Change is in the air as Temple football begins

Matt Rhule takes overat Temple. Staff
Matt Rhule takes overat Temple. Staff
Posted: August 05, 2013

As the third coach in the last four years, Matt Rhule wants everyone to think about the success Temple enjoyed just before last year's slide.

Rhule, 38, spent six seasons as an Owls assistant before his stint last year as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. The rookie head coach leads a team that finished 4-7 overall, struggled on both sides of the ball, and is loaded with questions that will need to be answered before the Owls make their 2013 debut at national runner-up Notre Dame on Aug. 31.

The Owls begin preparation for the season opener on Monday with the opening of training camp. And in the coming days and weeks, Rhule wants his team thinking about where the Owls came from when he left them - they were 26-12 with a bowl appearance in his last three seasons on Broad Street - as they prepare for their first season in the new American Athletic Conference. Last week the Owls were picked to finish ninth in the 10-team league in media polling.

"We were on the cusp of the top 25 with Al Golden a couple of times," Rhule said, referring to the former Owls coach. "So some of these guys have won. I want to win with them and for them."

It will not be easy in his first season.

The Owls, who play the first AAC game Sept. 7 against Houston, return 15 starters from last season. Their biggest question is at quarterback, where junior Connor Reilly, who has never taken a snap at the collegiate level, tops the depth chart. So reliant on the running game in the past, Rhule plans to make the passing game more dynamic.

There are persistent questions on defense as well. Rhule wants to intensify a pass rush that produced 25 sacks in 2012. Last season the Owls allowed an average of 436 yards and 31.2 points per game. So while the focus will be on the implementation of Rhule's spread offense, the defense is just as big an issue.

Rhule's way

A linebacker at Penn State, Rhule started his collegiate coaching career on defense. However, since 2007, with Temple and the Giants, Rhule has been an offensive guy. As a result, the coach hired last December to replace Steve Addazio plans to do some major tinkering with the Owls' traditional run-oriented offense.

"I want a dynamic style of offense," Rhule said. "I want people to come and watch our passing game in action."

Many of the current players were recruited by Rhule, who was the Owls' recruiting coordinator. He plans to rely heavily on his seniors to be an extension of him on the field.

"He's the new coach, but we are very familiar with Coach Rhule," said fifth-year nose tackle Levi Brown. "He's familiar with us, and a lot of us are familiar with him. So from that standpoint it's good."

Of the Owls' 15 returning starters, eight are on offense and seven are on defense. Rhule, however, is also excited about the freshmen on campus and looks forward to seeing which ones can contribute.

It sounds as if they will get the opportunity.

"That's what camp is for," Rhule said. "We're going to find out who can help us in this process."

Holes to be filled

In the last two seasons, Temple relied on the legs of running backs Bernard Pierce, now with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, and Montel Harris, who gained 1,087 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season.

Still, Rhule said that even if those two were here he would try to bolster an aerial assault that averaged just 120 yards per game and produced just eight passing scores all season.

Reilly's only experience behind center was in the spring game, when he completed 25 of 41 passes for 366 yards and four touchdowns. If he struggles to grasp the offense, Rhule is confident that senior Juice Granger, who started the last two games of 2012, can step in.

The offensive line, which returns starters Sean Boyle, Evan Regas, Scott Roorda, and Jeff Whittingham, could be improved, especially if Cody Booth, converted from tight end to tackle, works out.

If the Owls are going to succeed in the passing game, look for receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick, who led the Owls with 363 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season, to be targeted more often.

Chris Coyer, who started nine games at quarterback last season, has been switched to H-back.

The Owls allowed almost 200 yards rushing per game, and this could be a problem again if Rhule can't find someone to step up along the line and help Brown, the only returning starting lineman. Two of the better players are young linebackers Tyler Matakevich, the Big East defensive rookie of the year, and Nate D. Smith. Matakevich and Smith led the Owls in tackles with 101 and 75, respectively.

Rhule will also be looking for someone to emerge at safety. Last season Temple, which returns starting defensive backs Zamel Johnson and Anthony Robey, surrendered an average of 238 yards through the air.

A new league

When the dust settled at the conclusion of all the college football realignments, the Big East was gone and in its place stood the newly formed American Athletic Conference.

Longtime Big East members Pitt and Syracuse and West Virginia have moved on. Other schools were added to the conference but never played a game in it (Boise State, San Diego State, and TCU).

New additions include Houston, Memphis, SMU, and UCF, formerly of Conference USA.

Next year the league will take two more hits as Louisville, odds-on favorite to win the conference crown this season, departs for the ACC, and Rutgers joins the Big Ten. East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa will come aboard. Navy will join (for football only) in 2015.

At least for now, however, the AAC has two things that will draw attention on a regular basis: a potential national champion (Louisville) and a Heisman Trophy contender (Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater).

"We want to embrace both the present and the future," commissioner Mike Aresco said Wednesday at the conference's media day in Newport, R.I. "There are going to be some challenges. But focusing on this season, when people look at our conference they'll see a legitimate powerhouse team that can contend for a national championship."

The landscape will change next season, when the NCAA replaces the Bowl Championship Series with a four-team playoff system. The American will no longer be one of the five conferences guaranteed a spot in the major bowls.

The Owls, however, aren't looking that far ahead.

"We've got to get ready for our season," Coyer said. "And it's right here now."


Contact John N. Mitchell at jmitchell@philly.com. Follow on Twitter @JmitchInquirer

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