Spring Game: What Are They Saying About The Owls

Every once in a while, a spring camp phenom bursts onto the scene and that is usually a term for baseball players who tear it up in the spring to make the club unexpectedly.

Spring’s second favorite sport—college football practice—also has a version of that.

Last year’s breakout star for Temple was a wide receiver named Marshall Ellick. Then head coach Matt Rhule said he had “five NFL scouts come to my practice on different days” and ask who Ellick was. Ellick caught a touchdown pass that could have impacted the Penn State game but it was called back due to a phantom block in the back called by (ironically enough) AAC refs on Dion Dawkins. Replays clearly showed Dawkins blocked his man on that touchdown legally on the side, not the back, but a hold like that is not reviewable.

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This is the “best” deal we’ve seen on Ebay for tickets. Drew Katz can afford it.

Ellick got injured after that and we have not heard much about him this spring, although it is very possible he will be a major contributor in the fall.

Chances are after Saturday’s Cherry and White game, we will have our own opinions but, for now, I like the comparisons fellow Owls are making of receiver Adonis Jennings.

One of his fellow Owls compared Jennings to “Megatron” and the former Detroit Lions’ player was a special kind of athlete. Temple fans got a glimpse of what Jennings could do near the end of last season and in the Military Bowl. Let’s just put it this way. If all of the Owls had the production of Jennings in the Military Bowl at their positions like he did at his, the Owls would have won the game, 56-18.

That’s the key this year as Jennings, Keith Kirkwood and Ventell Bryant give the Owls their best trio of receivers in my 40-plus years as an Owl fan. (There have been better pairings of two, but the Owls have not been able to put three receivers of this talent on the field in their modern history.)

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Channel 3 is so clueless about the Owls that they put the game at LFF; it’s at the EO (but they probably do not know what the EO is)

Other than the personnel implications, on a personal note getting to meet and talk to Geoff Collins is important. I waited in the Military Bowl tent for him for two hours but he did not show up until much later. Since I thought he was not coming, I made the sprint to tailgate with “regular” Temple fans on the other side of the stadium. While a good time was had by all, I only heard during the game that Collins made a late but impressive appearance for the fans who remained.

I hope he does the walk-through at Lot 10 that Matt Rhule made his first year as head coach. Rhule walked up to every fan and personally shook his or her hand and made a point to listen to what they had to say.

Rhule listened to me, put my ideas (fullback, play-action passing,  a blocking back to protect the quarterback against blitzes) in the circular file and went rubbishing through that file to implement them by his third year. Hey, better late than never. As a spread offensive team, the Owls won two and six games. As a play-action offensive team with a fullback, they won double-digits in back-to-back years.

It ain’t rocket science.

Collins is a little ahead of the curve since he called Nick Sharga “the best fullback in the country” on the Zach Gelb Show yesterday.

That’s a good start. No, make that a great one and Gelb asked the question of the spring. “If you had to name a starting quarterback for the Notre Dame game tomorrow, could you do it?”

Collins, while praising his QBs, said no. That’s a good thing, not a bad one. Let it all shake out over the next few months.

Hopefully, if the Owls can’t get a spring Phenom at that position, they will settle for a summer one.

Sunday: Complete Cherry and White Recap

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5 Spring Game Questions

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This post is best-prefaced by saying the real football-related questions Temple fans have are always answered by the second game of the season.

There are few questions even answered by the first game as a team makes its leap to good or bad by how it improves between game one and two.

If you judged Temple by its first game last year, you might have thought the Owls were headed closer to the AAC basement than its penthouse. By game two, the Owls straightened out a lot of their problems.

That said, some questions have to be answered by the first game because the coaches have to submit a depth chart to the sports information office by the Notre Dame game. So if you are looking for the questions part of the football equation, here are five to ponder:

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What Are The Owls Doing About the Linebackers?

A year ago, the pundits who were looking from afar said the Owls would be screwed by the loss of National Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Matakevich. The people closer to the team said not so fast. Now it appears the Owls have taken a bigger hit by losing their three starting linebackers. Still, Jared Folks saw plenty of playing time at that position and Shawn Bradley was recently awarded a single digit (8), so maybe the Owls are better off than some think. If they go to a 5-2 defense, they might.

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Did the OL Get Any Better?

The offensive line did pretty much a stellar job throughout the AAC championship run but got handled in the Military Bowl game against Wake Forest. A lot of that was the incredibly poor coaching that the Owls displayed that night—running to the right when their NFL draft pick was on the left side—but still that NFL pick will be gone in the fall. The Owls have to show toughness by Notre Dame.

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Whatever you do, don’t fumble

Who Will Replace Jahad Thomas?

Since Ryquell Armstead and Jahad Thomas each had 918 yards rushing from scrimmage a year ago and Armstead is back, the Owls will not have to replace Armstead. They will, however, have to replace Thomas and Jager Gardner—who still holds the Temple record for longest run from scrimmage—appears to be that guy. If both Armstead and Gardner get 918 yards from scrimmage, chances are Geoff Collins will sign for that now.

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What Does Mayhem Look Like?

This is probably the question that will be closest to answered by Saturday. There will be plenty of “Mayhem Is Coming” T-Shirts being sold on Saturday, so bring money. If the Owls’ defense brings more pass rushers than opposition can block, then you will have a sense of Mayhem. What Collins has done in the past is to hit the quarterback early and often and create fumbles and interceptions. If there’s a sense of that happening on Saturday, you have your answer.

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Who Will Play Quarterback?

New offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said Owl fans should not worry about the quarterback position because he has a variety of good choices. Owl fans are worrying because the only quarterbacks Patenaude has seen before coming here played at places like Georgetown and Coastal Carolina. The battle appears to be down to Logan Marchi and Anthony Russo now, and Owl fans will get a feel for both players on Saturday.

Friday: What Are They Saying

Tough Guys Wanted

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This Joseph V. Labolito shot is the photo of spring practice so far.

The tradition at Temple has been to name nine special tough guys before the first game of the season and number those guys 1-9, not necessarily in order of toughness.

Temple University official photographer Joseph V. Labolito captured the essence of the single digit tradition and the university in general with one general iconic photo shot (above) last Thursday. In the background, is a smiling Bernard Pierce—one of the few guys who turned down the honor of the single digit—and in the foreground is the toughest of the tough guys, Nick Sharga.

There are a few digits left, but here’s a novel idea.

Be very stingy about giving out the numbers just to fill out the roster.

Before Pierce’s sophomore season, then head coach Al Golden wanted to give Pierce a single digit but Pierce already was well on his way to making No. 30 a special number in Temple history and wanted to keep it. Golden honored that request.  Pierce singlehandedly lifted the Owls to arguably the second-best win of Golden’s Temple career—a 27-24 job at 10-win Navy, with 268 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. (He also had a big hand in the biggest win of Golden’s career, a 30-16 thumping of BCS bowl-bound UConn, but that came in the next season.)

If the Owls find enough guys who meet the standards of guys like Sharga, Ventell Bryant, Sean Chandler, Keith Kirkwood and Jacob Martin, then they should hand out the rest of the numbers before the Notre Dame game.

If not, make it a game-to-game thing for performances in the game before or just  hold the number open. That makes the honor that much more special.

Who fills out the list?

My guess if Sharif Finch will be at least a candidate for a single digit. How long as Finch been around? He played a terrific game as a starting linebacker in a loss at Rutgers that would have been a win had he not been called for a bogus penalty on a late hit two plays before RU hit the game-winning touchdown pass. That was way back in 2013. Finch is also a big-time playmaker and has blocked five punts in his Temple career and also picked off New York Jets’ quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the key play of a 27-10 win over Penn State two weeks ago.

Other than Finch, a darkhorse candidate could emerge. Maybe Ryquell Armstead, but, either way, Temple will need more than nine tough guys to be successful whether they get a single digit or not.

Tomorrow: Done Deal Of The Century

Temple Tea Leaves

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Love this photo because it shows the level of fan support in background.

When practices are closed to the media, as they are for all but the last 10 minutes this spring, reading from the snippets is probably the best way to glean information.

What we did learn from the first practice was at least two fascinating things: One, the first play from scrimmage was a handoff to Nick Sharga, and, two, that the guy new head coach Geoff Collins was playing catch with at the end of practice was Anthony Russo.

It probably takes a huge leap of faith forward to interpret those two facts into an increased role for Sharga in the offense to a favorite at the quarterback position, but that’s all we have right now.

It makes sense, though, for at least two reasons.

One, Collins got close to Sharga in the legal activities part of the offseason as his position coach. Collins named himself the fullbacks coach, much like Al Golden named himself the special teams coach in his first year.

Collins probably knows what he has in Sharga is exactly what former coach Matt Rhule said he had: An NFL fullback. An increased role for Sharga only makes more sense in that light. In addition to being a terrific blocker, Sharga also carried the ball effectively a year ago, gaining 97 yards on 18 carries, a 6.9 average.  Giving the ball to Sharga a few times a game, even two or three, keeps the defense from keying in on guys like Ryquell Armstead and Jager Gardner.

The Russo thing is particularly interesting because Collins could have had a catch with any of his five starting quarterback candidates but chose that one.

Reading too much into it?

Maybe, but until the Cherry and White game, that looks like all that we will have.

Wednesday: Rookie of The Year?

Black Helmets and Dual Threats

Only Cherry and White helmets here and it should remain that way.

Somebody up there must not like black helmets on Temple football players.

What happened against USF—a 44-23 stunner—was just another reminder that nothing good happens when Temple football players wear black helmets. From the loss to Navy in 90-degree temperatures in 2014 and last year’s USF disaster and even some awful play against winless UCF, black helmets and Temple football do not mix. It’s just bad Karma. Temple is blessed with two great colors, Cherry and White, and the Owls should count those blessings. Counting to two should not be that hard.

Quinton Flowers, South Florida football,

Quinton Flowers

Putting the black helmets away should be the first thing on the 2016 Unfinished Business agenda, and the easiest. The next thing could be the biggest key: stopping dual-threat quarterbacks.

For all of the talk about position changes, recruiting and surprises coming out of Temple football’s 2016 spring camp, the real key for the Owls this season will be stopping Greg Ward and Quinton Flowers.

South Florida’s Flowers is on the regular-season home schedule and Houston’s Ward could play against the Owls in the AAC championship game and they better devise a method for stopping them or their expectations of a great season could be dashed. Quite likely, the Owls will have to beat Flowers to get to Ward, so today is not too early to devising a plan to stop one to get to the other.

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Flowers posted 320 total yards, passing for 230 and running for 90 with three total TDs (two passing, one rushing) in the Bulls’ 44-23 win over Temple in November. Those numbers were unacceptable because the Owls insisted on playing their base defense against Flowers with no tweaks designed to slow him down. That was pretty much their approach in two other losses to dual-threat quarterbacks. The Owls lost four games a year ago and three of them were to dual-threat quarterbacks—Flowers, Ward and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. The other loss was to a conventional drop back quarterback with functional mobility, Toledo’s Phillip Ely.

So what happens in the defensive war room at the team’s practice facility between now and the start of the season is just as important as any personnel developments along the way. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow could have tipped his hand this spring that help is on the way when he moved his best cornerback, Sean Chandler, to safety. Having the speedy and sure-tackling Chandler spy Flowers could cause USF problems because Flowers won’t have the time to see the field and make plays.

At least that should be the plan. Executing it will go a long way toward unlocking a great season for Temple.

Saturday: Opponents Spring Games

Monday: 5 Temple Players Who Will Be Drafted

Wednesday: One Play Away

Friday: Millennials and Dust Devils

5 Things Learned From Spring Practice

Connecticut v Temple

Sharif Finch #56, Tavon Young #1, Jahad Thomas #5, and Dion Dawkins #66 of the Temple Owls celebrate with the American Conference East Division trophy. Most of the guys in this photo return.  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The outside perception of Temple football is that the Owls lost so much senior leadership that they cannot possibly repeat as AAC East champions, let alone contend for the title.

Temple fans know differently, though, because the tradition of single-digit numbers dictates the Owls have plenty of battle-tested leadership returning. Teammates vote single digits to the nine toughest players on the team and five of those single-digit players from last year are returning this season. That’s a solid enough foundation of both leadership and toughness returning for the Owls to make a significant run at the overall title.

Other than the bombshell of three-year starting receiver Romond Deloatch being switched to defense, the Owls had a number of surprising developments coming out of the annual Cherry and White game on Saturday. These five stood out most for head coach Matt Rhule’s team.

Connecticut v Temple

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

5. Jahad Thomas Could Be Switched To Slot

Thomas was named first-team All-AAC tailback with 17 rushing touchdowns and 1,287 rushing yards, but all six of his 100-yard games were in the first half of the season. To maximize his game-breaking talent and preserve his body, Rhule said Thomas could be split out and used as a slot receiver.

Temple v SMU

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

4. Ryquell Armstead Leads Tailback War

The war for starting tailback appears to be won by sophomore Ryquell Armstead, whose experience as a high school track star—he ran a New Jersey state-best 10.8 in the 100 meters as a senior—makes him a home run threat. Do not sell another sophomore, Jager Gardner, short. Against SMU, Gardner had the longest run from scrimmage, a 96-yard touchdown, in Temple history.

AAC Championship - Temple v Houston

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

3. Sean Chandler Moves To Safety

Only two players in the nation had multiple interception returns for touchdowns and one was Temple cornerback Sean Chandler. With the emergence of four-star recruit Kareem Ali Jr. at one corner, Chandler could take those break-on-the-ball instincts to the middle of the field and play safety.

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2. Linebackers Strength Of Defense

While Temple opponents can be comforted by the fact that All-American linebacker Tyler Matakevich has graduated, Temple fans know the real deal is that three starting linebackers—Avery Williams (2), Jarred Alwan (41) and Stephaun Marshall (6)—return with a total of 40 starts under their belts. “Our chemistry was ridiculous (in spring practice),” Alwan said. That meant ridiculously good, not ridiculously bad.

AAC Championship - Temple v Houston

  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

  1. QB P.J. Walker Is Difference-Maker

While the focus is on Houston quarterback Greg Ward and USF quarterback Quenton Flowers, P.J. Walker could be the conference’s best quarterback this season. If he makes the same jump from junior to senior year as he did from sophomore to junior season, the Owls could take home the AAC title. Walker jumped from 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions as a sophomore to a 19 and eight as a junior. A similar jump should mean a title.

Thursday: Real Key To Season

Cherry and White: A Day For Good Guys

My favorite answer here comes at the 10:35 time stamp.

Full disclosure: I hate the Cherry and White game, but love Cherry and White Day.

I always have felt the same way about the game, because the Cherry and White game pits the Good Guys vs. the Good Guys. If, say, Marshall Ellick beats Nate Hairston on a fly pattern for six, half of me is high-fiving, but the other half is not returning the high five. The reasoning is simple. Half of me thinks we’re going to have a great vertical passing game and the other half is concerned about replacing Tavon Young at a corner.

If our defensive line gets 10 sacks, I’m worried about our offensive line. If Jager Gardner, Ryquell Armstead and Jahad Thomas gain 300 yards against the defense, I’m just as worried about the defensive line as I am excited about the offensive line.

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Work, in  a manner of speaking, already being done on new stadium site.

And on and on …

You get the idea.

There are really no winners and losers when the good guys play the good guys. To really get a feel for how the Owls will be this summer, we will all have to wait until the Army game. Or Stony Brook. Even then, it might be too early because

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Field samples taken earlier this week.

Penn State should be the telling game.

For the first 10 or so Cherry and White games, I left Geasey Field or Temple Stadium or Ambler thinking the Owls would go unbeaten. It’s the last 30  years or so I’ve discovered the real truth. You cannot tell anything from the game itself.

The day, though, is another story. It’s a chance for Temple fans to get together again and that is  where the real victory is. There is no better place to pick up Temple “stuff” than Cherry and White Day, so bring cash.

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Just what is this guy’s problem?

This year, with a new stadium on the horizon, there should be a palpable excitement among those fans knowing this is one of the last two or three games on the East side of campus. With that in mind, it would be nice to see a drawing depicting two things: 1) What the stadium will look like; 2) Will it be North-South or East-West? Fifty percent of the people swear up and down on a stack of bibles that the stadium will be East-West, while another 50 percent will swear that it is North-South. Me? I would like for it to be North-South (better view of Center City), but the land configuration dictates East-West.

Other than that, as Jose from Norristown might say, I would like to see a donation jar to purchase former Owl kicker Wes Sornisky his own grave stone (he is buried anonymously in a Potter’s Field in Delaware after dying alone in a fire),  a folding chair in Doc Chodoff’s name to given to a loyal fan and the revival of the Mark Bresani Spirit Award given to the most spirited player of the spring.

Maybe not this year, but certainly in the future.

Sunday: General Cherry and White Thoughts