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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Tough Guys Wanted

labolito

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?

Shamrock Shakeup Month

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Sharif Finch is back to make Mayhem plays like this in 2017.

In a couple of days, a Month of Mayhem will start at the Edberg-Olson Football Complex with the beginning of Spring Practice culminating on Cherry and White Day, April 22.

If successful, fans crammed into that tiny space on that day—when there is a much bigger one available four blocks south—will not notice the difference.

That’s because Mayhem was already pretty much a part of the Temple Defense DNA over the last few years.

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Simply put, the “Mayhem” stat new head coach Geoff Collins admires and bases his defensive concept on counts the percentage of plays on defense that end in a sack, fumble, tackle for loss or interception and those are the kind of stats Collins gears his defensive scheme to achieve. His players then started calling him the “Minister of Mayhem” and the nickname stuck.

If Collins is the “Minister of Mayhem” then he probably already met the “Kings of Mayhem” and they are our own Temple Owls. Going into the Wake Forest debacle, Temple’s DL was No. 1 in the nation in “Havoc Rate” which is a team’s total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles.

In this month of drinking Shamrock Shakes, Collins’ own shakeup should look more like a tweak.

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So while Temple was nation’s No. 1 disrupting defense, at least in the 2016 regular season, can it be better? Sure, if Collins and new coordinator Taver Johnson tweak things a little to accentuate the strengths of the Owls—a defensive line that includes proven players like Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin, Michael Dogbe, Greg Ward, Freddy Booth-Lloyd , Karamo Dioubate,  among others—and masks areas that could be weaker, like the linebackers. Essentially, Temple has a solid group of linemen and defensive backs and will have to replace three starters at linebacker, Jared Alwan, Avery Williams and Stephaun Marshall.

To do this, if Collins plays a 5-2 he will have to replace only two linebacker starters and have a proven player up front to create this havoc we all seek.

Just a little tweak, but an important one to keep a good thing going because the Owls have been all about Mayhem for at least the last couple of years.

Monday: Opening Day

 

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.

kid

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

Practice Concerns

 

P.J. Walker is ready for a big senior year in 2016.  Interesting that Adam DiMichele (background) is never far away.

So far, I haven’t seen the word “ameliorate” as a word of the day at the end of the Bill O’Reilly show, but it is a good word as any to describe how the Temple football practices have evolved this spring.

The definition of the word is “to make or become better, more bearable, or more satisfactory” and, since head coach Matt Rhule has not canceled any practices in the last two weeks, the trend has to be interpreted that, in his mind, things have gotten more satisfactory.

cherryweather

Weather could not be better.

Rhule canceled practice a couple of week ago citing concerns about both senior leadership and the speed the redshirt freshman were learning the system.  Since Rhule the football CEO, we fans—the shareholders—should have been concerned that he had practice concerns. Since those concerns have “ameliorated” we have less to worry about.

The senior leadership has gotten markedly better and hopefully they will show the red shirt freshmen the way.

There is not much about this team I worry about. I think it is a double-digit win team but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. A little more girth in the middle of the defensive line would help. Not all that concerned about the linebackers, safeties or corners.

On offense, I have confidence in the line as tackle Dion Dawkins is the next NFL draft choice and Brendan McGowan has proven to be a capable replacement for Kyle Friend and there is a whole lot of talent battling for the remaining spots.

The running backs are deep and talented and I have a gut feeling that Jager Gardner is a future star.

In the passing game, I would like to see P.J. Walker able to fake it into the line, sucker up the LBs and safeties to the line of scrimmage, and float a long ball in stride for six. I haven’t seen that since Jalen Fitzpatrick (UConn, Penn State) in 2014. Maybe Cortrelle Simpson is that guy; maybe it’s Marshall Ellick. I was somewhat surprised Robby Anderson ran a track 4.37 on pro day, because he didn’t show it on the field last year. Maybe a guy like Ellick, who runs a track 4.5, runs a football 4.37.

On special teams, would be nice to see a Delano Green, a guy who can flip the field position all by himself, and fewer fair catches. Maybe, out of Sean Chandler, Simpson and Kareem Ali, one guy will emerge.

Either way, since it snowed last Saturday and will be 70 and sunny this Saturday, any other concerns have been, well, ameliorated.

Friday: Good Guys vs. Good Guys

Football Weather On First Practice Day

 

Since all of the Temple football practices are closed this spring, probably the best way to add an extra layer of secrecy to the whole deal is to hold the first day of spring practice during a time when the entire campus is distracted by March Madness.

It was a rainy day, but the long-term forecast is for a brighter few weeks ahead right until the spring game on April 16. Hopefully, that carries over to the field as well.

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P.J. to Jahad: Explosive downfield plays in the passing game. 

Even though the football’s official slogan is “Unfinished Business” another key word for spring practice is progression. Is this the year P.J. Walker makes the natural progression from freshman sensation to sophomore slump to junior game manager to major impact player?

I think so.

P.J. had a very similar season to his freshman year (20 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 9 games) to his junior year (19,8,14) and I look for him to drive those numbers up to 25 (or more) touchdowns. The more important number for P.J. though is to get to double-digits again as a winning quarterback and help the team lift those heavy post-season trophies, including a bowl one.

Hopefully, the Owls learned from a “fun” approach to the bowl game and will adjust that itinerary  when the time comes to go bowling. While the Owls played air hockey, beach volleyball and bowling (in an alley), the only bowling Toledo seemed concerned about was between the white lines on game night. Even though the Toledo staff was gutted by the departure of Matt Campbell to Iowa State, there were enough holdovers who learned by experience that was the quickest route to winning was detouring around the fun and focusing on a businesslike approach.

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Averee Robinson, a two-time Pennsylvania large school state champion heavyweight wrestler, would be a nightmare for opposing centers if he were allowed to play nose guard.

Hopefully, the Owls will show a similar a progression from bowl one to bowl two as well.

On defense, do the Owls  go to a 5-2 defense or do they have personnel better suited or a 3-4 (Averee Robinson playing the nose flanked by Sharif Finch and Praise Martin Oquike with four starting linebackers in Nick Sharga, Jared Alwan, Stephaun Marshall and Avery Williams)?

A couple of things to look for: Do the Owls make a bold move, switching Jahad Thomas from tailback to the slot and making room for Jager Gardner and Ryquell Armstead at the tailback position or do they stick with the status quo? An argument can be made for either move, but Thomas would definitely add an element of explosiveness to the downfield passing game that did not exist last year, even with Robby Anderson. It looked to me that Anderson lost a step in his return and the Owls could use a guy, like Jalen Fitzpatrick, who could run under a long bomb and stretch the field for a quick six from time to time.

Armstead and Gardner would be an interesting tailback battle. Numbers do not lie. In Gardner’s final high school season, he gained 2,776 yards on 266 carries with 36 touchdowns in just 11 games vs. Armstead’s 1,488 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games on 219 carries in his final high school year.

Giving P.J. those kind of weapons, in addition to tight ends Colin Thompson and Kip Patton, could finish the offensive progression this team started to make a year ago and take P.J. from game manager to game buster.