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 the program has now reached the point where head coach Matt Rhule, entering his fourth year at the helm, and his staff can really start molding the Owls into their vision. 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 — experienced, ferocious defense.
But even with star linebacker Tyler Matakevich (Pittsburgh Steelers), defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis (Washington Redskins) and cornerback Tavon Young (Baltimore Ravens) graduating and moving on to the NFL, there’s some very talented and experienced players to fill their roles as the Owls continue to evolve.
So that invites 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, 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 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 — 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 on the field. Previous guys at 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. Still, Russell could see some time as Rhule and his staff have gushed about his 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.
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 it 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 the Sept. 17 game vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium as the first true test for Temple’s corners. And for the defense as a whole.