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Villanova focused on playing well, not preseason ranking

Wildcats, picked to finish first in CAA, will rely largely on two stars, QB John Robertson and LB Don Cherry.

Villanova quarterback John Robertson. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Villanova quarterback John Robertson. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more(Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

BALTIMORE - Villanova has been picked to win the Colonial Athletic Association. Which makes sense, since quarterback John Robertson, the CAA's preseason Offensive Player of the Year, is the returning Walter Payton Award winner. And linebacker Don Cherry, the choice on the defensive side, was runner-up for the Buck Buchanan Award.

The Wildcats lost three times in 2014, by a combined five points. They were eliminated in the FCS quarterfinals at home to Sam Houston State, a game that Robertson missed after suffering a concussion the previous week.

"He's not the reason we lost that game," head coach Andy Talley said at yesterday's annual CAA mediafest at M&T Bank Stadium. "But if we want to go far, we have to make sure he stays healthy."

Sounds like a plan. The dilemma is, Robertson is the Wildcats' best runner, particularly since they have only one experienced back returning. And they'll have two new starters on the offensive line. Plus, the receiving corps appears thin. At least the defense has a bunch back and might actually be the team's strength. Still, reality dictates that this will be a Robertson-centric journey. As long as the fifth-year senior remains upright.

"When you have a guy like that, who initiates so much of the action with his legs, he's probably always going to be in harm's way," Talley reasoned. "But he's going to have to play. And he's going to have to play hard. In college football, it only takes one [hit]. I'm worried about him, for sure. The question is, can you still win without that? I don't think we're good enough to win without him doing what he does."

Robertson's backup is redshirt freshman Zach Bednarczyk. Once upon a time, Robertson was in that position. He got beat out for the job not once, but twice.

Sometimes maybe you just don't know.

"He gives you that little kid, apple-pie-and-coffee smile, but inside of him, there's a motor that's revved up and going," Talley said. "He's a driver. They all realize he takes more punishment than anyone on the team. He's not a pretty boy. He's a baller. He knows what to do with the football.

"He's the consummate best quarterback in the country at the FCS level, is what he is."

So what more do you really need to grasp?

"It's definitely nice to have a guy like John and an explosive offense to have your back if you're having a bad day," Cherry duly noted.

The Wildcats surpassed 40 points eight times last season. Robertson, who threw 35 touchdowns and only three interceptions last season, needs 995 rushing yards to break Brian Westbrook's career program record of 4,499. And 2,909 passing yards to surpass Kirk Schulz at 9,676 and move into second place. Last year, he had 2,846, despite playing much of the way with a cast protecting a broken bone in his left (nonthrowing) hand. Robertson already owns the total TD record, with 107 (62 passing).

Robertson is trying to become the second player to win the Payton Award twice, following Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards, in 2008 and 2009.

"At the end of the day, you just have to play," said Robertson, an economics major who spent the last two months working at an internship on Wall Street before he starts working on his MBA in the fall. "I was trying to go down before a hit [on the play that caused the concussion] and unfortunately took a hit in the back of the head. Some things you can't avoid. It just happens. You can't go from playing reckless to timid. But I can take some steps to be a little smarter. At times, there's no reason to take a hit to get an extra yard.

"I think that every year, the pressure's there. The main pressure is [what I put] on myself. I know if I can play well, it usually works out. I think you kind of get used to it. I know how to filter that stuff out, just put the pressure that I need to be successful. As a quarterback, it's all about wins. Then everything's good."

It starts Sept. 3 at FBS Connecticut. The CAA opener is two weeks later against Delaware, which is also the first home game. The regular season ends at James Madison, which was picked second.

"As coach always says, when you get to the mountaintop you feel how rare the air is," Cherry said. "We've tasted how good winning feels and how bad losing feels. It makes us want it that much more."

You won't get any arguments from the cornerstone, who acknowledged it took him a week or two to get used to the New York subway system on his recent daily commutes.

"It's time to go play football, have fun again, which is pretty cool," Robertson said. "Let's just go beat UConn first."

In 2013, the Wildcats were picked to finish second and went 6-5.

"Two years ago, we were thinking, like, national championship going in. We're at the top right now. It comes with a lot of responsibility.

"It's a good position to be in."