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Villanova's Szczur is heart of team

VILLANOVA'S junior wide receiver/running back/direct-snap quarterback/kickoff returner/kickoff coverage guy, Matt Szczur, was both the Offensive and Special Teams Player of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association, the best league in FCS.

VILLANOVA'S junior wide receiver/running back/direct-snap quarterback/kickoff returner/kickoff coverage guy, Matt Szczur, was both the Offensive and Special Teams Player of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association, the best league in FCS.

At first, he didn't get it. Which says pretty much everything you need to know about him.

"If you look at numbers, I tried to tell my roommates [who include quarterback Chris Whitney] that I didn't deserve it," said Szczur, who had 1,815 all-purpose yards this season on 157 touches, nearly 1,000 more than the No. 2 Wildcat, Whitney. "They explained to me that it's not that. I have good numbers, but not as good as others. There's guys who passed for like 3,000 yards. They said it's my presence. I might just be too humble, but I don't know. They said people have to key on me, to try and stop the offense. I understand that, more or less. They said it makes me a huge threat. So maybe now I understand it more."

He carried 86 times for 562 yards and seven touchdowns, to go with 45 receptions for 534 yards and four scores. He also ran back 26 kickoffs for 719 yards and a TD, and completed all three of his passes for 21 yards and two scores. Plus, he made eight tackles on kickoffs.

It's a good thing that baseball is considered his best sport, although some are starting to rethink that. Including him.

The only numbers Szczur really cares about is 12-1, Villanova's record heading into tomorrow night's (8 o'clock, ESPN2) FCS semifinal against William & Mary (11-2) on the Main Line.

The winner plays either Montana (13-0) or Appalachian State (11-2) in next Friday's final in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Villanova lost in this round in 2002 at McNeese State. The Tribe fell in the 2004 semis, at home to James Madison. The 'Cats have won the last five meetings, including a 28-17 victory here in early October.

"It's unbelievable," said Szczur, the only player in FCS or FBS this year to run for a TD, catch a TD, throw for a TD and return a kick for a TD. "When we were freshmen we were watching App State [win the title] on TV. We weren't even ranked. But it was like, 'Wouldn't it be awesome to be those guys?' And now we're in position to do it. We knew what we wanted, and we dedicated ourselves to making it happen."

Villanova hardly lacks weapons. Whitney has a knack for making something out of nothing, when it counts most. Brandyn Harvey had nine catches for 142 yards in the opening win against Temple. Aaron Ball rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2008 and Angelo Babbaro, who is finally healthy again, just got a career-best 148 in the snowy, 46-7 quarterfinal win over New Hampshire.

Still, Szczur is the one who opponents must account for first and foremost. Especially on these kind of stages. He has scored a TD in all four of his playoff games. Four were on runs, one on a catch and the other on a kickoff. He has thrown for a seventh.

"The fact that the head coaches in our league voted for him [for those awards] indicates just how valuable of an asset he is to our program," coach Andy Talley said. "Even though other guys may have better numbers, they look at him and go, 'Wow.'

"A lot of times he just breaks tackles. He's coming this way, then all of a sudden he makes a guy try to stop him with an arm. At 195 [pounds], he's really slapped together. And he's at full speed [4.4] on about the fourth step. I think people just recognize he's Superman, like [Brian] Westbrook at times. The biggest complaint is that he probably doesn't get the ball enough."

And . . .

"He might be the nicest person we've ever had," Talley continued. "He's the All-America boy, almost too good to be true. He's sort of country, kind of like, 'Ah shucks, golly gee.' Really small-town [Erma, N.J.]. He's always upbeat, always has a smile on his face."

Szczur, a product of Lower Cape May Regional High, is a big-time catcher/centerfielder prospect. Yet he's been compared to New England Patriots' wideout Wes Welker, only faster.

"He would be a gem," Talley said. "Andy Reid should do what he did with Westbrook. Hold a spot and steal him at the end. If you put him in a camp he's not getting cut."

So Szczur might have a decision to make. For now he only wants to get to the last game.

"I've been doing this since I was young," said Szczur, who much more importantly will become a bone-marrow donor on Jan. 4 for a 1-year-old girl suffering from leukemia, a project that Talley has spearheaded for some time. "They just tried to put me anywhere where I could get the ball. But that was in pee-wee. I never thought . . . Ever since I was growing up, I've been the versatile guy. Halfback options, catching it, almost anything. I like that. See what you can do. But what we're doing is perfectly fine with me.

"One of the things we stress in our wide-receiver meetings is you've got to be a great player without the ball. I mean, we stress it a lot. Many people don't watch blocks. But if you've ever seen Brandyn, he's always latching onto the other guy, shoving him after the play. We're pretty close. It's almost weird saying this, but I look up to him because of how hard he plays. He's unbelievable, on and off the field. Running routes, he never gives up. Against Richmond, he tackled a guy running back an interception by going all the way across the field from the end zone. It could have saved the game. It was something to see.

"When we run our swing pass out to me, he's the lead blocker almost every time. And he gets the job done every time. But I'm the one who gets credited for the yards. I'll point to him, and he'll point to me. We know exactly what's going on. He doesn't care. That's why we're where we're at . . .

"The way I look at it, you always want the ball more," he concluded. "But I don't need to get it all the time with these guys. I like that, too." *