Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash (2011 Poll Finish - 9th)
2010 Record: 1-10, 1-7 NEC
2010 NEC Finish: 9th
Chris Villarrial knows what it takes to reach the highest level and stay there. Now, he's trying to teach the Red Flash what it takes.
Villarrial, who was drafted into the National Football League and spent 11 seasons there as a Chicago Bear and Buffalo Bill, enters his second season as head coach at Saint Francis (PA) and has spent much of his time attempting to instill the words "mental toughness" into his players' vocabularies.
"The biggest thing we preach is mental toughness," said the former NFL All-Pro lineman. "You're not going to win every battle, but it's about how you come back that next play."
Villarrial isn't concerned with the Flash's 1-10 record last season, but rather with how his team responds in 2011.
"We took our lumps last year. You don't look back on the negatives. You have to learn from the negatives and move forward," said Villarrial. "You have to focus all of your positive energy forward."
Despite only one win to show for it, Villarrial's team showed some flashes of brilliance in the coach's first season at the helm.
One of those flashes came from junior quarterback John Kelly (Frederick, MD/Tuscarora) who had a career day at then-No. 20 Cal Poly. The signal caller accounted for 303 yards of total offense and threw three touchdowns as the Flash put up 33 points.
Going into his third season at the collegiate level, Kelly has a more than adequate knowledge of the Red Flash offense and is fortunate to have receivers named AJ Alexander (Altoona, PA/Altoona) and Anthony Howze (Upper Marlboro, MD/Riverdale Baptist). The latter is the team's top returning receiver, having made 31 catches in 2010, but the former will be making his Saint Francis (PA) debut come September 3 at Wagner.
Alexander, who starred at nearby Altoona High School, spent the last two seasons at Division I FBS member Florida State before returning home to Pennsylvania. He played in three games as a freshman defensive back for the ACC school before moving to receiver where he made two catches in limited action as a sophomore.
"He's doing everything we ask of him," said Villarrial of his new offense weapon. "If we can get the ball in his hands, he can really help us win some ballgames here."
Villarrial certainly wouldn't mind seeing Alexander contribute to days like that one Saturday the Flash enjoyed last September.
It was a mid-September day when everything went right for the Flash who looked like world-beaters in a 41-0 victory over Sacred Heart.
Junior running back Kyle Harbridge (Easton, PA/Easton) missed four games last season due to injury, but the victory over Sacred Heart was not one of them. The explosive Harbridge, who is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the football, totaled 199 yards from scrimmage (115 rush, 84 receiving) and two touchdowns against the Pioneers. He gained 593 yards rushing and another 168 through the air during his injury-shortened campaign. His 5.1 yards per carry average was down from the 6.2 he averaged as a rookie.
The Red Flash defense did its part in that 41-0 shutout of Sacred Heart, too. Saint Francis intercepted the NEC's all-time leading passer, Dale Fink, four times.
One of those picks was courtesy of sophomore Jake DeMedal (New Wilmington, PA/Wilmington), who was one of four rookies starting in the secondary.
Excluding the defensive backfield, Saint Francis' defensive unit will undergo some changes this fall.
Villarrial has hired a new defensive coordinator, promoting Jake Nulph to the position.
"He brings a lot of knowledge to the game," said Villarrial who was also impressed with the time Nulph spent as an assistant under the legendary Joe Walton.
Another change will be the absence of linebackers Scott Lewis and Matthew Parker, two of the top-four leading tacklers in NEC history.
"Guys like that are hard to replace," said Villarrial of the two all-NEC performers who graduated in May.
Sophomore Anthony Bowman (Damascus, PA/ Our Lady of Good Counsel) is one possible replacement after appearing in all 11 games as a freshman, but Villarrial expects a competition to ensue between a number of different players vying for time at linebacker.
So as he heads into Year No. 2, Villarrial has made his outlook clear.
"We're looking forward to starting a tradition of winning here. It's going to be tough to do in this conference, but we're going to keep fighting."