Frank Nutile

Temple shaping up for transition year with Geoff Collins at helm

Temple shaping up for transition year with Geoff Collins at helm

A season of change is upon North Broad Street.

The new era of Temple football starts its engines this Saturday as new head coach Geoff Collins and the Owls head to Notre Dame for a nationally televised showdown with the Fighting Irish (3:30 p.m./NBC10).

Before Saturday afternoon’s kick off, CSNPhilly.com reporter Greg Paone breaks down the defending AAC champion Owls from every angle.

Offense
To say the most important position on the field is unsettled would be quite the understatement. Redshirt junior Frank Nutile, redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi, redshirt freshman Anthony Russo and true freshman Todd Centeio are all gunning for the starter’s crown. Yes, you read that correctly. Just hours before the Owls’ season opener, Collins has yet to publicly announce his starting quarterback against Notre Dame (see story).

He said earlier this week he knows who will get the first snap, but won’t say another word about it. Don’t be surprised to see a multi-QB system, at least as things shake out to start the season, as Nutile and Russo bring a pro-style game while Marchi and Centeio are much more mobile and can wreak havoc with their legs. Collins could well choose to use different QBs in different situations on the field. Either way, no matter who has the ball in his hands to fill the cleats of four-year starter and school record-breaker Phillip Walker, the inexperience will be there as the four current Temple QBs have combined for five completions, 69 yards and a touchdown in their collegiate careers.

Things are much more settled at running back, where junior Ryquell Armstead is the clear cowbell back. The 5-foot-11, 205 pounder is a versatile back who can power his way through the line of scrimmage and tackles, but can also slash to make opponents miss and then display breakaway speed that made him a track star at South Jersey’s Millville High School. Armstead racked up 919 yards on the ground last season, including a career-high 210 yards in a win over USF, and led the Owls with 14 rushing TDs last season. Behind him is junior speedster Jager Gardner, who owns the program record for the longest touchdown run with a 94-yard scamper vs. SMU in 2015.  He had just 111 yards and two TDs last season on the ground, but his opportunity to see the field more has arrived now that star Jahad Thomas has graduated.

Temple should have no problems on the outside, where the three-headed monster of seniors Keith Kirkwood and Adonis Jennings and junior Ventell Bryant reigns supreme. The trio last season combined for 2,017 yards on 123 receptions, 12 of which were for touchdowns. Bryant led the way with 54 grabs and 895 yards. They each hauled in four scores apiece. There is talent, skill, speed, athleticism and everything in between when it comes to these three. There’s also no lack of confidence. “I believe, in my eyes, we're the best receiving corps in this country," Kirkwood said recently (see story). Having this experienced group will be an invaluable asset to the Owls’ green QBs as these three wideouts have the ability to correct mistakes when the ball is in the air.

Defense
The steep challenge here for Temple is replacing seven starters, including defensive end Haason Reddick — who was the 13th overall pick in this past April’s NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals — from a unit that ranked third in the nation in total defense (282.5 yards allowed per game), third in passing defense (151.2 yards per game), 11th in scoring defense (18.4 points allowed per game) and 25th in rushing defense (130.7 yards per game) last season.

Let’s start in the defensive backfield, where star senior safety Sean Chandler is now the unquestioned leader of the defense (see story). An uber-talented, versatile safety with the ability to both cover wideouts and patrol the field, Chandler is a four-year starter. Collins has already praised him among the best players he’s ever coached. Chandler has recorded 185 tackles, seven interceptions, three sacks and three forced fumbles in his Temple career. Keep an eye on his safety partner, hard-hitting junior Delvon Randall, whom Chandler has been mentoring. On the outside, redshirt sophomore Artrel Foster and senior transfer Mike Jones are expected to start at corner.

The landscape at linebacker is still fluid as the Owls have to replace all three starters from last year. Collins even admitted earlier this week that his thoughts on who could start at linebacker at Notre Dame could change in the days and hours leading up to kickoff. That said, expect redshirt sophomore Chappelle Russell and sophomore Shaun Bradley, both of whom are incredibly athletic, to see plenty of snaps as they look to cement themselves as the next great Temple linebacker. Here’s a change from last season: not one of the five LBs listed on Temple’s first “Above the Line” chart (Collins’ version of a depth chart) is shorter than 6-foot.

The defensive line features a solid mix of veteran experience and youth. Redshirt senior Sharif Finch and true senior Jacob Martin will lead the way on the outside at defensive end.  On the inside at defensive tackle is where youth will be served, as redshirt juniors Michael Dogbe and Freddie Booth-Lloyd and sophomore Karamo Dioubate will all have their time to shine.

Special teams
There’s an interesting kicking battle going on and, much like the QB situation, there may not be a clear-cut answer for a little while.

Senior Austin Jones is back from a torn ACL suffered while covering a kickoff in the loss at Memphis last October. Jones was kicking well, too, prior to the injury, as he was 10 for 12 on the year before going on the shelf. Collins recently said Temple’s strength coaches and trainers told him Jones’ leg is now even stronger than it was before the injury. But in his career, Jones is only 8 for 13 from the 40 to 49-yard range.

A former walk-on, sophomore Aaron Boumerhi stepped in and was a revelation as freshman last season, going 15 for 17, including 5 for 5 from the 40 to 49-yard range.

Again, much like with the QBs, Collins’ kicker of choice could well come down to the situation on the field.

Coaching
Shortly after the Matt Rhule era reached its apex with last season’s AAC crown and then abruptly ended with his departure for Baylor, the Collins era began. The 46-year-old takes the reigns of the Owls after two seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida and four seasons as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State prior to that. Dubbed the “Minister of Mayhem,” Collins is a defensive guru known for his aggressive schemes and an energetic personality to match. He coached Eagles superstar Fletcher Cox while at MSU. He also coached NFL first-round picks safety Keanu Neal (Atlanta Falcons, 2016), corner Vernon Hargreaves (Tampa Bay Bucs, 2016) and linebacker Jarrad Davis (Detroit Lions, 2017) while with the Gators.

Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude comes to Temple after five seasons in the same role at FCS Coastal Carolina. In his time with the Chanticleers, Patenaude’s spread offenses were known to kick the tempo up and score in bunches. In five years at Coastal Carolina, Patenaude’s offenses averaged 34.5 points per game. And he likes to establish the run, as his teams averaged 189.7 yards on the ground per game in those five seasons. It will be intriguing all season long to see what he comes up with to utilize the weapons on offense the Owls possess.

Taver Johnson is a first-time defensive coordinator charged with revamping the historically stout Temple defense that lost so much after last season. While this is Johnson’s first coordinator gig, he has plenty of big-time college football experience as he has coached defensive backs at Ohio State, Arkansas and most recently Purdue, where he spent the last three seasons. While at Ohio State, he coached and mentored current Eagles star safety Malcolm Jenkins. Johnson has talent to work with at Temple, but it is youthful talent that still needs some seasoning.

Players to watch
Offense: Sophomore WR Isaiah Wright
Don’t let the wide receiver moniker fool you. Sophomore Isaiah Wright is a true playmaker with the ability to break off huge gains in a variety of ways. As a true freshman last season, he forced his way onto the field as a receiver, running back and punt and kickoff return specialist. But where he did most of his damage was out of the backfield in the wildcat formation, as he rushed 42 times for 232 yards and his first collegiate touchdown. He also snatched eight passes for 81 yards. It doesn’t matter how stacked Temple could be at wideout this season, Wright is too talented to keep off the field. Look for Patenaude and crew to continue to use Wright in a variety of ways.

Defense: Redshirt junior DT Freddie Booth-Lloyd
Even if you don’t know just who exactly Booth-Lloyd is, odds are you’ve seen him before. Booth-Lloyd was the star of this viral video from a few years back that showed him, an incredibly agile man of large size, blowing past track and field competition. Now, the 6-foot-1, 325-pound defensive tackle has the chance to use that incredible athleticism and agility to clog the line of scrimmage and get to the quarterback as he will see plenty of playing time this season. If he can channel all that athleticism, agility and raw power he possesses, he could be a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line.

Game to watch
Sept. 21 at South Florida
The easy, cop-out answer here would be Saturday at Notre Dame. But even with the hype and attention that comes with playing the Fighting Irish, the fact of the matter is it’s still the first game of a new season for a new coaching staff. It’s still a game where the Owls will have to get their footing under them and get a feel for things. But by the time Temple hits South Florida on Sept. 21, it'll have three games — two of which are against very beatable opponents in Villanova and UMass — under its belt to smooth any bumps in the road. And they’ll need to smooth out any bumps to hang with new head coach Charlie Strong’s Bulls, who are ranked No. 19 in the AP Preseason Top 25. They return dynamic QB Quinton Flowers to head a formidable attack. They’re the sexy pick among many to represent the Group of 5 in the New Year’s Six bowls this season. Want to know where this Temple team stands? The measuring stick comes early.

Prediction
There are no doubts that this is a transition year for the Temple program. With the new coaching staff, new quarterback(s) and all the new starters on defense, how could it not be? It’s a tough team to put a finger on the pulse of right now before seeing something out on the field. The QB situation does give significant pause, though. That’s an issue that needs an answer. The prediction here is 7-5 and no three-peat as AAC East champs. The Owls will still go bowling, though.

Temple, still without QB, gets set 'live' 2 weeks before Notre Dame

Temple, still without QB, gets set 'live' 2 weeks before Notre Dame

As far as Temple head coach Geoff Collins was concerned, Saturday was game day for he and his Owls.

They stayed at a hotel Friday night. They woke up Saturday morning and had a team breakfast. They went through team walkthroughs and drills before gearing up and stepping on to the turf. They went “live” with everything they did.

But the reality is that Saturday was only the Owls’ final intrasquad scrimmage before the end of camp and that the season opener at Notre Dame is still exactly two weeks away.

“It was just so that when we get ready to play a game, we’ve already done all of it,” Collins, Temple’s first-year leader, said after the scrimmage at historic and toasty Franklin Field. “And the young guys who’ve never made a trip for us, they were there. They got to go through the whole process, so it was an unbelievable day.”

But the reality also is that Temple still doesn’t have a starting quarterback just two weeks ahead of traveling to South Bend.

Three weeks of camp and an offseason of preparation have settled nothing in the four-pronged race for the starter’s crown. Redshirt junior Frank Nutile, redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi, redshirt freshman Anthony Russo and true freshman Todd Centeio again all split reps up and down the depth chart Saturday.

Collins just knew reporters couldn’t wait to ask the question.

“The big thing the last couple weeks is that every day one of the guys who’s pulled apart and then someone else has pulled apart,” Collins said of his team’s ongoing quarterback battle. “It’s going to be exciting watching the tape of this scrimmage because last scrimmage, it felt like there was a little separation with two guys. Today, I think it might have been a little bit more.”

So rather than waiting for reporters to ask the next logical question, Collins just went ahead unprompted and answered it for everyone with a recorder or phone or microphone or camera in sight.

“Hopefully by the end of this week, we’ll have some guys who we can say are above the line.”

“Above the line” is Collins-speak for the first team, second team and so on and so forth. He doesn’t believe in actual depth charts or the philosophies behind them.

And that “some guys” comment is interesting. With four players in fierce competition with one another and apparently not separating themselves enough, could a multi-QB system actually be realistic?

The QBs have different builds and styles. Nutile and Russo each check in at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and are certainly more pro-style, pocket passers. They can scamper if need be, but standing tall in the pocket and seeing the whole field is how they excel. Marchi and Centeio each check in at 6-foot. Centeio weighs in at 201 pounds while Marchi weighs in at 192 pounds. Both guys are known for their ability to scramble and create havoc when the pocket breaks down.

“I believe in the guys who are ready to play at a high level for a top-25 championship program,” Collins said.

The fact of the matter is that whoever grabs the brass starter’s ring(s) will be thrown into the nationally televised fire with bundles of inexperience or no experience at all.

Russo and Centeio have never even suited up for a college game. Nutile and Marchi have combined to go 5 for 9 for 69 yards and a touchdown since 2015. Of course, having prolific program record-breaker Phillip Walker ahead of them played a pretty big role in that.

But still, big shoes need to be filled on a big stage. And all that inexperience will have to evaporate quickly for the Owls to have a chance not only on Sept. 2 in South Bend but also moving forward.

And the Owls who’ve played with and against all four QBs every day this summer are confident that whoever has the ball in his hands can lead the way.

“Every quarterback is different,” said senior Adonis Jennings, who, along with senior Keith Kirkwood and junior Ventell Bryant make up a deep and talented wideout corps the QB(s) will be throwing to.

“So whatever style or type of offense we’re going to run, whoever fits that best is going to be the quarterback. I like all four of them and we’ll see what happens.”

“It’s good, honestly, because we’ve got guys who can run and we’ve got guys who can pocket pass and things like that,” senior safety Sean Chandler said of the QBs he goes up against every day in practice. “I feel like they’re all very precise and they make good decisions. Those are things that we need.”

Jennings admitted, though, there is work to do when it comes to preparing with four different quarterbacks.

“You just have to adjust to each quarterback’s playing style,” he said. “You have to build a connection with all four of them just to get things right with them so that they can know the offense and get connected with the receivers, the tight ends, the linemen, the running backs and the whole offense in general.”

Only two more weeks to adjust.
 
Special teams update
Temple also has a less-heralded battle going on at kicker between senior Austin Jones and sophomore Aaron Boumehri.

Jones started 2016 as the Owls’ kicker and went 10 for 12 before tearing his left ACL in a loss at Memphis on Oct. 6. Boumehri, a former walk-on, took over and impressed with a booming leg that connected on 15 of 17 attempts.

Now with Jones back healthy, the two are locked in a heated competition for kicking duties.

Collins noted both have excelled during camp and even said that strength coaches told him Jones’ leg is stronger now than it was before the injury.

Just like with the QB decision, two weeks left to make a final call.

Temple's QB decision takes spotlight as Geoff Collins' 1st camp kicks off

Temple's QB decision takes spotlight as Geoff Collins' 1st camp kicks off

The last time Temple head coach Geoff Collins stepped foot in South Bend, Indiana, he was literally a man on the run about 10 years ago.

“You probably won’t believe this when I tell you,” Collins quipped jovially. “I trained to run a marathon. It was back when the College Football Hall of Fame was still in South Bend. The starting line was at the College Football Hall of Fame and, 26.2 miles later, on the 50-yard line at Notre Dame Stadium was the finish.”

In just over four weeks, Collins will return to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since.

But when the coin is flipped into the late summer afternoon air right at the very same 50-yard line on Sept. 2, it won’t be the end of anything.

In fact, it will be quite the opposite. Because once that coin is flipped in front of a national audience, the marathon that is Collins’ head coaching career will hit the ground running.

But before Collins, the former University of Florida defensive coordinator who was hired to be the head man at Temple this past December after Matt Rhule took the head gig at Baylor, and his Owls battle the Fighting Irish in the season opener, there is still work to be done as training camp officially kicked off with Monday’s annual media day.

And Collins is doing that work his own unique way to help mold these Owls and the program itself in his vision.

And that includes the ever-present starting quarterback decision that is looming overhead as Temple prepares to replace four-year starter Phillip Walker, an undrafted free agent in camp with the Indianapolis Colts who holds the program records for passing yards (10,668) and passing touchdowns (74).

Redshirt junior Frank Nutile, redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi, redshirt freshman Anthony Russo and true freshman Todd Centeio are all racing during camp to earn the right to fill Walker’s cherry and white cleats.

Those four have combined in their college careers for five completions on 11 attempts, 69 yards and a single touchdown toss.

No pressure, right, guys?

How’s that going to sort out as camp begins? Good question, and Collins, per usual, had his own unique solution.

“One of the questions I preloaded is who is going to take the first snap [at Tuesday’s first camp practice]?” Collins said. “So, tomorrow, there will be four snaps that happen at the same time. At our practices, there are all kinds of drills going on at once.

“When we have the first snap, there will be four drills and the balls will be snapped by four different guys at the same time.”

Needless to say, this is the most pressing question Collins must find an answer for in the coming weeks. After all, it is the most important position on the field.

Russo, the 6-foot-4, Archbishop Wood product who was committed to Rutgers before decomitting and then rebuffing overtures from LSU before signing with the Owls in 2015, has all the physical tools of the prototypical pro-style quarterback and could be the favorite at this moment in time just for that last fact alone.

But the competition is more than wide open and live practice and scrimmage action will be the ultimate litmus tests.

And the name to keep an eye on isn’t that of the more game- and practice-seasoned Nutile or Marchi. Instead, it’s that of the true frosh Centeio.

The Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, native burst onto the scene with an impressive, poised performance during April’s spring game. Your eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to him on the Chodoff Field turf that day with precision passes, heady check-downs and smart, efficient scrambles out of the pocket.

As you may have guessed, the coaching staff saw all of that in Centeio that day, and even more since.

“When you start evaluating quarterbacks and start talking about personalities, you say is he a kid that gets it? Does he have ‘it’? And [Centeio] does,” new Temple offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, nee of Coastal Carolina, said.

“He’s got a little bit of swagger to him. He’s got confidence in his ability. He’s a good athlete. He’s very bright and did very well in the classroom. … But he gives us a dynamic that maybe some of the other guys don’t — when the play breaks down, he can make plays with his feet. He’s a very willing runner.”

Patenaude said his hope is to have a decision on a lead horse down two weeks before the flight to South Bend. In the meantime, he has plenty he wants to see out of all four guys.

“A big piece of it is the stage isn’t going to be too big for them when they go to Notre Dame,” he said. “A big part of it is how they can handle the offense, what their demeanor is, how they can run the offense, get us in and out of checks, be able to handle themselves, not get too caught into the emotion of it.”

The other side of the equation here is made up of the guys who will be catching the passes thrown by whomever gets crowned the starter.

Guys such as Keith Kirkwood, Ventell Bryant and Adonis Jennings had been working with and catching passes thrown by Walker for the better part of two or three years. The chemistry was there in the blink of an eye. The intricacies of how each player works were there in a snap of a finger or, literally, in the flick of a wrist.

Not so much anymore as the wideouts will be tasked with getting on the same page with the new starter. That’s much easier said than done. And that’s why all these upcoming camp reps with all four QBs are so important.

“We have four quarterbacks, each and every one has a unique position and unique talent,” Kirkwood said. “Whoever plays on this field, every single player I feel has something to bring to this team and have a productive year.”

But still, that noise you hear overhead of 10th and Diamond Streets?

It isn’t the SEPTA train rolling by every so often above.

It’s the hands of the quarterback decision clock ticking.

Tick, tock.