Villanova’s Forrest Rhyne is a maniac (in the film room) | Mike Jensen
Attention to every detail turned the Villanova linebacker into the CAA defensive player of the year.
Forrest Rhyne could pass for a drummer in a metal band, dark hair curling over his face from all directions, black under his eyes mixing with sweat to streak all over. All in all, a near-maniacal look.
Maybe the couple of little cuts of blood give more away, if you saw how they appeared on Rhyne’s face late Friday night. This guy’s a football player, a linebacker.
His work Friday — a career-high 21 tackles, including two sacks — sounded pretty maniacal, and allowed Villanova to squeeze past Holy Cross, 21-16, into the quarterfinals of the NCAA FCS playoffs. Take Rhyne out of that equation, the math adds up differently.
» READ MORE: How Villanova got by Holy Cross
His big plays stand out. He’s turned into one of the best linebackers in college football, any level. Rhyne’s work for Villanova this season earned him Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year.
“Making that big play, I’ll show a lot of emotion,” Rhyne said. “Yes, it’s a big play. But the most thrilling part … I put in that work to get that play.”
Not the hit?
“It is the hit,” Rhyne said. “But, man, I know exactly why I just made that play.”
Rhyne was saying all that two days before the Holy Cross game, sitting in the linebackers room in Villanova’s football offices.
“When I left, he was in the film room,” said Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante, talking at a recent football luncheon in another building on campus, of his fifth-year defensive star from Waynesboro, Pa. “When I go back from here, he’ll be in the film room. He’s a grad student, he’s only taking two classes. He’s basically majoring in football right now.”
When other teams line up …
“He can probably narrow it down to two plays when he sees them come out in formation,” Ferrante said.
Cut to Friday night. First Holy Cross possession, driving downfield, to a fourth-and-one at Villanova’s 19-yard line.
“I knew that was a quarterback draw for sure, just from the formation,” Rhyne said after the game. “Just the way — I don’t know, I just knew. Where I was supposed to fit, I just did it as fast as I could. Knowing where I was going to fit before the snap even started.”
He got there first, shared the tackle with another Villanova linebacking star, Amin Black. If every play in this tight game was potentially a huge one, there was another early in the second quarter, a Villanova interception that led to Villanova’s first touchdown. Rhyne pressured the QB.
» READ MORE: Photo gallery from Villanova-Holy Cross game
“I was doing my job, the delayed blitz,” Rhyne said afterward. “Coach O” — that’s Villanova defensive coordinator Ola Adams — “always talks about mirroring the throwing hand, getting an eye in the face. Same thing as basketball, getting a hand in the face.”
Suggesting that Rhyne ran amok in this game … it wasn’t like that. Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka was a complete handful. His team’s leading rusher for the season and this game, Sluka finished with 106 rushing yards on 22 carries, plus completed 20 of 35 passes for 169 yards.
The couple of plays Rhyne missed Sluka in the open field … those are the ones, he said later, that will stay with him.
“He’s a good player,” Sluka said afterward. “I got him a couple of times, he got me a couple of times.”
Rhyne then walked in the same press-conference room, chose the same words.
“He’s very good,” Rhyne said. “He got me a couple of times, I got him a couple of times.”
On the field, Rhyne could remind you of Temple’s Tyler Matakevich doing his thing during Temple’s recent great run. At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Rhyne is not the biggest or fastest, just the most effective, first-team all-CAA for the third straight season. Matakevich’s path to the NFL could be Rhyne’s path.
“Once he gets in someone’s building, it will be hard to get him out,” Ferrante said. “Because of the way he works.”
Sitting with him a couple of days before the Holy Cross game, you saw the attention to detail.
“Most of the time I have my own personal packet I fill out,” Rhyne said in the linebackers room, film on a big screen and a desktop in front of him. “It’s basically like a checklist. I just fill it out throughout the week, and then on game day I’ll have all the information I need. This is going to end up being almost ten pages.”
He has categories. Notes from past matchups. (That was blank, since Holy Cross was a new opponent.) Then sections for each opposing position group.
“These are more like individual tells,” Rhyne said. “Whether their running back is aligned deeper or wider or shorter in certain plays. Or the quarterback, what are his favorite things to do while he’s throwing? What are his escape patterns? Does the running back like to cut block? Does he like to block up top? Offensive line, same thing. Reading their stances. Is there one specific guy I’m going to look at? Which guy is it going to be?”
Rhyne fills out the packet during the week, goes over it each night. Might take him 20 minutes to read through it early in the week. Approaching the game — “I can read it in three minutes.”
No, he doesn’t take the packet out to the sidelines.
“Ray Lewis was my linebacking idol growing up,” Rhyne said. “He always said, the amount of film that you watch, it just kind of creates déjà vu on the field. ‘Oh, I’ve seen this play maybe a hundred times on film.’ "
Rhyne said he isn’t freelancing out there. That isn’t the point. Adams and the defensive coaches do all the game planning so he isn’t guessing on when to blitz or where to go. That’s the scheme. He’s just looking for hints within.
“Let me grab my iPad,” Rhyne said in the linebackers room. “Coach Ola has a little game-plan folder here, where I can go to a certain formation.”
A play labeled King Jet, with a tight end and two receivers and another receiver on the back side. “The percentages,” Rhyne said. “They ran it 56 times …”
He’ll run it himself all 56 times, right in a row, hunting for tendencies.
“They ran the ball 39 times and they passed the ball 17 times,” Rhyne said of that formation, those percentages already counted up by coaches. Another play, Triple Spread … “They’ve run quarterback draw five times, and they’ve only run the ball six times. You can start stacking up different pre-snap tells.”
Rhyne wants to make it clear, he isn’t running percentages in his head on the field, with maybe two seconds to figure things out, maybe no seconds. His faith in Adams’ play calls, he said, is total. He also knows that teams are studying his tendencies, and in a playoff game against an underdog opponent, they might show something completely against their own tendencies.
“You’ve just got to be a football player,” Rhyne said of the game itself. “That’s why you do the rest of the work. The weight room. The speed work. This is just one very small part of everything that accumulates to a great defense.”
The chess game … he’s so obviously into that, too.
“As soon as the call comes in, then I use my tools I’ve given myself pregame to try to really lock in to what they’re going to do,” he said.
He’s talking four to six hours a day of personal film work early in the week, in addition to the couple of hours with his position group and the defense as a whole.
Craziest tell he’s ever had from an opponent?
“So Penn State, yeah, every single play, I knew if it was a run or a pass,” Rhyne said of Villanova’s trip to Happy Valley earlier this season. “Every single play. And it wasn’t just me. We knew as a defense.”
That’s pretty crazy.
“It was crazy,” Rhyne said. “We haven’t matched that in terms of percentages. We try to get as many run-passes [percentages] as we can. Some it will be 20 percent, some weeks closer to 50. That week, we had a locked-in tell.”
It just takes one opposing player to offer it up. As it happened, Villanova held Penn State to just 80 rushing yards in 34 times, for 2.4 yards a carry. A pittance. As it also happens, Penn State won the game, 38-16, making a slew of big plays in the air.
“They’ve got some dudes over there,” Rhyne said of the Nittany Lions.
“No,” Rhyne said, he wasn’t offering it up.
For Holy Cross, he was a QB spy, or “lurker,” as he put it, a lot for this game. Those 21 tackles, Ferrante said, really meant Villanova’s defense was on the field way too much against Holy Cross, which ran 44 second-half plays to just 20 for Villanova, which had led 14-0 at halftime.
All past tense now. Rhyne’s work never quite stops at this time of year, at this point of his career. The truly maniacal part of Rhyne’s makeup was revealed postgame. How long would he let his mind rest before he moves on to study South Dakota State or Sacramento State, winner facing Villanova?
“I’ll watch the game tonight,” Rhyne said.
It was nearly 11 p.m. Friday. No, Rhyne was told, the other game wasn’t until Saturday night.
“No, I mean our game, that we just played,” Rhyne said. “The coaches are back there putting it up [online] right now.”