare (for Villanova) feat of returning two punts for touchdowns.
That said, the guys moving into those spots are relatively proven commodities for Villanova. Senior Aaron Wells will likely step into Livers’ shoes in the slot and as a former speed demon running back in high school, he should make the transition well. Likely to start at running back is Gary Underwood, who shared carried the last two seasons, initially distinguishing himself as a receiver out of the backfield, but managed to average 7.5 yards per carry last season on the ground before his injury. At tight end, the ‘Cats have Purdue-transfer Ryan Morris stepping up to give Robertson a big target.
The offensive line, however, has the most change. Ross Hall, who had been the only center Robertson played with at Villanova and right tackle Vince Kowalski (who was signed by the Packers) both graduated. That shifted Kyle Wallace from guard to center, shifted guard Jake Prus to right tackle, and upgraded Nico D’Angelo and Jonathan Green to the starting line-up. This is a unit that has talent, and certainly has size (they average 295, but really, if someone would just get Wallace a hoagie, we could bump them up over 300…), the question is whether they will gel in time for the opener.
To end the dissertation and get right to the answer: I’m most confident in the running backs. I think the wideouts will be very good as well, though, but none of it matters if the OL doesn’t do a decent job.
Coach Andy Talley is a legend ad Villanova, having coached at the school for over 30 years. Do you see him continuing his coaching career for the foreseeable future, or is his tenure nearing the end?
I’d like to say he’ll coach forever. I think he has a few more years in him, and if that FBS thing had happened, maybe he would have had a few more. As it is, I think he plans to be a part of the program at least a little longer, but we are definitely in the latter part of his run at Villanova. Talley will be remembered as a legend on the Main Line and is likely one of the greatest coaches in Villanova’s history, and hopefully he’ll get a statue someday next to Jumbo Elliot in the stadium.
The strength of this UConn defense is the front 7, who do you see amongst these players that could potentially cause issues for the Villanova offense?
All of them.
The UConn defense is built to stop the thing Villanova most wants to do on offense: run. The Huskies have some big bodies on the defensive line in particular, and that is where I think they can do the most damage; if they can get into the backfield, it will force Robertson to scramble, or get out of bounds – Robertson is good on the run, but he still needs time for his receivers to get open; and stopping the run at the line of scrimmage will take away a lot of options in the running game, forcing Nova to pass.
What makes John Robertson so special? If you had to make a comparison to him with another college QB, who would you pick and why?
The easy comparison is Johnny Manziel, but without the ego or off-the-field issues. He also has one very important thing in common with last year’s Heisman winner Marcus Mariota: they were #1 and #2 in all of NCAA Football in passing efficiency last year, and #3 wasn’t even close.
What Robertson can do with his legs is impressive. He’s one of the most elusive runner’s I’ve seen at Villanova and he rarely comes up short when he takes off. When he passes the ball though, he makes great reads and keeps the ball out of the wrong hands (he had just 3 picks in 13 games last year).
What is the major strength of the defense? Will Bryant Shirreffs need to air it out in order for UConn to get a W, or is this going to be more of a ground and pound effort from the Huskies?
Villanova’s strength has traditionally been run-stopping. They lost the massive nose guard Pat Williams to graduation and could struggle to replace him – two years ago the ‘Cats had to switch to a 4-2-5 defense in order to deal with issues along the defensive line, but last season Williams helped the ‘Cats to manage the running game nicely.
If Ricky Young and Eric Drains can step in and fill those shoes, however, the ‘Cats will look good along the defensive line again this season. They also return all of their key players at linebacker, which includes Connecticut-native Don Cherry, who was runner-up for best defensive player in FCS last season and enters 2015 as the favorite for that honor.
As Sam Houston State proved last year, airing it out against Villanova is a good strategy. Villanova has some talented defensive backs, but big FBS receivers will have an advantage against that unit. If UConn can find the mismatches downfield, it might be a good strategy.
Who on the UConn offense scares you the most?
Based on what I said above, I should say “Noel Thomas,” but I’ll go with Bryant Shirreffs. If Shirreffs is as good as advertised, he could give the Villanova defense nightmares. It sounds like he has a strong arm and is an explosive runner, and I’m not sure how the ‘Cats will handle him, but it seems like handling him will be one of the keys to the game.
Villanova is ranked fourth in the 2015 FCS initial Pre-Season poll. What does this ranking say about the overall talent on the team?
Hold up: They were THIRD in the coaches poll! Lets make sure they get credit for that…
This is a team with potentially the best offensive player and the best defensive player in FCS football. The supporting cast is good as well, and with a lot of returning players, they are expected to be the team to beat in the CAA Football conference once again.
The ranking, however, doesn’t mean a damned thing. In 2010, Villanova was ranked first in the preseason polls. They lost a squeaker to Temple in the opener that year, and lost star Matt Szczur a week or two later to an injury. It ended up being a pretty mediocre season where they just barely made it to the playoffs (and yes, they went on a ridiculous run to the semifinals, smoking App State along the way). The FCS preseason poll is fun to talk about, but I don’t put much stock in it at all.
With Villanova being a relatively short distance from UConn and the fact that these two have a major history on the basketball court, do you see a good contingent of Villanova fans making the trip to East Hartford for the game?
Well, the usual characters from the Villanova football club are basically a sure thing to make it to the game. The ‘Cats also have a good number of alumni who live in that area or nearby, and hopefully many of them will attend as well.
I wouldn’t expect to see half your stadium in Villanova shirts, however.
Finally, predict the game. Winner, final score, and anything else you feel is relevant to the prediction you are making.
I don’t do predictions anymore. Sorry! If Villanova’s offensive line plays as well as last year, then I think the ‘Cats will keep it close. I believe Gary Underwood and Javon White are due for a breakout season, and I think Robertson will make good use of a stable of possession receivers as well as big-play threat Kevin Gulyas. If Steve Weyler can overcome the yips he had last year, maybe Villanova won’t have a repeat of last year’s Syracuse game.