HARRISONBURG — Though his 31st season at Villanova will be different, new Wildcats coach Mark Ferrante said not much is changing.
“I’ve been here,” Ferrante said. “I’m not a new coach coming in. I’m not changing uniforms. I’m not changing colors.
“The philosophy is in place from what Coach [Andy] Talley built here.”
Ferrante steps in for longtime coach Talley, who retired after the 2016 season. Ferrante played for Talley at St. Lawrence University in the early 1980s, was with Talley for 30 seasons at Villanova and was Talley’s top assistant for the last 18 years.
Since assuming the head-coaching role in the winter, Ferrante said the transition has been smooth and that he was prepared to take on the larger responsibilities.
Last year, Villanova finished 9-4 with a trip to the second round of the FCS playoffs where it bowed out at South Dakota State. The Wildcats are likely to be a preseason Top 25 team.
On Oct. 14, Villanova comes to Harrisonburg to visit James Madison. JMU won 20-7 in Philadelphia last season.
“I don’t think there will be a visible change scheme-wise on either side of the ball,” Ferrante said. “As we evolve, and as I continue to progress as the head coach, and same goes for Joe [Trainer] as defensive coordinator, there’s going to be subtle changes. But I don’t think there will be anything glaring to anyone watching Villanova.”
Defensively, Villanova — using its vaunted 3-3-5 stack — had the top-rated unit for total defense across FCS in 2016, yielding 259.8 yards per game. The Wildcats also had the top-ranked scoring defense (15 points per game), No. 4 rushing defense (87.6 yards per game) and No. 11 passing defense (172.2 yards per game).
Ferrante’s toughest task comes in trying to replace some of the key pieces from that brick-wall defense. Edge rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon was named Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year in November, and then was the second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in April. Another defensive end, Bryan Osei and, linebacker Austin Calitro, who’s now with New York Jets, both graduated.
Kpassagnon had 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season.
“We don’t have a guy like him right now,” Ferrante said. “So we’ll try to replace him by committee.”
The strongest defensive position group is the secondary, according to Ferrante, which is led by senior cornerback Rob Rolle. A preseason All-American by Athlon Sports, Rolle racked up seven interceptions as a junior.
Unlike the defense, the offense brings back all but two starters from a year ago, including quarterback Zach Bednarczyk for his junior season.
Bednarczyk was the CAA co-Rookie of the Year in the 2015 and followed it up by throwing for 2,158 yards and 19 touchdowns last year.
“Moving into my first year as the head coach,” Ferrante said, “to have Zach coming back and he now has experience, it does make it a little smoother on me and a little less stressful on me to know you have a guy in that position that’s been there before.
“Now the key is to keep him healthy.”
Ferrante referenced the offseason between the 2014 and 2015 seasons — the last time Villanova came off a successful year and had high expectations for the following year.
In 2014, Villanova went 11-3 before falling to Sam Houston State in the FCS quarterfinals. Before 2015, Villanova was picked to win the CAA and its quarterback, John Robertson, was the preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the league. But Robertson was injured during the season and Villanova missed out on returning to the playoffs.
“If you look at Coach Talley’s tenure over time, I think out of the 32 seasons, only four or five of them were sub-.500 seasons,” Ferrante said. “And if you trace those back, I think it’s because we didn’t have that guy under center.”
Ferrante added that as an outside observer looking at JMU’s 2016 championship run, he thought what the Dukes did when quarterback Bryan Schor got hurt in the game at Villanova was a key.
Schor was injured in the first half of the contest against the Wildcats and didn’t return the field until JMU’s first playoff game against New Hampshire. JMU managed to beat Villanova that day, and Elon the following week prior to the postseason.
“Just look at James Madison,” Ferrante said. “And in our game, when Bryan went out as opposed to when Bryan’s in the game. It’s no knock to the backup down there, but Bryan Schor is a different player than the other quarterbacks in that program.
“The only surprise to me about their run might be making the end of the [regular] season run without Bryan, and still being able to come out on the winning side of things when Bryan wasn’t part of the equation.”
Villanova opens its season at Lehigh and plays crosstown FBS foe Temple in Week 2. Its CAA opener is Sept. 23 at Albany.