Jager Gardner

Temple spring game: Potent, experienced run game a glimpse of Geoff Collins' plans?

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Temple spring game: Potent, experienced run game a glimpse of Geoff Collins' plans?

Let's be honest with ourselves -- it's early into the Geoff Collins era at Temple. Very early.
 
And Saturday's annual Cherry and White spring game was a big scoop of vanilla on a wet, dreary April Saturday afternoon, just over four months until the start of training camp and just over five months until the Sept. 2 season opener at Notre Dame.
 
But while Saturday was just the scantest of glimmers into what Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude have in store for the new-fangled Temple offense, it was still hard to deny what may have been a glimpse of the backbone of the Owls' offensive plans -- a power running game led by two experienced upperclassmen in Ryquell Armstead and Jager Gardner.
 
Both junior backs left their marks Saturday in White's 17-14 win over Cherry in a game that was straight-up offense (Cherry) vs. defense (White).
 
"We established the run today," Collins, who spent time as defensive coordinator at both Florida and Mississippi State before coming to Temple, said after the annual exhibition.
 
"The big thing for us offensively is that we want to be able to impose our will whenever we want to. And that means being physical, being tough and really getting after people. … But Rock (Armstead) and Jags (Gardner), those are guys who create their own holes.
 
"I thought Jager had a great day today. He looked like a PlayStation 4 character out there, juking and hurdling people. He was phenomenal."
 
The speedy Gardner, a 6-foot-2, 214-pound slasher, was the star Saturday with nine carries for 67 yards and a touchdown. On one of those carries, he completely hurdled a helpless linebacker in the middle of the field en route to a 23-yard gain. Gardner also made a tough back-shoulder grab down the sideline on a long pass play.
 
Armstead, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound lead horse of the Owls' running back core, didn't see as many touches and had just 10 yards on four carries. But considering the sloppy conditions and the Owls' need to keep him healthy, it's easy to see why he was limited.
 
But both in recent years have proven they can achieve success on the field, even with the success of Jahad Thomas, who racked up 2,599 yards and 38 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons before graduating.

Armstead rushed for 919 yards and a team-high 14 scores last season. As the third back last year, Gardner ran for just 111 yards and two scores. But he does hold the school record with a 94-yard TD scamper at SMU in 2015 and coaches will tell you all about the electric style he can bring. Now he has an opportunity to show it.
 
And the Owls will undoubtedly lean on both Armstead and Gardner even more this season offensively as they break in a new starting quarterback. Four-year starter Phillip Walker, who re-wrote the program record books with 10,669 passing yards and 74 TD passes, has also graduated.
 
Does that add more pressure onto the shoulders of Armstead and Gardner?
 
"I enjoy being an upperclassman and know I have to be a leader in the room," Armstead said. "I know the offense like the back of my hand. I've got to make sure my guys are up to par with the offense.
 
"I still believe we have to balance. We have to run the ball when we have to and we have to pass the ball when we have to. So just being balanced, going fast when we have to and slowing it down when we need to will help any quarterback that's in."
 
"I don't feel any added pressure," Gardner said. "I've been here since my freshman year. I didn't redshirt. So I feel that me and [Armstead] work off each other. We just build off each other. We're going to take it one day at a time and get better, each of us. So there's not going to be anything new for us.
 
"It's not going to get any harder or any easier. We're just going to change a little bit of the things up. Just have to get used to some stuff we haven't done before. It won't get any harder. We just have to focus on the stuff we have to do now."
 
As for that tricky quarterback situation …
 
Many pundits have pegged redshirt freshman Anthony Russo as the leader in the clubhouse. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Russo, an Archbishop Wood grad who originally committed to Rutgers before decomitting and then receiving heavy interest from Les Miles and LSU before inking with Temple in 2015, has all the physical tools of a pro-style quarterback.
 
He took the opening snap Saturday, and was efficient, albeit not spectacular, going 7 for 11 for 70 yards. Again, the ugly, rainy conditions likely played a hand there. His prettiest completion of the day came on the back-shoulder throw down the sideline to Gardner.
 
The QB who stuck out the most Saturday was true freshman Todd Centeio. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, native went 9 of 13 for 110 yards and lovely fade to the corner of the end zone to wideout Marshall Ellick for an 18-yard score. He hit Ellick for 43 yards down the sideline earlier in the day. More than that, his calmness was on display with smart checkdowns and scrambles.
 
After the game. Collins was predictably tight-lipped about the QB battle.
 
"That's a great question and I knew I was going to get that," Collins said when asked who would start at QB if the Notre Dame game were Sunday.
 
"They were all out there competing today. I think Todd Centeio did a good job out there. Russo was putting some nice balls out there, too. … There are plenty of reps to go around.
 
"It was clean, the optics were good today and we got to see the guys really spin it out there."
 
Collins has a few more months to see the quarterbacks spin it some more before the most important decision his infantile collegiate head coaching career is due.

Temple football 2016 scouting report

Temple football 2016 scouting report

How will Temple replace all of the departed talent on defense? Will the offense be able to consistently carry the load for the team? Can the Owls get back to the AAC East title game?

CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Matt Haughton and Greg Paone break down what to expect from the 2016 Temple Owls.

Offense 
The Owls' core leadership group has shifted from defense to offense, with seniors Phillip Walker and Jahad Thomas expected to be more vocal and take on more responsibility. Walker looks to become the first Temple quarterback to lead the Owls to two bowl games, and he will, in all likelihood, continue to put his name in the program's record books.

Thomas will remain the featured back for Temple, but he will have company in the backfield, as Ryquell Armstead, David Hood and Jager Gardner will be part of a rotation. As for Walker's targets, his go-to receiver, Robby Anderson, has graduated to the NFL — enjoying a productive preseason with the Jets — so Ventell Bryant and Adonis Jennings will be relied on more in the passing game, while Colin Thompson starts at tight end.

With Kyle Friend graduating, Temple's offensive line has some questions and inexperience. Dion Dawkins and Leon Johnson return as starters, while senior Brendan McGowan replaces Friend at center. Redshirt freshman Jovahn Fair will start at left guard, while redshirt junior Adrian Sullivan cracks the starting lineup for the first time in his career at RG.

- Dougherty

Defense
The defensive side of the ball figures to be the biggest key to Temple's season. Most importantly, how the Owls respond to the departures of award-winning linebacker Tyler Matakevich, defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and cornerback Tavon Young for the NFL.

Filling those shoes will start with redshirt senior Stephaun Marshall, who will move over to WILL linebacker to replace Matakevich. He will be able to lean on fellow senior LBs Avery Williams and Jarred Alwan. Still, how Marshall handles the pressure of being the primary playmaker and leadership voice will go a long way in determining Temple's success on D.

Finding a replacement at CB could prove to be even more difficult. With Young in the NFL and Sean Chandler now playing safety, the Owls will look brand new outside on defense. There are a handful of talented players that will likely see time at cornerback, but they lack experience, which could come back to bite TU once the club gets into the teeth of the schedule.

Down on the interior, Temple will go with depth to replace anchor Ioannidis, Hershey Walton and Nate D. Smith. Defensive end is where the Owls will cause some havoc, with Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike back on the edge for a squad that racked up 32 sacks a season ago.

- Haughton

Coaching
Matt Rhule is back for his fourth season at the helm of Temple’s program. After last season’s 10-4 campaign, his overall record at Temple now sits at 18-20. Considering Rhule’s Owls went 2-10 in his first season as head coach, it’s an overall mark that shows incredible improvement during his tenure. This is a big year for Rhule in this sense — many of the players who will play important roles this season are his recruits from the past couple of years. This is a season in which the Owls will really start to evolve into the type of team Rhule has envisioned.

With Marcus Satterfield leaving for the head job at Tennessee Tech, Temple has a new offensive coordinator this year in Glenn Thomas, who was the quarterbacks coach last season. Prior to last year, Thomas spent three seasons as the quarterbacks coach of the Atlanta Falcons and helped Matt Ryan reach two Pro Bowls. Thomas played a hand in one of Temple’s most successful offenses last year, so don’t expect much to change this season. Under Thomas’ tutelage, Walker broke a school record last season with 2,972 passing yards. Walker also set a career high with 19 touchdown passes in 2015. 

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow brings his aggressive scheme back for another season. With the losses of three 2015 senior leaders to the NFL, Snow’s defense will need to replace plenty of production this season, but the talent to do it is there.

- Paone

Player to watch
Dougherty: Stephaun Marshall
Marshall moves from MIKE to WILL, replacing Matakevich in Snow's defense. That position, no matter the player, generally has produced under Snow throughout his career. The senior 'backer had a productive junior season, and he'll have an elevated role his final year at TU. Keep an eye out for No. 6 and see if he'll pick up Matakevich's tackles.

Haughton: Sean Chandler
"Champ," as he is known to just about everyone, Chandler will need to play like one for Temple's secondary this season. The junior has shifted from cornerback to safety, which should benefit his ball-hawking style (team-high four interceptions in 2015) and pro prospects. In addition to his on-field performance, the Owls will need Chandler to help usher in the team's young and inexperienced wave of CBs. Throw in his duties as a punt returner and Chandler will be among the most important players on TU's roster.

Paone: Adonis Jennings
Temple has to replace Walker’s go-to target in Anderson, who went undrafted but is currently enjoying a strong preseason with the New York Jets. While Bryant had a very nice 2015 freshman season with 579 yards and three touchdowns, Jennings could be the Owls’ next breakout star. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds and with blazing speed, Jennings has all the physical tools to be a dominant receiver. The junior will have ample opportunity to make his presence felt this season as his role should expand greatly. In limited action last season, the Pitt transfer had 14 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Expect major boosts in each of those categories this year.

Game to watch
Dougherty: Sept. 17 at Penn State
Yes, Temple beat Penn State for the first time since 1941 last season. Yes, Temple should beat Penn State again this season. But the reason to watch this game is because it's the Owls' first real test of the year. Temple opens against Army and Stony Brook. One team runs the triple option, the other team is Stony Brook. How will Rhule's team fare against a Nittany Lions team that doesn't want to lose back-to-back years to Temple, and this time at Beaver Stadium? There are plenty of reasons to circle this one.

Haughton: Oct. 1 vs. SMU
It may not have the cache of playing Penn State or the importance of facing South Florida, but this matchup at Lincoln Financial Field may very well be the most entertaining. Temple and SMU nearly broke the scoreboard last season in Dallas, as the Owls walked away with a 60-40 win. With the Owls' offense expected to take another step forward and dual-threat quarterback Matt Davis back under center for the Mustangs, expect another track meet at the Linc.

Paone: Oct. 21 vs. South Florida
For as great as his team was last season, Rhule’s said that it lacked true athleticism. That could be seen at times on defense, where the Owls struggled with fast-moving offenses. Take for example last November’s 44-23 loss at South Florida when Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack torched the Owls. Flowers and Mack are both back this year and South Florida is expected to be Temple’s top contender in the AAC East. In fact, the Bulls were picked first for the division in the preseason poll, with the Owls coming in second. The two teams meet Friday, Oct. 21, at the Linc in a matchup that could very well decide who represents the East in the AAC title game.

Prediction
Dougherty: It should be another successful season on North Broad Street, but it won't reach the level it did last year. College GameDay won't be coming back to Philly. Temple goes 9-3, finishes second behind USF in the East Division and goes bowling again.

Haughton: This could be a strange season in which Temple turns in another extremely successful season for the program but still ends up feeling a bit disappointed in the end. The Owls won't experience the historic highs of a year ago, but they will still be in the mix for the AAC East crown. However, I see some youth at key spots leading to a few hiccups along the way. Put them down for an 8-4 season and a second straight trip to a bowl game.

Paone: The Owls should be a very good team again this season. Very good can turn into great if some of the youth that will be infused into the lineup can make considerable impacts. I’ve got them at 9-3 with losses at Penn State, at Memphis on a short week and a wild-card, unexpected loss somewhere in there, too. I do see Temple beating South Florida at home, though. Whether that will be good enough to take the AAC East again remains to be seen.

Jahad Thomas to lead crowded Temple backfield

Jahad Thomas to lead crowded Temple backfield

The way Jahad Thomas remembers it, the football culture in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was vibrant. Friday night meant flocking to Williams Field to watch Elizabeth High School play. In Elizabeth, football dominates while basketball and baseball take a back seat.

Elizabeth has produced several NFL players, including former Eagles defensive coordinator and Jets head coach Todd Bowles, but two that came to mind for Thomas are linebacker Khaseem Greene and running back Raymond Graham, both of whom he watched growing up.

"You know, every Friday night, we looked forward to going to them games after Pop Warner practice," Thomas said. "And just knowing that we were going to be in those shoes one day … just knowing that we had some big shoes to fill, we just loved it. We grasped the opportunity and took advantage of it."

Thomas, Temple's top offensive weapon, finds himself in a position where the Owls will have to find someone to fill his shoes soon enough. Now, the senior tailback is among the Owls' core leadership group with three sophomore running backs behind him who are expected to receive their fair amount of touches in 2016.

Both Thomas and head coach Matt Rhule said Temple will be employing a rotation in the backfield with Thomas, Ryquell Armstead, Jager Gardner and David Hood. Rhule called Armstead a "co-starter," Hood a "jack-of-all-trades" and also praised Gardner.

"They are game-ready now," Rhule said of the sophomores. "They're battle-tested a little bit more, so we'll put them in there and not even think about it."

As for Thomas, the plan still is to use him as the feature back, but move him around the field to create mismatches and other creative ways to get him the ball in space. With the depth Temple has at running back, it allows offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas the opportunity to put Thomas in the slot and not lose much by not having him in the backfield.

For Thomas, who was hurt a bit last season, the committee also allows him a chance to make plays but also help preserve his body without having to carry the ball 20 times per game.

It'd be easy for Thomas to be selfish after rushing for 1,262 yards and 1,677 all-purpose yards, third most in program history, and scoring 19 total touchdowns last season. But with Rhule asking more from him in a leadership role, he's embracing guiding Armstead, Gardner and Hood and wants to set a standard for the trio to follow.

"Just being a mentor to them guys," Thomas said. "Just show them how guys before me showed me when they were here, just lead by example, show them what a leader is. I've been here four years. I've seen a lot, I've been through a lot here. Just try to be those guys' older brother. That's what I try to be for those guys."

Last season, while Thomas was the star of the group, Hood, a redshirt sophomore, did contribute when called upon. Against Tulane, a Temple blowout victory, the 5-foot-9 tailback ran for 47 yards on 16 carries, mainly in mop-up duty, while adding a 10-yard touchdown reception.

When Thomas, dealing with some bumps and bruises, struggled against Memphis, Rhule turned to the hot hand in Hood, who rewarded the head coach with a 14-61-1 day on the ground.

Hood described Temple's backfield as group that brings a little bit of everything. Both Armstead and Gardner are power backs, Hood said, while Thomas and himself can do it all.

"We just got a lot of guys who are ready to go attack," said Hood, who had 272 all-purpose yards and two total touchdowns in 2015. "We got a lot of depth, so there's always competition every day, just fighting for a spot. Everyone is talented and able to be a starter, so every day it's lace up and play your best to get the spot."

The Owls' offense lost a dimension with the loss of lead wideout Robby Anderson, who went undrafted but is currently enjoying a fine preseason with the New York Jets.

While the younger players such as Ventell Bryant and Adonis Jennings will be relied on to help out the passing attack, the running game is the heart of the offense Rhule wants to deploy. And the Owls know how dangerous they can be on the ground with what senior quarterback Phillip Walker, a longtime teammate of Thomas' dating to as far back as high school, called a "four-headed monster."

"At any moment, any one of them can have a big game," said Walker, who himself remains a key compenent of Temple's offense (see story). "Jager had a big game last year vs. SMU. Ryquell was just consistent each game every time he played last year. Jahad just had a great season. And David Hood stepped in when Jahad got hurt vs. Memphis and played well and blocked very well on third down.

"You don't know what you're going to get from those guys each week. You just come to expect that they're all going to play good. I think we have a good group of guys and they're all consistent."