Temple Owls

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.

Fran Dunphy enjoys return to Palestra

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USA Today Images

Fran Dunphy enjoys return to Palestra

BOX SCORE

Considering how much he loves Fran Dunphy, Steve Donahue may be a biased source.

But the Penn head coach made a bold prediction about Dunphy’s Temple squad after the Owls showed a ton of grit in a 60-51 win over the host Quakers Saturday afternoon at the Palestra (see observations).

“I think they’re an NCAA team,” Donahue said. “They just have to try to figure out consistency. When they play well, that’s as good a team as there is. They got better today and they figured out a way to win.”

Temple players agreed that Saturday’s victory — in which the Owls blew a 12-point lead, fell behind by three, and then scored the game’s final 12 points to prevail — could prove to be an important milestone in an up-and-down season.

“Big 5 games are always gonna be tough,” said senior Obi Enechionyia, who scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the second half. “But we wanted it more, I think. And it showed in the end.”

Enechionyia admitted he didn’t think the 2017-18 campaign would go as it has for the Owls (10-9), who began the season with huge wins over Top 25 teams Auburn and Clemson before starting to sputter and losing six of their last eight heading into Saturday’s contest.

But the senior forward compared this team to the 2015-16 squad, which also hovered around the .500 mark before ending the season strong and making the NCAA Tournament as a 21-win squad.

“I see nothing different from this team,” Enechionyia said.

“I think we all thought it would be better than this. But after struggling a little bit, we have to get back to how we played in the beginning. We have a lot of games to go and I think we can show we’re the same team we were in the beginning of the season.”

It will certainly be an uphill climb for the Owls, who hit the road to face No. 12 Cincinnati on Wednesday and still have two games on the schedule against No. 7 Wichita State. But if the Owls can go 8-3 or 9-2 the rest of the way, that could at least put them onto the bubble heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament.

If nothing else, they’ll be a seasoned team in February and March, as almost all of their recent games have come down to the final minute — Saturday’s win proving to be no exception.

“It’s just who we are,” Enechionyia said. “For some reason, we let teams back, which we shouldn’t do. But at the end of the day, a win is a win. I’m happy with how we played, even though we let them back in.”

Along with Enechionyia, fellow upperclassmen Shizz Alston and Josh Brown also made big plays down the stretch with Alston kickstarting the 12-0 run to end the game with a game-tying three pointer and Brown hitting a big three of his own in between that shot and a tough runner from freshman J.P. Moorman III.

Afterwards, Alston, a Philadelphia native, said he felt like he “needed to make a play.”

“It was amazing,” Alston said. “Every time there’s a game here, it feels like something special happens. Today was no different.”

Indeed, Saturday’s game was a nice place for Temple to show its character as the Palestra was filled even in the corners, with fans from both teams evenly represented.

The size of the crowd and the atmosphere was not lost on Dunphy, who spent 17 seasons in the historic building as Penn’s head coach and has lost only one game to the Quakers since leaving Penn for Temple in 2006.

“It’s different today [coming back] than it was 12 years ago — 12 years ago it was surreal, daunting, crazy,” Dunphy said. “It gets easier every year. It’s still a special place, special university. And while you can change the lighting or the floor, it’s always gonna be the Palestra. It’s still a spectacular place.”

Did it feel as loud as Big 5 games used to be?

“It was today,” Dunphy said. “It was loud as hell. We were in the huddle one time and someone made a halfcourt shot or something? Pretty cool. I’d like to see film of that.”

In addition to a Penn student making a halfcourt shot during one break in the action, the Penn Band played the Eagles fight song at on point with more than 7,000 fans then breaking into an E-A-G-L-E-S chant a day before the NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field.

Just like Dunphy noticed the student halfcourt shot, Donahue noticed that chant reverberating around the gym.

“This is a unique city,” said Donahue, who previously coached at Cornell and Boston College after Dunphy gave him his college start as a Penn assistant throughout the 1990s. “That doesn’t happen, this much interest. College basketball in this city is passionate, it’s huge, it’s a fun place to coach.

“You get an Eagles chant in the middle of the game, which gets you all fired up. They’re not doing that in Boston for the Patriots, trust me.”

Temple beats Penn for 11th straight time

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USA Today Images

Temple beats Penn for 11th straight time

BOX SCORE

Fran Dunphy got the better of his old team once again.

On Saturday afternoon at a packed-to-the-rafters Palestra, Temple scored the game’s final 12 points to beat Penn, 60-51, in a taut Big 5 affair. 

Obi Enechionyia and Shizz Alston led the Owls (10-9, 2-2 Big 5) with 15 and 14 points, respectively, as Temple won its 11 straight game vs. the Quakers, where Temple head coach Dunphy coached for 17 years.

Sophomores AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley scored 12 points apiece for the Quakers (12-6, 0-3), who had won three straight and seven of their last eight coming into the game for the program’s best start in 15 years.

• Josh Brown made sure he wouldn’t leave Temple with a loss to Penn on his résumé, hitting a tough three with under a minute to go to put the Owls ahead 56-51. It was a big-time play from a big-time senior. 

• Enechionyia, the key to so much for Temple, was quiet in the first half but hit three seconds into the second half and then another one a couple of minutes later to put the Owls ahead 33-26 with 17 minutes left. It was a critical stretch after Temple fell behind 25-24 at halftime.

• After an athletic play from Temple’s Nate Pierre-Louis put the Owls up 38-26, the Quakers began to claw their way back into the game, pulling within 46-41 on a Brodeur three-pointer and then within 46-45 on a Betley layup with 6:30 left.

• When Caleb Wood hit a contested three-pointer with just under five minutes left, the two teams were tied at 48-48 and the building, very nearly filled to capacity, got loud. It got even louder when Brodeur put them in front, 51-48, with a three-pointer of his own on the next possession, and then again when Temple’s Shizz Alston tied it up on another three. The Palestra was probably split pretty evenly between Temple fans and Penn fans. 

• Betley is clearly an excellent Ivy League player but also showed flashes of high-level athleticism with a great open-court block on Brown in transition early in the contest.

• Interestingly, Penn coach Steve Donahue made some big changes with his rotation, giving seldom-used reserves Jake Silpe and Jakub Mijakowski a lot of time off the bench. Mijakowski looked nervous and missed a bunch of shots but Silpe made a couple of nice plays in the first half, including an around-the-back dribble that nearly set up a Betley halftime buzzer beater. 

• Silpe also had a nice first-half assist to Betley, who drained a three just after missing from the same spot. That’s the kind of confidence Donahue likes in his standout sophomore, even on a day when Betley shot 5 for 14 from the field. As a team, the Quakers shot just 28.3 percent and 25.8 from behind the arc.

• As Big 5 contests often are, it was a slog of a game with both teams struggling to score for much of the day — except for one stretch in which Temple’s Alani Moore scored five points in just a few seconds after hitting a tough layup, getting fouled, missing the free throw, and then drilling a three after the Owls corralled an offensive rebound.

• The Quakers’ last win over Temple came in 2007 when Fran Dunphy, a former Penn coaching legend, made his first trip to the Palestra as a visiting coach and the Quakers won a thriller on a pair of late Mark Zoller free throws.

• Quakers head coach Steve Donahue — Dunphy’s assistant at Penn from 1991 to 2000, a stretch in which Penn won six Ivy League titles — has won only one game in 16 tries vs. his mentor. His only victory came in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when Donahue’s Cornell team upset Temple in the first round.

• Coming into Saturday’s game, ten of Temple’s 18 games had been decided by five or fewer points.

• For the third time this season, a Penn student hit a half-court shot during an in-game promotion.

• Some Penn students might need a history lesson. One of the rollouts coming from their section read: “Greatness doesn’t quit but Done-phy should.” Dunphy, of course, won 10 Ivy League championships and 310 games at Penn and was inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame last year.