Villanova tailback Justin Covington, off to a spectacular start this season, is a think-ahead kind of guy. He has to be, since football takes up plenty of his hours, and being a fourth-year nursing student adds plenty more.
“Today, I leave around 1:30, get there around 2,’’ Covington said Wednesday after a morning practice, preparing to go up to Abington Memorial Hospital for a clinical rotation. “I’m there from 2:15 to 8:15. I’m in a psych rotation right now.”
Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., he was always thinking ahead. When Covington was in seventh grade, his grandmother had moved in with his mother and him after she received a cancer diagnosis. She’s now in remission, he said, but in helping her change her colonoscopy bag, among other tasks, medicine intrigued him. As he got to high school, he was thinking of medical school but decided that was too much school.
“I did some research,’’ Covington said. “In nursing, you still get the patient experience, helping people. I can get my master’s in two or three years, be a nurse practitioner.”
All this was part of Covington’s path to Villanova. Other options had been Yale and Navy. He knew Villanova’s coaches were on board with his goals.
It didn’t hurt that Covington was the Bronx player of the year as a senior, part of a big-time program at Cardinal Hayes High. After redshirting as a freshman, Covington got carries the next two seasons and had some strong runs. He was the top returning tailback.
What he’s managed so far this season has been a huge part of Villanova’s 5-0 start, which has the Wildcats ranked fifth in the Stats FCS media poll and eighth in the FCS coaches poll entering Saturday’s game at William and Mary.
Covington leads FCS with 674 rushing yards, after five straight 100-yard games. He ranks third in the division in yards per game (134.8) and yards per carry (8.4).
With big games just ahead, including a trip to second-ranked James Madison next weekend, Covington is fully aware that not only was Villanova picked ninth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason coaches poll, but also that no Villanova player was named preseason first-team all-CAA.
Let’s note that preseason all-league teams serve one real purpose: to provide chips on shoulders. Mission accomplished here. Only Villanova and Albany, picked last in the league, failed to have an all-CAA first-teamer.
Now that the Wildcats already have beaten teams picked second (Towson) and third (Maine) in the preseason, Covington is trying to make sure the Wildcats don’t start believing they’ve accomplished anything yet.
“It didn’t matter what they said before,’’ Covington said. “It doesn’t matter what they say now.”
Covington, a captain this season, acknowledges that he himself has always been a talker, but he sees that as a responsibility to check in with everybody, to encourage. Even when he was on the scout team as a freshman, he said, they’d chant about being on the scout team. “We kind of embraced it.”
His other job keeps him grounded. Talking to patients while in his psych rotation, he said, he’ll ask about difficulties: “You see people who do need help, but they are people, just going through things.”
This could interest him as a long-term field, Covington said, but pediatrics might be his top choice. He’s got time to figure that out with another season of eligibility after this.
At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, maybe without that “fifth gear,’’ as Villanova coach Mark Ferrante pointed out, Covington had to wait his turn.
“He’s strong,’’ Ferrante said. “If you ever see him practice without his equipment on, his thighs are massive. He actually rolls his shorts up in practice, to show everybody how proud he is of his massive thighs.”
Ferrante knows Covington might have to leave practice a few minutes early a day or two a week.
“He has a lot on his plate — it definitely brings some challenges,’’ Ferrante said, noting that Covington might have to return after his nursing work to lift weights at night. “He’s a mature guy.”
A think-ahead guy, just trying not to get ahead of things this season, Covington said.
“You do that, you kind of forget the daily grind of what it takes.’’