With leading rusher Justin Covington out last Saturday against Rhode Island due to injury, there were major question marks regarding how effective the Villanova ground game would be.

Those questions were quickly answered, as led by DeeWil Barlee and Jalen Jackson, the Wildcats ran all over the Rams to the tune of 297 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-0 victory. With the win, No. 4 Villanova improved to 6-1 (4-0 CAA), its only loss coming against FBS power Penn State.

Minus Covington and his 78 rushing yards per game, it was simply a case of next man up for Barlee and the Wildcats’ running back committee.

“As a running back room, we don’t really think a job is too big for us,” said Barlee. “Personally, every time I go out there, it’s just another day of doing what I love to do; it’s nothing complicated because it’s just my job. Plus, my O-Line does a great job of moving bodies, so all I have to do is break a couple of arm tackles, which makes my job easy.”

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A junior halfback from Upper Darby, Barlee saw his name called a team-leading 19 times for 99 yards on Saturday, both season-highs. He also had two catches out of the backfield, giving him 111 total yards. Barlee’s best game of the season came on homecoming weekend, where he noted the atmosphere around campus was outstanding.

“It’s nothing but great vibes around campus,” said Barlee, “getting to see all the alumni and how much they still care about the team and the game; it was just an electric experience.”

Villanova’s rushing attack has been electric in its own right this season, as the Wildcats’ 190 rushing yards per game ranks second in the CAA and 25th nationally. Through seven games, Villanova is averaging 5.2 yards per carry as a team and has rushed for 1,327 yards and 11 touchdowns. When you exclude the game against Penn State when Villanova rushed for only 58 yards, the Wildcats are averaging 212 yards per game on the ground.

As Villanova sits atop the CAA standings, they can point to their ground game as a major catalyst for the team’s improvement. The Wildcats have finished third in the CAA in each of the past two seasons, but have greater aspirations in 2021-22.

“I think the biggest thing that changed is our maturity level,” said Barlee. “A lot of the guys from 2019 are still here today, so we’ve all gotten a lot closer over that span. We’re like a family now, they’re all my brothers.”

With Covington, who is questionable for Saturday’s game against William & Mary (1 p.m.), in his fifth year and Jackson playing out his senior season, Barlee could be the only returnee from this running back trio. So, as his role on the field continues to expand, his responsibility in the locker room is something else that the Episcopal Academy graduate has had to adjust to this year.

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“It was definitely a change, but I just watched what Covington and Jackson have done in front of me, and have learned how they fall in line and carry themselves. So, I do feel like a leader on this team, but I just like to feed off of my brothers,” said Barlee.

With the second-best rushing attack in the CAA, Villanova’s opponent this week, William & Mary, is the only team in the conference averaging more yards on the ground. The Tribe (5-2) are averaging 218 rushing yards per game and boast the league’s second-leading rusher in Donavyn Lester (624 yds, 7 TDs).

Barlee, though, isn’t feeling any added pressure ahead of the matchup between the league’s top two rushing attacks or letting it distract him from the team’s ultimate goal.

“I just think that we’re going to keep it simple, run the ball, execute, get our yards in our place and everything’s going to take care of itself,” said Barlee. “The next game is always the most important game, and we have a good opponent coming into our house.”

In what figures to be a game decided in the trenches, Barlee and Villanova hope the three-pronged ground attack will reign supreme.