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In the FCS Huddle: Villanova moves forward as best it can

Back to business.

It's Villanova football's approach both on and off the field.

There's really no other choice for the Wildcats.

Last year, Villanova suffered through a year of loss both on the field - the Wildcats went 2-9 for their worst record since 1972 - and off the field - the Big East tabled a possible invitation to the university for conference membership in football.

Veteran head coach Andy Talley started running his program through spring practices this week, with the hope of a quick turnaround. The Wildcats are returning 21 starters - all but cornerback James Pitts - as well as kicker/punter Mark Hamilton. All-CAA Football wide receiver Norman White also returns from a broken foot which sidelined him last season.

"I think the message that we set was that the bar has been set very high for the Villanova football team," said Talley, who enters his 28th season as the Wildcats head coach. "We slipped (last season). But, having said that, (one says), 'Look, this is what the expectation level is. It's extremely high, it's a playoff-style team that can compete for a national championship.'

"But you also have to be realistic that you're working with a young team. We just talked about continuing the progressions that we made throughout the season. We were a non-competitive football team for about five games. And then we jumped in and became competitive. We eventually went up to UMass and beat them there. And then the Delaware game, we could have easily won at the end. We were making progress. So you always feel good about a team that's making progress, like with this young team, that we are getting to where we have to be."

Whether that means getting to the Big East is debatable. Uncertainty continues to be a troubling cloud hovering over the program,

'Nova is a Big East member in all of its other sports, but its football program, which won the 2009 FCS national championship, has yet to prove to the conference that it is big enough for the FBS level. Attendance at Villanova home games (about 8,000 on-campus over the last two seasons) and the size of PPL Park (18,500) in nearby Chester - where the Wildcats would play home games if in the Big East - are sticking points regarding the conference's potential invitation.

Villanova appeared set to approve such a move before the Big East pulled the carpet out from under the decision and has since been accepting new member schools from across the country, including Temple, which it previously booted out of the conference. With Navy's entrance in 2015, the conference will have an odd number of teams at 13, so it seems assured the conference will add another member in the future.

"They have put forth some financial awards to us to help us position ourselves in the Big East. That doesn't indicate that we are going to get in or not get in," Talley said. "We've decided to continue to just forge ahead as a team that wants to be a legitimate contender for a CAA conference title year-in- and-year-out and do the business that we're in right now. We're in a great league."

This period in limbo has undoubtedly hurt recruiting. Last year's plan wasn't necessarily this year's plan, and the Wildcats hope to be on track again.

"I think what happened to us is that we ended up with the positioning of being accepted into the Big East initially. We started trying to get after true I-A kids," Talley said. "Then when the league decided to hold us up the first time, when they questioned the size of the stadium, then what happened was we ended up spinning our wheels with kids that no longer were interested that were interested only in a Division I-A place.

"So we wasted time recruiting some of those D-I kids and probably could have put more time into kids that were going to be legitimate I-AA players. So with that respect, it hurt us a little bit. But all the talk of back and forth this year whether we would or wouldn't be accepted or not, we just concentrated on the best players we could get here with the intention that we were going to recruit our kind of players.."

The Wildcats hope they won't have to rely on the incoming class the way it did with last season's freshmen. Eleven true freshmen dotted the two-deep while Talley and his staff tried to replace the FCS' best senior class from the 2010 season.

The cupboard was so bare after an excellent three-year run that Villanova even lost by 11 points at home to Monmouth from the Northeast Conference.

A merry-go-round of inexperienced quarterbacks ended with true freshman Chris Polony coming on strong as the starter late in the season. This spring, he is being challenged by redshirt freshman John Robertson for the top job, with last year's season-opening starter, Dustin Thomas, having made the move to wide receiver.

Polony is a pocket passer who can run a spread formation, while Robertson is an adept runner - dully suited to run Villanova's "Wildcat" packages - and is working to improve his accuracy as a passer.

Perhaps even worse, the Wildcats were young on the offensive line last year, which made them undersized. The line should be much improved behind its anchor, All-CAA center Dan Shirey, a co-captain with White.

The 6-foot-3 White, who caught 69 passes and 11 touchdowns for Villanova's national semifinalist squad in 2010, will form a top pairing with senior-to-be Dorian Wells. Meanwhile, young running backs Austin Medley and Jamal Abdur- Rahman showed great promise last year.

Linebackers coach Billy Crocker has been elevated to defensive coordinator, and he knows what he has in last season's leading tackler, linebacker Dillon Lucas, the All-CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Their 4-2-5 defense will get back most all of its key performers, including nose guard Antoine Lewis, defensive end Marlon Johnson, and safeties Eric Loper and Ronnie Akins.

The schedule also is manageable - Temple, Fordham and Penn are the non- conference opponents, and the Wildcats won't play New Hampshire and William & Mary within the CAA. With continued development, a five- or six-win season is not out of the question.

"The tough thing to do in our league is to do it consistently," said Talley, whose 113 career conference wins are a CAA record.

Talley has had only five losing seasons at Villanova. By the time the Wildcats' young players become veterans in 2013, their program could recycle back to CAA title contention.