Temple eyes better season in changing American Athletic Conference

P.J. Walker had the best season ever for a freshman quarterback at Temple in 2013. "Everyone worked hard this summer," he says, "determined not to experience what we did last year."
P.J. Walker had the best season ever for a freshman quarterback at Temple in 2013. "Everyone worked hard this summer," he says, "determined not to experience what we did last year." (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: August 25, 2014

In its second season under coach Matt Rhule, the Temple football team will look to benefit from more changes in the American Athletic Conference, along with the experiences from the second half of 2013, as it tries to improve on last year's 2-10 record.

Temple, 1-7 in the AAC last season, suffered its highest loss total since going 1-11 in 2006, its first season under former coach Al Golden. There were early, humbling losses to lowly Idaho and Football Championship Subdivision Fordham.

Rhule and his staff - which didn't get its first win until the seventh game - return a team with just seven seniors. Thirteen true freshmen played significant roles last year, and the hope is the Owls, who sandwiched wins over Army and a season-ending rout of Memphis around four losses by a combined 23 points - including a three-point loss to AAC champ and Fiesta Bowl winner Central Florida - are ready to make strides in a conference perceptibly weaker after another year of transformation.

Gone are Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten), replaced by former Conference USA members East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa, bringing the number of former C-USA members in the American to nine.

One of the six leagues with an automatic bid to a major bowl a year ago - before this season's introduction of the College Football Playoff - the American is one of five conferences relegated to scrapping for a single guaranteed spot in a major bowl. The Mid-American, Conference USA, Mountain West, and Sun Belt are the others.

"Some of the things we went through have put us in position to have a really good team," Rhule said. "We learned last season that we could play with any team in the conference but that we could also lose to any team. Now it's time for us to go and compete. Those games that we were down in the stretch, now it's time for us to go and win those games."

Temple averaged 24.9 points per game last season, and quarterback P.J. Walker was the engine of an offense that averaged 399 yards.

One of just seven true-freshman quarterbacks to start seven games or more last season, Walker passed for 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns, both Temple freshman records. He threw for 200 yards in each of his seven starts, 280 yards in four of them, and four touchdowns three times.

Walker won't be able to sneak up on opponents this season, but he will be playing behind an offensive line that returns just one starter, center Kyle Friend. Walker is comfortable throwing to wide receivers Jalen Fitzpatrick (38 catches, 429 yards, three touchdowns) and John Christopher (31, 331, two), but he is aware that the departure of last season's leading receiver, Robbie Anderson (44, 791, nine), will necessitate an adjustment.

Still, he sounds confident.

"I see a lot more explosion from our group of running backs and our receivers," Walker said. "We've got more guys here who can get the ball in their hands and make plays. Everyone worked hard this summer, determined not to experience what we did last year. We expect to go out and win games."

Rhule said he is less concerned with Walker than he is with the lack of experience along the offensive line. Also, there are 17 receivers on the roster, and Rhule believes many of them will contribute.

Leading rusher Kenneth Harper (613 yards, nine touchdowns) returns, as does Zaire Williams (533 yards, third most by a Temple freshman).

Highly decorated tackling machine Tyler Matakevich anchors a defense that he said is motivated to prove that the late-game scores it allowed in 2013 won't recur.

"Ever since the season ending we have been focused on making improvements for this season," said Matakevich, a first team all-conference linebacker who led the nation in solo tackles (8.8 per game) last season. "The mind-set has completely changed on defense. No one is pointing fingers. We're all on the same page."

Nate D. Smith, who shuttled between middle linebacker and defensive end, was third on the team in tackles (66) and tied Matt Ioannidis (a defensive end last year who bulked up and is now on the inside) for the team lead with three sacks. Avery Williams leads a group of linebackers vying for the other starting linebacker spot.

A secondary that yielded 298.6 passing yards per game hopes that JUCO transfers Alex Wells and Shahid Lovett will provide more athleticism at safety, and freshman defensive back Sean Chandler is making a push to start.

A big question mark for the Owls is the kicking game. Temple made just three field goals on nine attempts last year. Kicking duties this year will be broken up between Tyler Mayes, Colby Perry, and Jim Cooper.

Only Cooper, who was 0 for 3, made any attempts last year.


jmitchell@philly.com

@JmitchInquirer

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