Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Villanova Football 2011 Preview Part Two: Offensive Line

Dan Shirey
This is part two of a multiple part season preview. Each one will focus on a different position group, and it will all wrap up with a preview of the game against Pennsylvania Government Waste (Temple) a day or two before the game.

In one off-season, the offensive line has gone from Villanova's biggest strength, to its most glaring weakness. With the graduation and subsequent drafting of a four year starting left tackle, the graduation of a four year starter at left guard, and the injury to a projected starting tackle, this offensive line could be a complete mess, and based on what I saw in the practice i attended, it was startling clear that this line is not anywhere close to the standard of the past few seasons. Now it's time to take a look at an offensive line that looks as if it was strung together by MacGyver...

Center: The only returning starter on the Villanova offensive line who will not switch positions is junior center Dan Shirey. After breaking into the starting lineup at right guard early in his true freshman season, Shirey switched to center last season and was named third team All-CAA. Expectations are higher for him this season, as he was named preseason All-CAA first team. Shirey's health, and continued effective play is absolutely essential to this team, as he is the only player on the offensive line who has not experienced some sort of setting change from last year. As the most senior starter on the line, Shirey must be able to use his experience to take a leadership role and build this patchwork offensive line into a cohesive unit in which the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

Tackle: You do not replace a player like Ben Ijalana with an inexperience player it's simply not possible. Unfortunately, Villanova wil have to do exactly that after projected starting left tackle Chidozie Ekweozor blew out his knee during spring practice. So where does that leave Villanova at the most important position on the offensive line? Well, sophomore Josh Bucci will kick to right tackle, his natural position from right guard, where he saw the bulk of his playing time last season. Left tackle is a bit of a problem as there is a dearth of experience, and no clear incumbent. Based on what I saw last week, Billy Vogel, a junior transfer from Nebraska-Omaha has the inside edge at the position as he was taking most of the reps with the first team.

The battle for the reserve roles at tackle is where things get sketchy. The chief backup appears to be Donald Davis, a former defensive lineman. While Davis should be plenty athletic, he's undersized, (listed at 270 pounds, and maybe not even that much,) and he has never seen an offensive snap in his collegiate career. Another player who should vie for a reserve spot is Josh Polonio, a tree stump shaped redshirt freshman. In the Villanova media guide, Polonio is described as "a young player in need of experience," which sounds like code for "he's not ready to play right now," so hope it doesn't get to that. There are also some incoming freshmen who could battle for playing time at the position.

Guard: Like tackle, there are no incumbents at guard, because of Bucci's move to tackle, and the graduation of four year starter Brant Clouser, (who is currently in training camp with the New York Giants,) so it's very likely that both guard positions will be manned by freshmen. At left guard should be redshirt freshman Ross Hall, who is also the backup center. Hall was apparently impressive enough in preseason camp last season that he was making a serious push for playing time, but he hurt his foot and was granted a medical hardship and in turn missed the entire season. At right guard, true freshman Kyle Wallace looked to have the inside track when I visited practice. Andy Talley was also quoted at media day saying that Wallace looked to be one of the true freshmen who would see playing time this season. The coaching staff has no problem no problem with starting true freshmen on the line as they have done before with past players like Brian Brannigan, Clouser, Ijalana and Dan Shirey.

The backup situation at guard is much less desperate than at tackle. Based on what I saw at practice, another true freshman, Vince Kowalski was getting some reps at the position. Kowalski will probably be the backup at both guard positions, and behind him would be sophomores Derek Schatz and James O'Connor.
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It's very hard to compete in football at any level without a competent offensive line. During this season, especially at the beginning, Villanova fans will witness what it's like to go from the greatest offensive line in school history to one that projects to be slightly above average in the very best circumstances, and more likely one that is thoroughly average or even below average. There is literally zero room for any additional injuries because the last thing Vilanova needs is tight ends and defensive ends (in addition to the defensive end already playing on the O-Line) playing on the offensive line. Offer a sacrifice to whichever deity that you worship, not only so that that this unit stays healthy, but also in the hope that one of these guys morphs into Bruce Matthews overnight.


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