It's Championship or bust in 2010I know that next Football season is way far away, but I think it is interesting to address whether or not Villanova has what it takes to repeat as Champions. One of the big questions regarding a repeat is whether or not Matt Szczur returns for his senior season. If Szczur does return, that should make Villanova a near unanimous preseason number one selection as they return so many starters on both sides of the ball. In total, Villanova will definitely lose seven starters, a fairly managable number when you consider the high volume of returning players with starting experience of some kind. In Short: I do think Villanova has the talent in place to make yet another run at a national title.
Now I'll go position by position to give the state of the team for next year.
Quarterback- With a career record of 25-5 and a National Championship under his belt, Chris Whitney may already be the Greatest Quarterback Villanova has had in the Andy Talley era. The mere fact that he is returning makes The 'Cats a contender for another National Championship. Not only was Whitney the team's leading rusher this season with almost 1,000 yards, but he demonstrated this season that when needed, he can lead the team to victory throwing the ball. The backup situation takes a hit with the graduation of Antwon Young but next year's backup Chris Johnson was highly touted coming out of high school.
Running Back- For the past couple years, Villanova has been Stacked at Running Back and that shouldn't change in 2010. Aaron Ball and Angelo Babbaro should each return for their senior seasons and hopefully next year they will both be healthy for the entire year. Ball, a downhill runner who is a load to bring down has shown his ability running the football as he ran for over 1,000 yards in 2008 as a sophomore and was third on the team in rushing in 2009. Babbaro, who is more of a scat back and a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield had his moments in 2009 and should have a larger role in the offense in 2010. Behind the two main backs is Lawrence Doss who has good hands and decent speed. With the return of the top three players on the depth chart at running back, Villanova should be stacked at that position yet again in 2010.
Wide Receivers- In theory, The 'Cats could be hit very hard by graduation at Wide Receiver. Brandyn Harvey, one of the most prolific wideouts in school history will graduate so Villanova must replace his production. There is also the question of Matt Szczur. It is not a foregone conclusion that Szczur will leave Villanova to play professional baseball but that is a spector that should loom over VU Football for this entire offseason. I've heard #4 quoted as saying that football is his first love and that's why he decided to go to Villanova so this situation is very touch and go. I happen to believe that he has as much of a chance in the NFL as he does in Major League Baseball. Behind Harvey and Szczur is Norman White, Dorian Wells, Mikey Reynolds, Larry Jackson, Kenny Miles and freshman Joe Price. Should Szczur leave, expect White and Wells to pick up some of the Slack left by both him and Harvey with the rest of the receivers getting the rest of the available touches divided between them.
Tight End- Since Villanova runs a run-heavy spread offense, the Tight End was used mostly as a blocker this season. Returning starter Chris Farmer did get slightly more involved in the offense down the stretch in the playoff run and scored what amounted to being the game winning touchdown in the National Championship. Villanova has lacked a threat at the Tight End position since the graduation of Matt Sherry. The role of the Tight End in the Villanova Offense could change next year as Brennan Erbeznik (who was redshirted this year) compares favorably to Sherry according to Coach Talley. The more diversified the offense becomes the better and if Tight Ends are making plays in the passing game, that bodes well for The 'Cats.
Offensive Line- The Offensive Line was the strongest position group on Villanova's 2009 team. While two players graduate, the Offensive Line returns its two best players. Anchoring the left side Villanova Offensive Line for the fourth consecutive year in 2010 will be Left Tackle Ben Ijalana and Left Guard Brant Clouser. Ijalana (who is a legitimate NFL prospect on The Blind Side) and Clouser have been starting for The 'Cats since the day they walked onto campus in 2007 and have not missed a game since. At Center, Villanova loses a four year starter in Brian Brannigan but sliding in his place will be Dan Shirey, who is very talented in his own right and started several games this season as a true freshman including the National Championship. Right Guard is a question mark and spring practice will probably sort it out but I'm guessing that freshman Josh Bucci may have the upper hand if he is able to slide to guard from his natural position of tackle. At Right Tackle, Chidozie Ekweozor should be the opening day starter if he is able to recover from his torn ACL that he suffered in the Holy Cross game. With these five in place and a talented transfer from Hofstra coming in, The 'Cats should be in good shape on the Line in 2010.
Defensive Line- The Villanova Defensive Line is perhaps the hardest hit unit on the entire team as there are two starters graduating including All Conference Defensive End Tim Kukucka. Also graduating is Nose Tackle Phil Matusz. Matusz's replacement, Thomas Weaver is as good or better in my opinion so his graduation is absorbable in my opinion. The players who will hopefully fill the void left by Kukucka at Defensive End are already on the roster. As a freshman starter this year, Marlon Johnson was a servicable player but he must turn into a playmaker next season to fill the void left by #56. The primary backup at Defensive End this season, Mario Johnson (no relation) had a monster game against Penn and then seemed to disappear for the rest of the season. In 2010, The Johnsons, Tamai Young, Rakim Cox (who redshirted this year) and Donald Davis must be able to fill the void left by Tim Kukucka.
Linebacker- The strongest group on the defense this season was without question the Linebackers. With two of three starters returning, I see no reason for that to change in 2010. Terence Thomas had an all time great season for The 'Cats with over 100 tackles to go along with 8.5 sacks. The man in the middle will again be Marquis Kirkland who in my opinion was Villanova's best defensive player on the field in the National Championship. Three year starter Osayi Osunde will be missed, but Jacob Wade, Osunde's primary backup played some outstanding ball this season and was Villanova's best cover linebacker this season as he picked off three balls.
Secondary- Villanova's Defensive Backs were excellent blitzing and in run support as well as forcing turnovers and laying the wood to receivers. Only one player from this unit graduates, Free Safety Ross Ventrone. The rest of the secondary is pretty much intact including standout Safety John Dempsey ( 77 tackles, six sacks, 2 interceptions) and Cornerback James Pitts (4 Interceptions.) Replacing Ventrone will be either former starter Martel Moody (should he come back for a fifth year) or Ronnie Akins who was excellent on special teams as a freshman in 2009. The return of four of five starters along with some talented depth should make the back end of the Villanova Defense even better in 2010 than it was in 2009.
Special Teams- A perennial strength of Villanova teams, in 2010 it should again be a strength. Returning for The 'Cats will be both the Kicker and Punter from the 2009 team. As a freshman this season, Nick Yako made a high percentage of his field goals and missed only one extra point on his way to leading the team in scoring with 95 points. Punter Dominic Scarnecchia despite never having punted in his life before 2009 ended up averaging an impressive 38 yards per punt while rendering opposing returners virtually useless. The 'Cats will need at least one new long snapper as both snappers will graduate this year, but the coaching staff shouldn't have a problem finding someone who can snap. Should Matt Szczur graduate, expect to see either Angelo Babbaro or Lawrence Doss return kicks. With the graduation of Brandyn "the Human Fair-Catch" Harvey, expect Dorian Wells to return the punts and hopefully be a little more daring in running them back.
With the pieces in place for next year, I see no reason why Villanova does not have a legitimate shot to repeat. The 'Cats were a better team this year than Richmond was two years ago and they lose less, which bodes quite well considering how good Richmond was this year. Of course, the big IF is Matt Szczur. Should Szczur return, Villanova should be the odds on preseason favorite to win the national title. If he doesn't, they still have as good of a chance as any other team in the nation to win the championship.