There are plenty of reasons behind Villanova’s 3-1 start to the football season. Some will point to Daniel Smith’s 820 passing yards and 10 touchdowns, while others may look at star wide receiver Rayjoun Pringle averaging more than 25 yards per catch. And who could look past corner Christian Benford’s four interceptions through four games?
But what often goes overlooked on a successful football team is the impact of the offensive line. Case in point: Villanova’s rushing attack is averaging 174 yards per game, while Smith has only been sacked five times in four games. There is plenty of talent on the Wildcats’ O-line, and senior guard Michael Corbi is no exception — even if it took him a little longer to convince the Villanova coaching staff of that.
A native of Arnold, Md., Corbi was interested in Villanova purely as a student. After previously sending his film to the coaching staff as a high school junior and not receiving a response, Corbi still decided to tour.
“I just wanted to see the campus and I loved it,” he said, “so senior year I sent my film one more time in December, less than a month before signing day, and next thing I know [assistant coach] Ola Adams was at my door.”
Corbi, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, visited Villanova a second time, and while not being offered a scholarship, he was offered a preferred walk-on opportunity to earn a spot.
“I just knew this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “The people around here were great, Coach [Sean] Devine is one of the best O-line coaches in the country, and I just knew I wanted to be a part of this team. So, I decided to take the chance as a preferred walk-on and fight for my chance there.”
Although the journey of a walk-on can be daunting, Corbi felt as though he rose through the ranks faster than expected, thanks to a welcoming locker room.
“I came in early and I worked my way up the depth chart pretty fast because I was traveling with the team as a true freshman,” he said. “The team never acted like I was lower because I was a walk-on. Once you’re on the team, you’re one of the teammates and a part of the family.”
As a freshman, Corbi saw only limited game action against Bucknell and Richmond. The following season, he would appear in five games before an opportunity for increased playing time presented itself last spring.
Corbi said he started the four-game spring season “in the same place I was, backup center and right guard.” But due to some shakeups and injuries, he wouldn’t be a backup for long.
“I was ready for my shot and some unfortunate events came ahead of me in the preseason,” said Corbi. “So, it was a week-and-a-half [before the 2021 spring opener against] Stony Brook that they named me a starter.”
It was official. Corbi had officially worked his way from walk-on to starting guard. After working so long to get to this point, it was only natural for him to feel some nerves.
“I felt prepared, but obviously I was nervous. The night before Stony Brook, I don’t know if I slept more than 20 minutes,” said Corbi. “But once you’re out there, we knew the drills, we knew the technique and we knew the playbook, it’s now just about executing.”
And to say Corbi executed would be an understatement. After making his first career start on March 6, he started the remaining three games of the season, helping the Wildcats average more than 208 rushing yards and 398 total yards per game. His performance wouldn’t go unnoticed, as he earned first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association honors.
Corbi credited his success to a mindset he has held since high school: finishing every play.
“It’s all about blocking until the whistle and finishing your blocks. I think that is a big part of my game, I always pride myself on playing through the whistle and putting the defense on their backs,” Corbi said.
“I personally knew I was capable of playing at the CAA level, so to get there I went and I watched the top-10 ranked guards in the nation and tried to figure out what they are doing that I’m not.”
“This team definitely feels closer,” Corbi said. “Nine of the 11 offensive starters are the exact same as we were in 2019, so this team definitely has a ton of chemistry.”
And chemistry will be important for this week’s contest. In 2019, JMU handed Villanova its first loss of the season in Week 7. Since these two teams last met, JMU has won 15 consecutive regular-season games and 22 straight FCS regular-season games overall. The Dukes haven’t lost a CAA game since November 2018.
For the Wildcats to end those streaks, they will look to win the battle in the trenches and command the running game. That will be no easy task, though, as JMU has the best rushing defense in the CAA, only allowing 1.04 yards per carry and 32 yards per game entering Saturday.
But Villanova’s rushing attack has been a force itself, averaging 5 yards per attempt, the second-best mark in the conference.
Something’s got to give on Saturday, and it could come down to Corbi’s ability to finish each play against a stout JMU defensive line.