Just the thought of being in a select fraternity brought a smile to Ben Ijalana's face.
Earlier this month, the Villanova left tackle rattled off the names of three former Rancocas Valley High products who played in the NFL.
"Alonzo Spellman, Franco Harris, and Irving Fryar," said Ijalana, a 2007 Rancocas Valley graduate. "Those are all greats."
If everything goes as planned, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior's name may be added to that list.
Ijalana is listed by NFLDraftScout.com as the second-best senior prospect at guard for the 2011 NFL draft, behind Florida State's Rodney Hudson.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said most NFL teams give the Wildcat a third-round grade.
"He's barely 6-foot-4, but he's got long arms," said Mayock, who think Ijalana is suited to play left tackle in the NFL. "He's got real good feet. And in a pass-first league, he's the kind of tackle teams are looking for."
He's also the kind of player Villanova will have a tough time replacing.
Ijalana, 21, is the only Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) player named to the Outland Trophy watch list. The award is given annually to the nation's top interior lineman.
The four-year starter is also a preseason candidate for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best player in the FCS. Ijalana also was named to several FCS all-American teams.
"He's an unbelievable player," Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney said. "It's awesome to have him as my left tackle, my back blindside tackle. It just helps our offense so much having him."
Ijalana says he didn't know much about football until the age of 14. Before then, Ijalana, who has Nigerian-born parents, was a central defender in youth soccer.
"You know, I just eventually got too big for soccer," he said.
So as a freshman at Willingboro High, he tried out for the Chimeras' football team.
"I was soft," Ijalana said. "It was definitely different, just the mentality, coming from a low-contact sport. Football was definitely a shock."
The transformation from Mr. Softie to the Dominator started when he transferred to Rancocas Valley before his junior year.
"It was just a matter of believing in yourself," he said. "When you play a sport, you realize people are out there trying to hurt you. Not really trying to hurt you, but you know what I mean. And it's, like, when is enough enough?"
At that time, Ijalana stood about 6-31/2 and weighed 283 pounds. His size alone should have garnered recruiting attention from Football Bowl Subdivision programs. But Ijalana didn't give major colleges an opportunity to take notice.
After his junior season at Rancocas Valley, Ijalana said, he paid about $75 to attend Villanova's junior day camp.
The Wildcats were impressed with his performance and offered a scholarship a month later. Ijalana accepted it the following day.
"I was just excited to get a free education, because college is expensive," he said. "I was pumped to help out my family. I have two brothers and sisters. What greater service can you do than 'OK, Dad, I got you'?"
He has also provided a great service for Villanova's football team. The criminal-justice major has become a mainstay, starting 39 games.
"He's an exquisite pass protector because his feet are so quick and he has great vision," Villanova coach Andy Talley said.
If Ijalana has a glaring shortcoming, it is run-blocking. He needs to be more aggressive at the point of attack.
"He's a little more of a finesse blocker," Mayock said. "You would rather see him be more aggressive in the run game, because he's borderline, height-wise."
As a result, Mayock doesn't think Ijalana blocks well enough to play right tackle or guard in the NFL.
But "he's fortunate because he's got the natural gift of long arms and good feet," the draft analyst said. "So that's the first thing that NFL scouts and coaches look for in a left tackle."
Mayock believes Ijalana could still have a productive NFL career.
As for playing at the next level, "it's definitely a good feeling to know that you have the opportunity," Ijalana said.
Last year: 14-1, 7-1 Colonial Athletic Association.
Coach: Andy Talley (26th season, 179-102-1).
Top returnees: QB Chris Whitney; WR Matt Szczur; LB Terence Thomas; OT Ben Ijalana; S John Dempsey.
Big losses: LB Osayi Osunde; DE Tim Kukucka; WR Brandyn Harvey.
Inside info: Villanova is favored to win a second consecutive Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) national championship. With 15 returning starters, the Wildcats are ranked first nationally in just about every major FCS preseason ranking.
Three of those returnees - senior WR Matt Szczur, senior OT Ben Ijalana, and senior OLB Terence Thomas - are preseason all-Americans.
If there's a question mark, it's the defensive line. Villanova must replace two of last season's three starters in defensive end Tim Kukucka and defensive tackle Phil Matusz. Defensive end Marlon Johnson, the only returning defensive line starter, must provide leadership to what will be a young unit.
Villanova should have an advantage in special teams with placekicker Nick Yako and punter Dominic Scarnecchia both returning.
Biggest games: Friday at Temple; Oct. 2 at William & Mary; Oct. 30 vs. Richmond.
- Keith PompeyEndText