VILLANOVA, Pa.--In the second of a two-part season preview the Villanova football defense and kicking game is profiled. The team opened preseason camp last week and will kick off the 2014 season on August 29 at Syracuse. The first part of the season preview, featuring the Wildcats offense, ran earlier this week.
Expectations are high for the Villanova as the team prepares for the 2014 season. The Wildcats return 15 starters and 33 letterwinners from last year's team that went 6-5 overall and 5-3 in CAA play. Last week the Sports Network released its preseason national rankings and Villanova is ranked No. 12 in the nation.
In addition to their preseason national ranking the Wildcats were also picked to finish second in the CAA in a preseason poll of league head coaches. Villanova will play a 12-game schedule in 2014, including eight CAA games and four non-conference contests. The season begins with the game at Syracuse on August 29, which will air live on ESPN3. That contest is one of five televised games for the Wildcats during the season.
Below is a look at how Villanova is shaping up at each defensive position for the coming season.
Villanova will be faced with the task of replacing two All-Conference performers along the defensive line. Rakim Cox and Antoine Lewis who were both first-team All-CAA performers during their Wildcat careers have been lost to graduation. Cox led the team in both tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (9) last year, while Lewis finished his career by starting all 48 games and tallying 206 career tackles.
Senior nose guard Pat Williams (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) will be the anchor of the defensive line this season. Williams is a strong, powerful lineman who has the potential to be an All-Conference honoree. He finished third on the team a year ago with eight tackles for loss to go with three quarterback sacks. Backing-up Williams at nose guard will be junior Jordan Hunter (Burlington Twp., N.J.) who will provide the team with size and strength. Hunter has battled the injury bug the last few seasons but looks healthy entering the 2014 campaign.
The Wildcat coaching staff has high expectations for sophomore Tanoh Kpassagnon (Ambler, Pa.) who is slated as the starter at one of the defensive end spots. Kpassagnon is a great athlete who has the size and quickness to be a game changer for the Villanova defense. Junior Reggie Paris (Pemberton, N.J.) is expected to start at the other defensive end position. Paris is a good pass rusher who started all 11 games last year and tallied 28 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks.
Two other players expected to be in the defensive line rotation are junior Noble Ajakaiye (Harrisburg, N.C.) and redshirt freshman Mike Williams (Woodlawn, Md.). Ajakaiye, who has good football instincts, gained valuable experience in 2013 when he played in all 11 games and registered 17 tackles, five tackle for loss and two sacks. Williams possesses a wealth of potential and should be in the mix for playing time this season.
"Losing Antoine Lewis and Rakim Cox are big losses for our defense," said Talley. "I do think we have the talent to make-up for losing two players of that caliber. We will look to Pat Williams and Tanoh Kpassagnon to lead us up front. Both guys are talented players who are ready to have big years. In addition to Pat and Tanoh, we have a lot of quality depth highlighted by Reggie Paris, Noble Ajakaiye and Jordan Hunter."
The three starting linebackers for the 2014 season appear to be senior Joey Harmon (Pembroke Pines, Fla.), junior Don Cherry (Trumbull, Conn.) and junior Corey Majors (Levittown, Pa.). Harmon is a four-year starter who has the ability to be a playmaker for the Villanova defense. Last year he registered 81 tackles to rank second on the team. Cherry is coming off an outstanding sophomore campaign where he tallied 99 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss to lead the team in both categories. For his efforts last year, Cherry garnered second team All-CAA honors. Majors, who has a wealth of potential, gained valuable experience a year ago and should be ready to be a big time contributor this season.
A fourth linebacker who should see plenty of playing time is junior Dillon Lucas (Medford, N.J.). As a freshman in 2011, Lucas led the team in tackles with 92 en route to being named the CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year. After missing all of last season due to injury, Lucas appears healthy and ready to be a factor for the Villanova defense this year.
Two other Wildcats that will be in the linebacker mix are sophomore T.J. White (West Chester, Pa.) and sophomore Austin Calitro (Danbury, Conn.). White is a fundamentally sound player with quality tackling skills. Calitro had an outstanding spring for Villanova as he was named the Most Improved Defensive Player during spring drills.
"Linebacker is the position where we have the most depth on the defensive side of the ball," said Talley. "Don Cherry, Joey Harmon, Corey Majors and Dillon Lucas are a veteran group that will be playmakers. These guys will also help lead and bring along our younger players at this position."
The strength of the secondary will be at the safety positions. Leading this group will be the trio of Joe Sarnese (Ventnor, N.J.), Cameron McCurry (Orange Park, Fla.) and Matt McCann (Pittsburgh, Pa.). Sarnese is a co-captain who will be the backbone of the Wildcat secondary. A four-year starter, Sarnese will be looked upon to be a playmaker from his safety spot. During his Villanova career, he has 189 tackles and six interceptions. McCurry is coming off a very good sophomore season in 2013 when he had 60 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. For his efforts last season, McCurry was named third team All-CAA. McCann returns to the field after missing most of last season with an injury. As a redshirt freshman in 2012 he started all 12 games and posted 44 tackles and an interception. McCann is a hard-nosed competitor with good football instincts.
Senior Jerry Miles (Dublin, Ohio) and redshirt freshman Wesley Smith (Miramar, Fla.) will also see time at safety this season. Miles is a versatile performer who can play both safety and corner. Miles played in all 11 games last season and had 36 tackles, three pass break-ups and one interception.
The biggest question mark surrounding the Villanova defense is at cornerback. Sophomore Trey Johnson who saw significant playing time last year as a true freshman was expected to start at one corner, but he is sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury. Sophomore Jason Ceneus (New Rochelle, N.Y.) appears to have the inside track on earning a starting spot at corner. Ceneus is a talented player with outstanding cover skills.
With Johnson out for the year, Villanova will look to sophomore C.J. Logan (Watertown, Mass.), redshirt freshman Lorenzo Fertitta (Las Vegas, Nev.) or an incoming freshman to fill the other starting corner position.
"The secondary will led by Joe Sarnese, Cam McCurry, Matt McCann and Jerry Miles," said Talley. " These four will need to play consistent football and make plays for us. We will need some young guys to step-up and take ownership at the corners."
Villanova will have to replace two thirds of its kicking game in 2014. Mark Hamilton, who was the team's kicker and punter the last three seasons, has graduated. Hamilton was an extremely reliable performer for the Wildcats. As the team's punter he earned third team All-CAA accolades last season after averaging 41.7 yards per punt and placing 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. During his career as the team's place kicker, Hamilton was 33-of-42 in field goals and a 130-of-133 in extra points.
The Wildcats do return their kickoff specialist in senior Chris Gough (Winslow, N.J.) who averaged 60.5 yards per kickoff last season and had 17 touchbacks. Gough will also compete with sophomore John Hinchen (Saddle River, N.J.) and freshman Preston Seiler (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) to handle the punting duties this season. Hinchen and Seiler both possess a strong leg and have the ability to get good hang time on their punts.
Gough will also be in the mix for the place kicking job. His main competition will come from incoming freshman Steve Weyler (Media, Pa.) who had a very successful high school career at nearby Cardinal O'Hara High School.
"Mark Hamilton was a very reliable guy for us the past few seasons. We will definitely miss his consistency," said Talley. "Chris Gough will provide us with leadership at the kicking positions. We are hoping a few of the young kickers that we have in the program come along quickly and are able to contribute this season."