Heading into the 2015 season, Temple Owls head football coach Matt Rhule had three goals: contend for a conference championship, play in a bowl game, and rank in the top 25.
Mission accomplished. The Owls finished 10-4, tying the school mark for wins in a season. They won seven of eight conference games to capture the AAC East, landing them in the conference’s first-ever championship game. For the first time since 2011, the Owls made it to the postseason with an appearance in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl.
Despite losing four of their last seven games, including the conference championship to Houston and a bowl loss to Toledo, last season was regarded as one of the best in school history. The defense played a major role, ranking 30th nationally in total defense. The secondary led the AAC in pass efficiency, allowing just 203.3 yards per game through the air.
But if the Owls hope to build on that success in 2016, they’ll have to do it without eight members of last season’s defensive unit. Three starters were taken in this year’s NFL Draft: DL Matt Ioannidis (Redskins), LB Tyler Matakevich (Steelers), and DB Tavon Young (Ravens).
One former Owl, who believes the team can raise the bar higher in 2016, is Morkeith Brown, an all-conference defensive end and team captain who played from 2007-11. He points to injuries on both sides of the ball as one of the big reasons the Owls lost four of their final seven games, after going 7-0 to start the year.
“A lot of younger guys had to step up, and they got some good playing time last year,” said Brown, a former Army combat veteran in Afghanistan who spent three seasons with the Arena League’s Philadelphia Soul before becoming a personal trainer. “Those are guys who will be starting this year, so this isn’t their first rendezvous.”
All-conference honorable mention Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike will return to anchor the defensive end spots. The two combined for 76 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Avery Robinson (16 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack), is expected to start at nose tackle. With Ioannidis gone, the other tackle position is wide-open.
Matakevich will be hard to replace at linebacker. With just under 500 tackles for his career, he is Temple’s all-time leader in tackles, and captured numerous honors, including National Defensive Player of the Year and both the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. Returning middle linebacker Jarred Alwan was the team’s second-leading tackler, and Avery Williams is coming off his best season. Junior cornerback Sean Chandler will anchor the secondary, following a team-high four interceptions in 2015, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Nate L. Smith and Delvon Randall, who had a combined 70 tackles and one INT, are expected to step into starting roles at the safety positions.
After breaking long losing streaks against Penn State and Cincinnati, and almost upsetting Notre Dame, Brown realizes the Owls will have a target on their back. But as a former player, he also knows the importance of treating every matchup as if it’s the most important game.
“Whatever game is up, that’s who you focus on,” he said. “You don’t look above and beyond that team, no matter what conference they’re in.”
If the Temple Owls hope to win a conference championship and bowl game in 2016, Brown says leadership and hunger are key ingredients to that success, particularly on defense.
“The linemen have to be hungry; they have to want to get to that quarterback every single play,” he said. “The linebackers have to command the defense, take charge. Tavon Young (set the standard) for the DB’s; they have something to reach for. Spring ball is one thing, but when the summer hits, that’s when you do a lot of your own stuff. You have nothing but time on your hands to become a better player. This is when you take full advantage of that.”