How mad are you if you're a Diamondbacks fan watching as this unravels?
With just over a week to go before the season opener vs. Army at Lincoln Financial Field, it’s tough to pin down a way or even a few words to describe the 2016 incarnation of the Temple Owls.
There’s still veteran leadership on the offensive side of the ball with quarterback Phillip Walker and running back Jahad Thomas back for their senior seasons.
But now the program has reached the point where head coach Matt Rhule, who’s entering his fourth year at the helm, and his staff can really start molding the Owls into their vision as members of highly-rated, athletic recruiting classes of recent years continue to filter their respective ways into important roles.
At this time last year before the season opener against Penn State, the pulse of Temple’s team was clear — an experienced, ferocious defense.
But just because star linebacker Tyler Matakevich (Pittsburgh Steelers), defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis (Washington Redskins) and cornerback Tavon Young (Baltimore Ravens) have graduated and moved on to the NFL doesn’t mean there’s not some very talented and experienced players to fill their roles as the Owls continue to evolve.
So that begs this question — who’s being counted on to produce and fill the shoes of those who’ve moved on?
Let’s start with the obvious hole in production at linebacker without Matakevich, who finished his Temple career with 493 tackles and punctuated that stellar career with last year’s Bronco Nagurski Award, which is given to the nation’s best defensive player.
Redshirt senior Stephaun Marshall will slide over to SAM linebacker and take Matakevich’s old WILL linebacker spot. While Matakevich was a generational talent, Rhule is confident Marshall will be able to contribute greatly to the Owls’ defense.
“He’s moved to be a productive guy,” Rhule said Tuesday during Temple’s media day. “I think he’ll play really well.”
Being a productive player is something Marshall, a Montclair, New Jersey native, is used to. In 38 games with the Owls over the past three seasons, Marshall has recorded 113 total tackles, 11 pass deflections, 2½ sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one interception. He’s also used to moving positions as he started his collegiate career as a safety before moving to the SAM spot in 2014.
And Marshall will be set up nicely to increase his production in 2016. In defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s aggressive scheme, the WILL spot is known to be the most productive spot on the field. Players who have played that spot under Snow include former NFL players Pat Tillman (241 tackles) and Adam Archuleta (203 tackles) at Arizona State, and, of course, Matakevich at Temple.
Another player to keep an eye on at the WILL linebacker spot is redshirt freshman Chapelle Russell, who’s currently No. 2 on the depth chart behind Marshall. But that doesn’t mean Russell won’t see time as Rhule and his staff have gushed about Russell’s potential for a long time now. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Russell is an athletic specimen.
“Chapelle Russell has infinite talent,” Rhule said Tuesday. “He’s got tremendous upside. It’s just gonna be whether he does it. He’s a redshirt freshman. Some days he’s out there and makes every tackle. Some days his shoulder bothers him a bit or something like that or it’s Coach Rhule told him he couldn’t wear this pair of socks and he’s not quite at the same level. We’re just trying to get him to be the same guy every day.”
As far as the defensive line is concerned, there’s no true answer yet on the inside to replace Ioannidis. Senior Averee Robinson, redshirt junior and North Carolina transfer Greg Webb, redshirt sophomore Freddie Booth-Lloyd and true freshman Karamo Dioubate are all in the mix to play key roles at defensive tackle.
The Owls are set up nicely at defensive end, though, with Praise Martin-Oguike and Haason Reddick back for their senior seasons.
Martin-Oguike had 30 tackles, four sacks and an interception last season. Reddick, a former walk-on from Camden and Haddon Heights High School in South Jersey, made noise last season with 45 tackles and five sacks, all while paying his own way to school without a scholarship.
“I got here and he wasn’t even on the team,” Rhule said of Reddick on Tuesday. “All he’s done is battle for his spot. He played last year at an all-conference level while not being on scholarship.”
Reddick was put on scholarship after last season. During this preseason camp, he was awarded jersey No. 7, an achievement as the Owls annually award single-digit jersey numbers to those voted toughest by teammates.
Sharif Finch, who had an interception against Penn State last year, is also in the mix on the defensive line.
The cornerback situation is a bit more unsettled at this point in time.
After last season, the Owls seemed set there with star Sean Chandler, who had four picks in 2015 and returned two of them for touchdowns. But the staff decided to move Chandler, a junior, to safety during the offseason to better utilize his athleticism and because they felt it would be the better position for his pro prospects going forward.
What’s left at corner after Chandler’s move is a mish-mash of depth. There’s no shortage of players who have the potential to make an impact, according to Rhule.
Redshirt senior Nate Hairston and redshirt junior Artrel Foster both saw time there last season and played well. Redshirt sophomore Derrick Thomas and redshirt freshman Kareem Ali are also in the mix.
But it sure sounded Tuesday like Rhule is waiting for one or two of them to stand out during the early part of the season.
“Thomas is playing at a high level. Foster was playing at a really high level but he just has some nicks right now, so he’s fighting to get back. Hairston is coming on and Ali is coming on, too,” Rhule said. “I think our corners, we feel like we have a lot of depth.
“The thing about playing corner is you have to get beat. You have to go into a game and really get beat and then respond to it. We have a lot of guys who have the talent to do it, they just haven’t gone into a game and got run by yet. How they respond is a true marker of how they are as a corner.”
The cornerback question may not get an answer for a couple of weeks, at least. Army runs the triple-option offense and rarely throws. On the schedule after Army is Stony Brook, an FCS squad.
That leaves Sept. 17’s game vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium as the first true test for Temple’s corners. And for the defense as a whole.
Chris Clark is back with the Owls.
The former Temple guard and team video coordinator was named an assistant coach to Fran Dunphy’s staff on Wednesday night.
“We are happy to have Chris Clark rejoin our staff,” Dunphy said in a release by the school. “He knows our system as a player and as a staff member last year. He also has extensive coaching experience, serving as an assistant at three different D-I programs. Chris has been successful at every stop in his career, and we look forward to having him back in the fold.”
Clark, a Philadelphia native, played for the Owls from 2004-08 and was a standout sixth man his senior season, helping lead Temple to a 21-13 record and Atlantic 10 conference championship. During the 2015-16 season, he served the Owls as their video coordinator. He left the program in April to join Drexel’s staff as an assistant.
“I am truly excited to be able to return to Temple as an assistant coach on Fran Dunphy’s staff,” Clark said. “Last season was special working at my alma mater as the video coordinator, but to now serve as an assistant is truly an honor. With that said, I want to thank Drexel head coach Zach Spiker for the opportunity to work on his staff, and his understanding through this process. I enjoyed my short time there and wish the program continued success.”
CHICAGO — From the season-ending injuries to Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin to the on-the-mound struggles of Vince Velasquez and Jake Thompson, the Phillies have had some unwelcomed issues with their prized young starting pitchers recently.
Jerad Eickhoff has been a most pleasant exception.
The 26-year-old right-hander delivered six innings of two-run ball in leading the Phillies to a 5-3 win over the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).
Eickhoff came to the Phillies organization in July 2015 as part of the trade that sent Cole Hamels to Texas. He rose to the majors a year ago this week and has now made 34 starts at the game’s highest level. His performance has been pretty encouraging as he has racked up a 3.57 ERA in 206 2/3 innings, basically a full season of work.
“He's been the guy who has been the most consistent,” said manager Pete Mackanin, referring to the team’s group of young starters. “He's given us what we wanted. He's had some hiccups, but I expect him to pitch well every time he goes out. I feel confident in him.”
At 6-4, 250 pounds, Eickhoff has a workhorse body. He is the only Phillies’ starter to remain healthy this season and the club clearly wants him to stay that way, both for the remainder of the season and the future.
That was the explanation that Eickhoff received in the dugout from Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure when he was removed from Wednesday night’s game after just six innings. Eickhoff had a 4-2 lead at the time and had thrown just 71 pitches thanks to his cruising through the first five innings on one hit.
“A little bit, yeah,” said the pitcher when asked if he was surprised by the quick hook. “But once Mac and Pete made it clear what was going on, it’s a no-brainer. It’s part of the game. I was just happy to get through it and be done and be healthy.
“What they said is they want me to make every start this year and be healthy. You can’t complain about that. I’m very lucky and very fortunate to be healthy this year.”
So the Phillies are managing Eickhoff's workload. Makes sense with this being a rebuilding season.
But Mackanin had a different explanation for his decision to remove Eickhoff. The pitcher gave up a two-run home run in the sixth inning as his problems in that inning (12.32 ERA as opposed to 2.64 in the first five) continued. Mackanin said he yanked Eickhoff because he wanted to make sure that nothing “snowballed” on the pitcher and he left the game with a good vibe.
“He pitched well,” Mackanin said. “I got him out of there after the sixth because I wanted him out on a positive note. He's been struggling in the sixth inning and after that, so I didn't want him going back out there. We have three guys I have confidence in in (Edubray) Ramos, (Hector) Neris and (Jeanmar) Gomez, so it worked out for us.”
Mackanin was asked whether the Phillies have Eickhoff on an innings limit. He is up to 155 2/3 innings. He threw 184 1/3 innings last season.
“No, no, not at all,” Mackanin said. “I don't know how many pitches he threw. Did he even have 80 pitches? I wanted him out on a positive note. We won, so I guess I made the right move. That's how it works, right?”
Ramos, Neris and Gomez protected the lead, though Gomez walked a tightrope and gave up a run in garnering his 34th save.
Neris allowed a leadoff walk in the eighth then got three quick outs. Since the All-Star break, he has pitched 18 1/3 innings and given up just one run. He has walked two and struck out 26. Pretty good.
After being outscored 18-1 in their previous two games against the White Sox and Cardinals, the Phillies’ bats finally produced some timely hitting. Tommy Joseph had a double, his 17th homer and scored two runs. Aaron Altherr had a pair of RBI singles and scored a run. Freddy Galvis doubled home a run and Cesar Hernandez homered.
Joseph’s homer in the top of the sixth against James Shields gave the Phils a 4-0 lead. Eickhoff hasn’t had many of those.
“He gets no run support,” Joseph said. “To be able to do that for him is huge.”
Eickhoff gave up three hits, including a two-run homer to Dioner Navarro in the bottom of the sixth, but he did limit the damage and got out of the inning with the lead. His handling of adversity in that inning was encouraging but it wasn’t enough to keep him in the game.
Mackanin said he wanted Eickhoff to go home with a good feeling.
Eickhoff said the team was looking out for his health.
Whatever the real reason was, they both made sense in a rebuilding season.