Temple head coach Matt Rhule has done an admirable job at a program not accustomed to winning. After an inaugural 2-10 campaign, Rhule led the Owls to a 6-6 finish in 2014 and an impressive 10-4 season last year in which Temple won the American Athletic Conference, set a school record for wins, and beat Penn State for the first time since 1941. Not bad, but how about an encore?
The Owls said goodbye to a group of seniors that were the cornerstone of last year’s achievements. Gone are All-Everything LB Tyler Matakevich, DT Matt Ioannidis, and CB Tavon Young all of whom were selected in this year’s NFL Draft, but Rhule and his coaching staff know that their roster is still full of talent. In 2014, Rhule garnered the AAC’s fourth-best recruiting class. Last year’s class was ranked No. 2 just behind conference champion Houston. Yes, the Owls are talented, and they are deep too.
The offense welcomes back six starters including quarterback P.J. Walker who will begin his fourth season as the Owls starter. Walker improved by leaps and bounds in 2015 and will continue to develop with new offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas, a former Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach. Walker set school records for completions (601), touchdown passes (52), and wins (18). He will surely surpass the Temple career record for passing yards this season. He needs just 121. Last season, Walker threw for 2,973 yards and 19 touchdowns.
One of the problems facing the Owls offense is at receiver where five of the top six from a year ago are gone. Ventell Bryant, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound sophomore, is the only returning Owl with experience. Bryant caught 39 passes for 579 yards in 2015. Former Pitt transfer Adonis Jennings started three games last year. Keith Kirkwood, who transferred from Hawaii, played against Penn State last year and then missed the rest of the season due to injury.
The Temple offense should be in good hands though with a running game driven by three returning offensive lineman and first team All-AAC running back Jahad Thomas. The 5-10, 190-pound Thomas rushed for 1,262 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Thomas will have the luxury of using Thomas even more behind a line anchored by LT Dion Dawkins, a 6-5, 320-pound behemoth, who is drawing some national attention on some preseason All-America teams.
It is no secret that the success of the Owls’ 2016 season will come down to how well the defense performs. Under Rhule, Temple has been one of the nation’s best. Last year, the Owls were 17th nationally in scoring defense yielding 20.1 points per game. The defensive unit was also tops in the conference and 20th in the nation in total defense, allowing 337 yards per game.
Matekevich, the school’s all-time leading tackler, will be missed, but Temple has three linebackers with starting experience. Seniors Stephaun Marshall and Jarred Alwan return as starters and Avery Williams returned to the starting lineup later in the season last year. The player that has Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow excited about 2016 is defensive back Sean Chandler.
The 6-0, 190-pound Chandler earned second-team All-AAC honors last year after recording 55.5 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and leading the team with four interceptions. Chandler made more plays than Young last year and Temple is looking for him to make even more this season. Rhule and Snow even experimented with Chandler playing safety during the spring to get the best 11 Owls defenders on the field at the same time.
Derrek Thomas, a 6-3, 195-pound converted wide receiver, has made some tremendous strides in the transition from offense to defense. His improvement, as well as that of CB Nate Hairston, will determine where Chandler ultimately lines up in the Temple secondary.
Kicker Austin Jones returns to lead one of the nation’s best special teams units. Jones went 23-of-28 on field goals and recorded 113 points. He matched Memphis kicker Jake Elliott, who was a unanimous first-team All-AAC selection. Temple blocked a nation-leading five punts last season and returned one of them for a touchdown.
The Owls also receive some assistance in 2016 from the AAC schedule. Temple does not crossover to play Houston and will face their two toughest opponents, South Florida and Cincinnati, at home. The key to Temple’s season may come down to Oct. 21 when South Florida visits Philadelphia. The Bulls stomped all over the Owls last year, 44-23. Both Temple and South Florida will be looking to lay claim to the AAC East title. A win will go a long way in determining the ultimate champion. The following week, Temple gets the Bearcats, who finished 7-6, 4-4 in conference play, last year.
Can the Owls win 10 games again? Absolutely. Their 2016 schedule features just four teams that finished over .500 last year and one, Memphis, will have a new coach and a quarterback not named Paxton Lynch.
A video posted by Temple Football (@temple_fb) on