Villanova University's defense is a major reason why the Wildcats are ranked among the top 10 of Football Championship Series (FCS) preseason polls and favored to win the Colonial Athletic Conference.
Three former Press All-Star players - senior nose guard Antoine Lewis, junior free safety Joe Sarnese and senior cornerback Craig James - are expected to play key roles on that unit.
The Wildcats, under head coach Andy Talley, open the season Saturday at Boston College in a nationally televised game (noon on ESPNEWS). Villanova went 8-4 and reached the FCS playoffs in 2012
"We're really counting heavily on those three guys this season," Villanova defensive coordinator Billy Crocker said in a phone interview. "They play the three most important positions on our defense."
Lewis, a Somers Point native and 2010 Mainland Regional High School graduate, is considered one of the top interior defensive linemen in the country. The 6-foot-2, 290-pounder was of 20 players named to the Buck Buchanon Watch List for the award given to the top defensive player in FCS, and was selected as a first-team preseason All American by The Sports Network.
If he lives up to expectations, next April he could become the 41st Villanova player in history selected in the NFL draft.
"I'd absolutely love the opportunity to play in the NFL," Lewis said in a phone interview. "Every kid playing football dreams of playing at that level. But all the individual accolades and things are not my concern right now. I'm just focused on getting better each and every day and being the best nose guard I can be."
In 12 games last season, Lewis made 58 tackles (30 solo stops), including 81/2 tackles for losses, 11/2 sacks and one fumble recovery.
But Lewis' value to the Wildcats extends beyond the field. He also is considered their emotional leader.
When it comes time to deliver emotional pregame speeches, the Wildcats often turn to him to deliver them. And he plays with the same fire and intensity he displayed at Mainland.
"Antoine is a special kid," Crocker said. "Not just physically and athletically, but he's a mentally tough kid. I know that I can always count on him to prove a tremendous amount of leadership for us."
Lewis has grown both physically and mentally from the day he arrived at Villanova as a 260-pound defensive end.
After starting the 2010 preseason camp on special teams, he worked his way onto the defense and found himself in the starting lineup in the season opener against Temple University at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
"I was only 17 at the time and I was just a kid running around," Lewis said with a laugh. "It was definitely a big stage and I was up against some big players. All I wanted to do was show them I could compete at that level and I've had the same attitude throughout my college career. I'm extremely passionate and I love to express it through my play on the field. I want the team to be able to feed off me."
Lewis is especially close with Sarnese and James because of their ties to the Cape-Atlantic League. Sarnese, a Ventnor native, was a two-way star for Holy Spirit, and James also excelled on offense and defense for Oakcrest.
Rivals in high school, Lewis and Sarenese are now good friends. Sarnese and James never knew each other in high school but formed a bond when they were roommates during summer camp in 2011.
"I think it helps us that we're all from the CAL," James, a Mays Landing resident, said in a phone interview. "Being from the shore, most of us had the same kind of upbringing. We all hang out together and they are some of my best friends on the team."
Lewis is the emotional leader of the defense, but Sarnese is its backbone.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder led Villanova with 81 tackles last season as a sophomore and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Most importantly, he makes all of the defensive calls.
"Joe plays the hardest position on our defense and he does a great job," Crocker said. "He's the quarterback of the defense and is the guy who directs traffic. But he's been doing it for so long, he's at a point where I don't have to say anything to him. He's able to handle everything out there. It's like having a coach on the field."
Sarnese played both safety and wide receiver for the Spartans and excelled at both positions.
But when it came time to move on to college, he knew he was destined for defense.
"I had a pretty good idea that I was going to be a defensive back at Villanova," Sarnese said by telephone. "I play with a lot of adrenaline and I feel like I can play faster on defense. But I also have to be the guy that always makes the right call back there."
James is the most experienced player in the secondary. The 5-11, 195-pounder will start for the third straight season. As a junior, he notched 55 tackles, including one for loss, in 12 games with two forced fumbles and four pass breakups.
This year, he will try to take on more of a leadership role while also serving as a playmaker for the secondary.
"We originally viewed Craig as a safety, but we decided to move him to corner and he really took to it," Crocker said. "He's very, very intelligent and has used that to make himself a very good player. He may not be the most physically gifted player, but he makes up for it with excellent technique. He's a guy I trust back there."
Extra points: Villanova's roster includes three other players from CAL schools. Junior place-kicker Chris Gough (Winslow Township, St. Augustine Prep) will handle kickoffs for the second straight year. Redshirt freshman Nico D'Angelo (Margate, Holy Spirit) and sophomore Justin Rhinesmith (Cape May Court House, Middle Township) are backup offensive linemen.
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