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Villanova looks to build momentum in spring practice
One of the advantages of returning several starters from a team that advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season is that spring practice is more about maintenance and carrying the momentum than being concerned about grooming new players at key positions.
With 16 returning starters from a team that captured a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title, including eight that earned all-conference honors, Villanova coach Andy Talley looked at this spring as a time for the team to continue to build chemistry while making sure none of the players, especially returning starters, suffered any injuries of consequence.
“One of the things I wanted to do was back off on some of the guys that are established players and make sure we didn’t have any season-ending injuries while developing some of the younger kids,” said Talley, whose team last year went 6-2 in the CAA and 8-4 overall, including an opening-round playoff defeat at Stony Brook. “So, goal No. 1 was to maintain the health of the returning starters and still get them skill work, and number two was to give a lot of the younger players a chance to improve.”
Spring was also a time for Talley to name two new captains. The honors went to Antoine Lewis and Dan Shirey. Lewis was a first-team All-CAA selection after tallying 50 tackles last season, including 8.5 for loss. The nose guard will be a senior.
The offensive line received a boost with the return of Shirey, who will be a fifth-year senior. After making 34 consecutive starts, the center missed the 2012 season following surgery on his Achilles tendon. Shirey was named first team All-CAA in 2011 and was a third teamer in ’10.
“Dan is one of best offensive lineman in the league and it is really good to have him back,” said Talley, who is 198-120-1 since taking over the resurrected VU program in 1985. “We have been careful with him and he seems to have held up really well. He has given us a lot of depth in the offensive line, which we don’t normally have. I think the offensive line will be one of our strengths.”
The play of John Robertson was a strength last season after he emerged as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback. He came on in relief of Chris Polony in the opener at Temple and started the second game against visiting Fordham. What transpired was a memorable redshirt freshman season in which he totaled nearly 3,000 yards, including 1,021 on the ground to become the first ‘Nova quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Robertson also accounted for 28 touchdowns, including a team-high 14 rushing en route to winning the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS.
“We’re trying to prepare for a big season and the mood among the team is great,” said Robertson. “We have a hungry attitude and we’re trying to get better every day while not taking anything for granted. We want to go further into the playoffs than we did last year.”
A year has made a big difference for Robertson. Though not a captain per se, he is the leader of an offense that piled up 421 yards per game to rank fourth in the CAA and 27th nationally.
“It was definitely a good start to my career,” he said. “My teammates helped me out a lot last year and I feel like I can now take more control of the offense.”
Winning a prestigious award is something that commands the attention of his peers.
“It is pretty well stated that when you win a national award like John did, that there is an aura around a guy like that,” said Talley. “Players look at him and go ‘Wow, he is something special.’ So they pay him a little more respect and understand that he has guided the team this far.”
Hammering home Talley’s point about the spring being a chance for some younger and less experienced players to develop is junior receiver Clay Horne. The offense had to do without the services of Malvern’s Joe Price, the Wildcats’ leading returning receiver who was held out of spring drills due to a hand injury. His absence in part opened a door for 6-foot-6 Horne. The junior caught only one pass last season, but demonstrated a knack for stretching the defense in the spring.
“I would say that Clay is probably our most improved player in the spring,” said Talley. “With Joe Price out, it has given Clay a chance to step up and step in. More importantly, he has been very consistent.”
Spring practice marked a time for younger players to grasp what is expected of them and for the team as a whole to get in sync with each other. After all, pre-season practice and the Sept. 1 opener at Boston College will be here soon enough.
“We pretty much have all of our starters coming back and we need to make sure the younger guys know the system,” said linebacker Pat Haggerty, who will be entering his senior year. “It’s a time to tune up and understand what we have to do so when we come out in (fall) camp we are ready to go.”
When the Wildcats get underway in the summer swelter, it will be quite clear what the goals are. While Talley’s tenure at Villanova has been marked by considerable success, including an FCS title in 2009, this particular group got back to raising the bar rather high following a 2-9 season in 2011.
“We felt last year, even when we got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, we could have gone further,” said Haggerty. “This year is about building off of that. This is definitely a year where we want to go a lot further. Our goals are very high.”
By Tom Layberger, Main Line Media News