AT THE END of last season, Villanova basically was down to just about no available running backs, because of a rash of injuries. It's not a good situation to be in. And it was a very real extenuating factor in the Wildcats' just missing a playoff berth.
Fast-forward to spring practice, when it looked as if junior Matt Gudzak might be playing himself into the starting role. Then he tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which had bothered him during the previous season. The 5-9, 205-pound product of Toms River East (N.J.) High underwent surgery in mid-May. The timetable for his return was four to six months. During training camp, he could only watch from the sideline while he hoped for the best, which might have been the most difficult part. He finally returned to the lineup for the Oct. 1 game at Elon, backing up senior Javon White and sophomore Aaron Forbes.
But he was back, which is all that mattered. That and the fact that the team was winning.
"To get hurt like that was devastating," said Gudzak, whose father Pete was a fullback at Delaware in the early 1980s. "I wanted to play. And I felt like I was ready. Everyone has expectations. So did I. We had expectations as a team. You just want to do your part, you know.
"I did think about redshirting, but . . . I really wanted to make it back if I could. The people here who worked with me were great. I think we were pretty much right on schedule, if not even a little bit ahead. They were doing OK without me, but, at this level, you can never have enough guys at that position. We found that out last year."
White was the go-to guy the first three games. Then Forbes, who would make second-team all-Colonial Athletic Assocation, emerged. And lately it's become a three-headed effort, as Gudzak has joined the crowded equation.
On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats (8-3), seeded ninth in the 24-team tournament field, host St. Francis (Pa.) (7-4) in the first round of the NCAA FCS playoffs. The winner will travel next week to No. 8 South Dakota State (8-3), which got a bye.
If the Wildcats are going to make any kind of a closing run for Andy Talley, who's retiring after 32 seasons, a lot might depend on their ability to establish a ground game. Which in turn will help open the field up for Zach Bednarczyk to throw.
"Now we have three guys who are all really good ballplayers," said Talley, who's 8-2 at home in the postseason, 5-0 in openers. "It's hard to get all three of them enough touches. But it's a good problem to have.
"They're different. They can all catch, but I think Matt's the better receiver. And right now maybe he has more spring in his legs, because he didn't have to go through a heavy preseason."
That was evident in Saturday's regular-season finale at Delaware, where Gudzak rushed for a career-high 121 yards on 13 carries. The trio has combined for 1,612 yards and 17 touchdowns on 285 attempts. Bednarczyk has added another 460 yards. At some point, Villanova probably will need contributions from each.
"We're brothers," Gudzak said. "We know any one of us can get it done. That's the kind of team this is. We don't really have many stars. But we have a lot of real good players who all want the same thing. We've all dealt with the way it is and the way it has to be, and nobody's upset. If I don't get any carries and Aaron scores four times, I'm happy. As long as we're walking off with a win. And I know they both feel the same.
"We wanted to be in the playoffs and now we're here. So let's go see what we can do."
The last time the Wildcats reached the postseason, they had a bye before beating Liberty here (29-22). Then they lost to visiting Sam Houston State (34-31), when Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback John Robertson was unable to play after suffering a concussion. Neither Smith nor Gudzak got any touches in those games. It wasn't their time yet. Barring any more physical setbacks, that hardly figures to be the case for as long as they can make this journey last.
"I like this team a lot," said Talley, who's in the playoffs for the 12th time, and sixth since 2008, the year before he won the national title. "They're hardworking, they have a good attitude, the chemistry is really there. And we've been battle-tested. We feel like we can play with anybody.
"Having 10 fifth-year seniors brings a certain amount of maturity. Right now, it's just such a good feeling to have at least one more game here. After that, we'll see if we've got the right stuff."
Sure sounds as if at least a few of them already do.