A year ago, expectations were high for Villanova football.
Coming off a 10-3 season, which included a CAA co-championship along with advancing to the FCS quarterfinals before losing to South Dakota State, the Wildcats were the 2022 preseason pick to win the CAA in a vote of coaches and media relations directors. Villanova was also No. 9 in the HERO Sports 2022 preseason Top 25.
Things didn’t turn out exactly how the Wildcats or the prognosticators expected as Villanova went 6-5 and was not a postseason participant.
So it’s logical to assume that veteran coach Mark Ferrante went into last season feeling the pressure of such high expectations.
One would be wrong with that assumption.
“From my perspective, no, I didn’t feel any more pressure, but from an 18-23-year-old perspective, maybe,” Ferrante said during an interview with HERO Sports.
Villanova has been among the top FCS programs throughout Ferrante’s long tenure. The 2023 season will be his seventh as head coach after spending 30 years as a Wildcats assistant. He has been part of all 14 of the program’s FCS playoff appearances, including the 2009 national championship.
So he isn’t going to be bothered too much either way on how his team is viewed coming into a season. Ferrante did, however, take exception with being the CAA pick a year ago.
“I don’t know how our coaches in the league thought we were going to repeat when we only had three defensive starters returning from the year before, so I knew there was going to be some youth on defense,” he said. “It took some time to get them running and that is what I like about this year’s group, we had more guys who were able to get spring practice under their belt.”
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Villanova also broke in a new quarterback last season, Connor Watkins, who played better in the second half of the season. Watkins has two years of eligibility remaining.
So while preseason rankings aren’t a concern to Ferrante, don’t be surprised if the Wildcats are picked among the CAA contenders again.
This is a team that has many of its key members back.
It all begins with the 6-3, 225-pound Watkins, who in his first season as a starting quarterback, completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,057 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He also rushed for 467 yards (5.6 avg.) and nine touchdowns. Ferrante feels that Watkins is ready to take that next step.
“I think so,” Ferrante said. “He’s a really good athlete, he’s got a super strong arm.”
“It’s probably the strongest arm we have had at that position, in terms of velocity and then where you can put it distance-wise …he can throw it 70-plus yards.”
While the interception rate was on the high side, it must be noted that eight of them came in the first four games.
Ferrante will have a veteran team because so many of the players who have an extra year due to the 2020 COVID season that didn’t count on their eligibility have decided to return.
In addition, running back Jalen Jackson returns for a sixth season after playing just four games last season due to injury and earning an extra year of eligibility. Jackson has averaged 5.8 yards per carry during his career.
The Wildcats should be explosive at wide receiver. Ferrante said he gets the most questions from NFL personnel on Jaaron Hayek, who had 36 receptions for 810 yards and eight touchdowns in just eight games, and Rayjuon Pringle (28 receptions, 432 yards, and five touchdowns). He said there have also been NFL inquiries about tackle Nick Torres (6-6, 320).
The young defense that didn’t have much experience last year certainly does so now. The leading returning tackler is redshirt sophomore linebacker Shane Hartzell, who had 76 tackles.
The Wildcats, as they do every year, will play one FBS team at UCF.
“I know the players love it, from a coach’s perspective I’m fine with it, I know it’s an important thing to do for a guarantee payout perspective,” Ferrante said. “It definitely helps with some of the things we want to do with our program.”
The Wildcats are still working on an FBS opponent for 2024 and will play at Penn State in 2025. In 2021, Villanova also visited then-No. 6 Penn State and lost 38-17.
“You can gain some definite advantages playing those games but the big concern I have as a coach is are you going to come out healthy,” he said. “Those teams have more people and the lack of depth on our part, it usually wears you down.”
The UCF game is on Sept. 16, the week before Villanova begins its CAA schedule when the Wildcats host Rhode Island on Sept. 23.
Regardless of the record last season, which did end with a 29-26 win over rival and playoff-bound Delaware, Villanova has the ability to turn things around and return to the FCS playoffs after a year’s absence.