Craig James and his roommates at Villanova University have a saying: All the good football players come from South Jersey.

"That's what we tell each other," the junior cornerback said last week with a smile.

James, out of Oakcrest High School, is one of nine Cape-Atlantic League alumni on the Wildcats' roster as they open the season tonight against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Three of those CAL alumni - James, defensive tackle Antoine Lewis (Mainland Regional) and safety Joe Sarnese (Holy Spirit) - are key returning starters on what is expected to be a much-improved defense.

"We breed some pretty good defenders," said Lewis, a preseason all-Colonial Athletic Association selection who lives with James and star receiver Norman White (St. Joseph).

The defense starts up front with Lewis, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound junior who had a breakout season last year after moving from end to nose guard.

"Antoine's one of those guys that you have to block with two people," Wildcats coach Andy Talley said. "He's a nose guard close to 300 pounds, and ... you want to make sure that their center and guard combination have to be worried about where he is. I don't think he's going to be blocked real well one-on-one. So that right away clogs up the middle for us and frees up our linebackers to run to the football."

Lewis had 44 tackles last season, including 3 for a loss. He had one sack, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. But Talley said his impact doesn't entirely translate to the stat sheet.

"That nose guard position doesn't normally make a lot of sacks unless they completely miss him because he's going to get double-teamed every play," the coach said.

Sarnese and James should make a slightly more noticeable difference. They tied for fifth on the team last year with 62 tackles each - Sarnese as a freshman, James a sophomore. Along with safety Ronnie Akin and cornerback Eric Loper, they make up what Talley said is "maybe on paper the strongest secondary that we've had here in a long time."

"Joe Sarnese came on the scene as a freshman last year, played exceptionally well," Talley said. "And Craig James, I think, is going to become one of the better corners in our league right now."

The silver lining to Villanova's 2-9 season last year was that a lot of young players - Sarnese, James and Lewis included - got valuable experience. Now it's time for them to take the next step.

"I know that my team relies on me more this year," James said. "Now I have a major role where people are looking at me to make plays."

Lewis said he feels more comfortable as a third-year starter. On the practice field, he carries himself with the confidence of a veteran leader.

"You just understand the game more," he said. "Everything is slowed down a little bit. Everything is just more complete."

They take pride in being from the CAL, too. If James isn't making the big play, he wants to see Lewis or Sarnese do it.

"Those are two of my favorite teammates," James said. "They play hard every snap. Antoine anchoring down the D-line and Joe calling the shots, our ranger, it's a good combination."

Lewis didn't put much stock in his preseason all-CAA honor, though. He's focused on the fact that the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the conference.

"I'm glad everyone's sleeping on us because that means they're not going to prepare as well as they should be," he said. "We've got a lot of weapons. We're going to utilize everything to our advantage. And definitely them sleeping on us, we've got a wake-up call for everyone."

Contact Jason Mazda:

609-272-7193

Villanova at Temple

When: 7:30p.m. today

Online: ESPN3.com