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COLLEGE: Expectations are High for Villanova Football - But so is the Talent

By Marc Narducci - Photos: James Williamson, 08/27/21, 11:30AM EDT


By:  Marc Narducci

VILLANOVA, PA – Mark Ferrante doesn’t look at the high preseason expectations for his Villanova football team as a burden, or even a tad bit of extra pressure.

Quite frankly, he understands that it comes with the territory. 

Another college season is beginning and is it any surprise that Villanova is ranked in the Top 25 among FCS schools?

Not really. 

Just look at the recent evidence.

Villanova University's head football coach, Mark Ferrante - PSD Photo by James Williamson

This is now the 12th time in the last 14 seasons that Villanova has appeared in the preseason national rankings. So if there is any extra pressure, Ferrante, his staff and players have nobody to blame but themselves. The program has set these high standards and the 2021 team looks to justify the preseason hype.

Of course staying nationally ranked isn’t as easy, especially when competing in the Colonial Athletic Conference, which often claims with merit as being the top FCS conference in college football.

“Put it this way, the CAA is the deepest in my opinion,” Ferrante said. 

To back his point, look at this season’s rankings. 

Villanova may be ranked No. 16 nationally, but only No. 3 in the CAA. James Madison began the year No. 2 nationally and Delaware, Villanova’s biggest rival, is No. 5. The Wildcats have to play a heavyweight schedule every season and this year one of the non-conference games is a trip to Penn State.


So with this type of schedule, which includes road games at James Madison and Delaware, Villanova has its work cut out.

Then again, so do the Wildcats’ opponents. 

Since 2008, Villanova has qualified for the FCS playoffs seven times, winning the title in 2009.

The last time the Wildcats were to the postseason was 2019. Villanova is coming off a 2-2 abbreviated spring season. A number of players from Villanova’s last playoff team in 2019 return, thus causing such optimism.

“I think it is a new season and I think we are more competitive...” said junior defensive lineman Garrett Zobel, a former Catholic League standout at La Salle, who started all four games for the Wildcats in the spring. “We have more senior leadership now with more sixth, fifth and fourth- year seniors than we ever had.” 

Marc Narducci catches up with Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante and defensive lineman Garrett Zobel to preview the season:

A lot of teams are in the same boat, since the COVID-shortened season in the spring didn’t count as a year of NCAA eligibility, so there were many veteran players throughout college football who came back, with a large number of graduate students.

“I think every team has a lot of senior leadership and experience and I think it will come down to who wants it more,” Zobel said.

Seeing Villanova working out furiously on a recent morning when the heat index neared triple figures, demonstrated how badly this group wants it.

Returning graduate student quarterback, Daniel Smith (#12) hands the ball off to Episcopal Academy alum, DeeWil Barley (RB,#28) during practice - PSD Photo by James Williamson

Included among the veterans is graduate student quarterback Daniel Smith, who began his career at Campbell, where he threw 31 career touchdown passes and ran for 25 more.

This is his third season starting for Villanova and Ferrante feels the best is yet to come.

“If you have the guy at that position and he’s going to be a good leader and good catalyst for you and make those plays happen, that a good place to start,” Ferrante said.

What is striking about this Villanova team is its depth. 

Take running back for instance. 

The leader is Justin Covington, yet another graduate student.

Ferrante’s biggest challenge is finding how to divide one football among four hungry and highly productive backs. Besides Covington, the group includes senior Jalen JacksonDeeWil Barlee, a junior from Episcopal Academy and classmate TD Ayo-Durojaiye.

“The hard part is keeping four guys happy with the number of carries each one is able to get or not get,” Ferrante said. “We are excited about our depth at running back.”

With so many veterans, there is depth at several positions, thus the almost annual preseason ranking.

Ferrante doesn’t shy away from the high expectations. These days, the Wildcats have simply learned to live with the fact that excellence is expected and often attained.

Villanova Wildcats

Last season: 2-2 overall, 2-2 Colonial Athletic Conference. 

Coach: Mark Ferrante (21-18).

Key returning players: QB Daniel Smith, 6-0, 190 Gr. (677 yards passing, 4 Tds, 4 games); LB Forrest Rhyne 6-1, 235 Gr. (22 tackles, two games); OL Michael Corbi, 6-3, 335 Sr. (preseason All-CAA); Sr. DB Christian Benford, 6-1, 205 Sr. (18 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 1 INT); RB Justin Covington, 5-11, 225, GR. (309 yards rushing, 7.5 avg., 6 Tds), WR Rayjoun Pringle, 5-9, 185 Jr. (17 receptions, 245 yards, 2 Tds); WR Dez Boykin, 5-9, 185 Sr. (283 all-purpose yards); OL Colin Gamroth, 6-4, 305 Sr. (2nd team All-CAA).

Outlook: The Wildcats lost two games by a total of 10 points, including a 27-20 defeat to Delaware, which was an FCS semifinalist. The CAA, with James Madison and Delaware ranked in the top five will be among the top FCS conferences. Despite the tough schedule, Villanova has the ability to compete with everybody on its schedule and be an FCS playoff team. This is a team with great veteran experience and it should pay off this season.


Sept. 4 at Lehigh, noon

Sept. 11 Bucknell, 6

Sept. 18 Richmond, 3:30

Sept. 25 at Penn State, TBA

Oct. 9 at James Madison, 2

Oct. 16 at Albany, 3:30

Oct. 23 Rhode Island, 3:30

Oct. 30 William & Mary, 1

Nov. 6 at Elon, 2

Nov. 13 Stony Brook, 1

Nov. 20 at Delaware, 1