Owls out to exceed expectations

ASSOCIATED PRESS Kyle Friend, shown in 2012, says Owls won't underestimate foes again and will be better prepared.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Kyle Friend, shown in 2012, says Owls won't underestimate foes again and will be better prepared.
Posted: July 31, 2014

NEWPORT, R.I. - Temple offensive lineman Kyle Friend didn't mince words about his team's experience during the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference.

"We went out there - myself included - and maybe underestimated a lot of opponents," Friend said yesterday at the league's preseason media day. "We're definitely preparing a lot differently than we have in the past."

Friend and the Owls suffered through a 2-10 campaign in 2013 during Matt Rhule's first season at the helm, including a 1-7 mark against conference opponents. Temple's lone league victory came in its finale, a 41-21 road spanking of Memphis that earned the Owls a tie with the Tigers in the conference cellar.

And the growing pains could continue this season, as Rhule's roster features just seven seniors. Friend and his fellow underclassmen will need to carry a heavy burden if Temple is to make a move into the league's top half.

"We have to be more students of the game," said running back Kenneth Harper, one of the few seniors. "Everybody has to watch more film, critique themselves, be willing to take criticism from their teammates and coaches and be willing to get better. Never settle."

The American's media contingent expects no such development. Temple was picked eighth in the league's preseason poll, one slot behind Memphis and ahead of only Connecticut and newcomers Tulane and Tulsa. Cincinnati is the preseason favorite with 17 first-place votes, followed in the top three by Central Florida (seven first-place votes) and Houston (six first-place votes).

"I think we're just excited to get out here and compete against these teams," Friend said. "There's no reason why we can't go out here and compete against every team in this conference."

Quarterback play should continue to be a strength for the Owls this season, as sophomore P.J. Walker returns under center after a strong debut. Walker ranked third in the league in pass efficiency behind Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, who both were first-round NFL draft picks. Harper's 613 rushing yards and nine touchdowns were both team highs.

"I really don't have any expectations," Harper said. "I just think you have to take every day a day at a time."

Temple's defense is headed by another underclassman. Junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich topped the nation in solo tackles per game at 8.8 and led the American with 137 stops. The improvement of those around Matakevich will be critical - the Owls ranked last in the league in total defense in 2013, allowing a whopping 474.2 yards per game.

"We had a great offseason as a team," Friend said. "I think we made tremendous strides in maturity and mental toughness."

The Owls open with a road game against Vanderbilt Aug. 28, the start of a nonconference schedule that features the Commodores, Delaware State, Navy - which will join the American in 2015 - and a Nov. 15 trip to Penn State.

"It's always an experience going up there to Penn State and playing in a great college atmosphere," Harper said. "It will be fun."

Temple kicks off league play Sept. 27, visiting Connecticut. The Owls also play road games against two of the top three preseason picks, visiting Houston and Central Florida in back-to-back weeks. The Bearcats make a Nov. 29 visit to Lincoln Financial Field, the lone expected contender that Temple will host.

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