The nerves would be coming in now. The good kind, game-day nerves. College football players only get so many chances to feel them, so many game days. Thursday was supposed to be the first one of 2020 for Villanova, before COVID-19 arrived on the schedule. In a non-pandemic world, kickoff was against Lehigh, slated for 6 p.m.
“As a player, but even still as a coach you still get pregame butterflies,” said Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante. “I still get butterflies when I go in and talk to the team right before the game.”
Not this year. Not even phantom butterflies.
“I think I’ve gotten past that point in my mind,” Villanova quarterback Dan Smith said this week. “We’ve had enough time to come to terms with we’re not playing.”
This past Saturday, the first college football game of the season was on his television. Didn’t matter that it was Austin Peay against Central Arkansas.
“Watching that was a little tough. I’m not going to lie,” Smith said. “Anytime you see it” – it being football – “it makes it a little worse.”
“Same with me. I was looking forward to it. I get to watch football. This is awesome,” Ferrante said.
A former Villanova assistant is on the Austin Peay staff, and a former ’Nova player is now on that team. Enough for even a little rooting interest. There’s rarely time for coaches to watch other games. This is great.
“As I was watching, I was getting more frustrated,” Ferrante said.
What makes all this better, Smith said, is the plan in place to get to a kickoff. He’s back at Villanova, working with teammates.
“We have some protocols in place,” Smith said. “We have group workouts on our end. Groups of four or less, spread out, staying distanced. We can throw routes to receivers. I’ve seen linemen working on steps, distanced. We’re all back together.”
Villanova was lined up for the possibility of a special season. Top 10 in the preseason FCS polls. Tons of returning veterans. Smith showed up last season as a transfer from Campbell, and he turned out to be special himself. Villanova came up with this stat: Smith led FCS in “points responsible for,” with 288 either passing or running. He completed 236-of-396 passes for 3,274 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Yeah, the Wildcats were excited to run it back.
“It’s nice to have a starting point, to have a plan,” Smith said of possibly playing in the spring. If not, he’s prepared to come back next fall.
“I’ll be here until we play,” Smith said.
A couple of talented teammates, a top receiver, and a top offensive lineman transferred out after Villanova’s season was suspended, one to Virginia Tech, still looking to play, one to UCLA, which then suspended its own season.
Smith gets what they were looking for. He’d already made a move himself. In just two seasons, he’d set Campbell career records for total offense, rushing touchdowns, passing yards, and passing touchdowns.
As it turns out, Campbell is playing a bit of a schedule this fall. All of FCS is shut down, no fall championship. There’s no Big South schedule. But Campbell, which normally would have had a couple of FBS opponents, has four. That’s the complete schedule, last game on Oct. 9. “Georgia Southern, Wake Forest, App State,” Smith said, ticking off three opponents, unsure of the fourth, which is Coastal Carolina. “They’re going to make a good amount of money,” Smith said, happy for his friends there who get to play.
Villanova was supposed to play Wake Forest this fall. That would have been the moneymaker.
“We were all looking forward to that,” Smith said. “To get an FBS game in the spring, nobody really knows how it’s going to be possible. If it doesn’t, something for next fall. We play Penn State.”
Nobody really knows is as good a 2020 mantra as any. Smith, rolling with it all, was talking three days before what was supposed to be his opener. Normally, there would have been a morning practice. Then he would have been looking at Lehigh film with the other quarterbacks, “maybe with a running back, maybe with a wide receiver.”
Instead, 2020 called for all these audibles.
“The biggest we can focus on is progressing before we play again,” Smith said.
As Ferrante talked on the phone Wednesday morning, he was standing on his football field.
“Sixteen players are on the field with the strength and conditioning coach,” Ferrante said. And all that is helpful, the coach said, even if everyone has a mask on, even if the locker room is still closed.
“We haven’t put pads on since our playoff game,” Ferrante said. “We didn’t have any spring practice.”
Those butterflies, when there eventually is a game to play ...