In-flux Temple secondary readies for Rees, Irish

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In-flux Temple secondary readies for Rees, Irish

The ballad of Tommy Rees has taken more twists and turns than Chubby Checker in a blender.

In 2010, he appeared in nine games, started four, won each of those starts, and became the first freshman in Notre Dame history to lead the program to a bowl victory.

In 2011, he took over for Dayne Crist -- remember him? -- at halftime of Week 1 and started every game thereafter.

In 2012, following an eventful summer, he lost his starting gig to the talented Everett Golson, but had to bail out the true freshman on numerous occasions to keep Notre Dame's perfect season and national title chances alive.

Through it all, Rees has emerged as Notre Dame's all-time leader in completion percentage (63.8). So why does it feel like he isn't supposed to be in this position heading into the start of his senior season?

Rees reclaimed his role as the starter this past offseason when Golson was suspended for the Fall 2013 semester. Golson referred to his offense as an exercise in "poor academic judgment."

That leaves Rees -- odd as it almost seems, since head coach Brian Kelly had basically moved away from him -- back under center in his final season in South Bend.

It also makes him the first challenge for a Temple team that opens the season at No. 14 Notre Dame this Saturday.

"They've had an outstanding offense anywhere Coach Kelly's ever been," Temple coach Matt Rhule said Tuesday. "Tommy Rees has 18 career starts. I know he came in last year, he won their Next Man in Award, he saved some games for them. He's going to do an outstanding job as a senior.

"They have a great stable of running backs.

"Chris Watt is as good a guard there is, so they'll protect and get the ball down the field. [Senior wide receiver] T.J. Jones, No. 7, we're going to have to find a way to handle him, because he's both a vertical threat and you can just throw the ball up and he'll go make a play on the ball. Even when he's covered, he's not covered."

None of this sounds great for a Temple defense that ceded 31.2 points and 437.1 yards per game and ranked dead last in the Big East in nearly every defensive category last year. Of particular concern was a secondary that came away with just four interceptions, the fourth-lowest total in the FBS.

One year later, sophomore corner Tavon Young, who came away with two of Temple's four picks in 2012, appears to have overtaken nicked up senior Zamel Johnson on the right side. Junior Anthony Robey, who broke up a team-high six passes, remains on the left.

"We've been banged up a little bit," Rhule said. "I'm really pleased with Anthony Robey. I think he's matured. I think he's developed himself into a starting corner. Tavon Young and Zamel have been battling it out. I think as of right now, Tavon probably starts the game."

And at safety?

"At safety," Rhule replied, laughing a bit, "it's kind of been a rotating thing there."

Temple's depth chart currently lists senior Abdul Smith and redshirt freshman Stephaun Marshall at the free and strong safety positions. Smith, a transfer from Rutgers, didn't get consistent time with the Scarlet Knights nor under former head coach Steve Addazio -- despite what obviously wasn't working in coverage. As for Marshall, he's yet to see college action.

Behind those two are sophomore Will Hayes (didn't play in a game last year), redshirt freshman Nate L. Smith (didn't play in a game last year) and true freshman Jihaad Pretlow (didn't play in a game last year).

If you're keeping score, four of the five guys just listed did not play in a game last year.

Nonetheless, Rhule has maintained throughout camp that he's been encouraged by the competition, not discouraged as if he doesn't have anyone he can play.

"I'm not sure who will start," he said. "I've said a couple times, we're not real big at safety, so we'll probably have to rotate guys so they last throughout the year. Whether it's Abdul or Pretlow or Will Hayes, Nate L. Smith's starting to come on a little bit. Those guys will probably rotate in."

Whoever it is will have their work cut out against Brian Kelly's offense.

"They'll run the ball, run the ball, run the ball and then take a shot in play-action," Rhule said.

"And then there are certainly some things in their empty-passing game that present problems, because Rees is so smart. He doesn't take sacks. He doesn't get sacked."

True, but he does turn the ball over. Temple may have only come away with four interceptions last year, but Rees' touchdown-to-interception ratio is major part of what's held him back. In three seasons, he's thrown 34 touchdowns against 24 interceptions.

Factor that into his completion percentage and somebody's catching just about everything he throws -- it just depends which team. It's been enough of an issue that defensive coordinators have found success on passing down rushing three and dropping eight into coverage against the immobile Rees.

Forcing Rees into some poor decisions, or just allowing him to make them, might be Temple's best strategy, especially with an inexperienced and interchangeable group of safeties. But that means the Owls' linebackers and defensive tackles will have to do their part on first and second down against the run. If Temple can't bottle the run, it'll fall victim to what Rees does best in play-action.

"We're going to have to find a way to take some of the pressure off ours corners and safeties," Rhule said. "Otherwise, they're going to be holding up [one-on-one in pass coverage] for a long time, which is difficult to do against this group."

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we payed y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."

Archbishop Wood basketball star Collin Gillespie signs with Villanova

Archbishop Wood basketball star Collin Gillespie signs with Villanova

Archbishop Wood's Collin Gillespie, the Philadelphia Catholic League's MVP, has signed a national letter of intent to attend Villanova and play for Jay Wright.

Gillespie, during his senior year, averaged 24.1 points per game. The 6-foot-2 guard lead Archbishop Wood to their first Catholic League title in school history and followed that up with a PIAA State Championship game victory -- also a first for the school. Along with the league MVP, Gillespie was named Player of the Year by the Philadelphia Daily News.

"We are excited to have Collin and his family join the Nova Nation," Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. "Collin comes from a great program at Archbishop Wood and has been well prepared by John Mosco. His guard skills, basketball IQ and winning instincts will be a welcome addition to our program."

Gillespie will join previously announced signees Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia) and Jermaine Samuels (Rivers School, Weston, Mass.) in Villanova's class of 2021.