In-flux Temple secondary readies for Rees, Irish

slideshow-temple-abdul-smith-uspresswire.jpg

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."

Temple great Tyler Matakevich soaks in rookie return to Philadelphia with Steelers

Temple great Tyler Matakevich soaks in rookie return to Philadelphia with Steelers

It’s a picturesque early autumn Thursday evening in the Delaware Valley. One of those nights when swaths of orange from the sunset to the west pierce the high sky like shards of broken glass.

Weather reports say it’s a similar type of evening all the way across the other side of the commonwealth in Pittsburgh, where Tyler Matakevich now makes his seasonal home. There could have been monsoon-like rains or gale-force winds or any type of terrible weather outside and it still couldn’t hush the excitement in Matakevich’s voice that torqued its way through the phone.

That’s because the former Temple Owl linebacker is less than 72 hours away from returning to play at the same field where he plied his trade for four years and left a program legend. And he’s coming back living his dream as a Pittsburgh Steeler. On Temple’s homecoming weekend, no less.

“I’m definitely excited for this and to come back to Philly,” the 22-year-old rookie told CSNPhilly.com prior to Week 3’s Steelers-Eagles game. “I talk to a lot of the guys still on the team like (senior quarterback) P.J. (Walker), (senior linebacker) Jarred Alwan, (senior linebacker) Stephaun Marshall. I know all those guys are looking forward to me coming back and spending time with them. … I hope to see those guys for a little bit. A good amount of them are coming to the game, too, so I’m excited about that.”

The anticipation in the young linebacker is evident. He’s coming back to his “home away from home.”


Matakevich is arguably the greatest football player in Temple history. For four years, he was the leader of a defense that grew to become one of the fiercest in the nation.  He recorded over 100 tackles in each of his four seasons on North Broad Street and added seven sacks and seven interceptions.

Not too shabby for a guy who had only one FBS-level scholarship offer and only got a shot to play as a freshman when the upperclassman above him on the 2012 depth chart was injured before the fourth game of the season. In what was supposed to be a spot start, Matakevich, then a fresh-faced 18-year-old, recorded 15 total tackles after playing sparingly on special teams the prior three games.

Incredibly, Matakevich wasn’t even the player Temple was recruiting when Matt Rhule, Temple’s current head coach who was then the recruiting coordinator under former head man Steve Addazio, went to Milford Academy Prep School in Matakevich’s native Connecticut on a scouting trip. Milford’s coach wouldn’t let Rhule leave without watching film of Matakevich.

“We watched his highlight DVD and he just kinda had it,” Rhule told CSNPhilly.com last December. “We went out and watched him play and he had it. (Former Temple offensive line coach) Justin (Frye) and I just kind of had a feeling this guy was special. I like to think I’ve always had a feel for linebackers. So we called Steve and he said if you guys think he’s that good, offer him.”

Rhule’s gut feeling turned out to be more correct than he ever imagined.

Matakevich put an exclamation point on his excellent college career with a monster 2015 season when he recorded 138 total tackles, five interceptions and 4½ sacks en route to being the first Temple defensive player to earn first-team All-American honors and the first Owl to do so at any position since 1986. He also brought home some impressive hardware as he won the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronco Nagurski Trophy, both annually given to the best defensive player in all of college football.

Simply put, he is this generation’s Owl. Revered on North Broad Street, he is the player this crop of Temple fans will tell tales of watching play to future generations.

Matakevich accomplished all that during a season in which Temple shed its downtrodden, sad-sack label to the national eye by busting into and staying in the top 25 for the first time since the end of the 1979 season, beating Penn State for the first time since 1941 and, most notably, hosting Notre Dame in a primetime instant classic that was preceded earlier in the day by ESPN’s College Gameday broadcast from Independence Hall in front of a massive live audience.

Those who’ve followed the program, intently or casually, would have thought there would be confirmation of human life on Mars before those last two things ever happened.

But they happened. It all happened and Matakevich was the freckled face of the revolution.

“It was something special and something I’ll always remember,” Temple’s all-time leading tackler (493) said of last season. “Our senior class, what we went through, going 2-10 in 2013, coaching changes, 6-6 and not going to a bowl to the season we had last year, it was just relieving, really. Such an awesome feeling that I was just able to sit and reflect on it. I was actually doing it the other day with (Redskins defensive lineman and former Temple teammate) Matt Ioannidis. I’ve got to pinch myself a little bit. When people are telling me all these things we accomplished, I’m sort of like, ‘Wow, we did do that.’”

Despite the accolades, Matakevich wasn’t seen as a great NFL prospect in large part because of a perceived lack of athleticism.

He was too slow. He couldn’t jump high enough. He wasn’t strong enough. The list of knocks can keep going.

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound tackling machine slipped down draft boards and watched teammates corner Tavon Young (Ravens) and Ioannidis get selected. But he didn’t fall all the way off the board. In the seventh round, the Steelers used pick No. 246, eighth from last, to take a flier on the Temple linebacker.

Matakevich was left virtually unwanted by the big boys. Sounds familiar, huh?

“Once I finally got that phone call, I was just so excited,” Matakevich said. “That’s been my dream since I was a little kid. And to finally actually get that phone call, it made it feel like everything was worth it. All those long days I put in. I told the coaches, ‘This is just the beginning.’”

Matakevich earned his keep during training camp and was rewarded with a spot on the Steelers as a special teamer.

“He’s doing some of the things here that he did in Philadelphia,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week. “He’s displayed great instincts and urgency. He gets to the ball and he’s always around the ball. He makes a lot of plays. He’s acclimating himself right now in terms of being one of our core special teams contributors. I don’t see why he can’t be great in that area while he continues to grow as a young linebacker. I’ve been pleased with his progress.”


Fast forward to a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in South Philadelphia. Earlier in the day, Young recorded his first career interception with the Ravens and Ioannidis suited up for the first time with the Redskins in a regular-season game after he was activated from the practice squad.

But here is Matakevich, standing in a familiar tunnel, staring out at a familiar swatch of grass. He’s standing in the tunnel the Owls come out of and staring out toward the grass he tackled so many foes on.

But he’s not wearing cherry and not coming out to the sounds of Temple’s band and a screaming student section. He’s wearing Steelers black and gold and he’s standing in enemy territory, surrended by a sea of Eagles midnight green.

“It was awesome being back on that field again,” Matakevich said after Carson Wentz and the Eagles pummeled his Steelers, 34-3. The rookie saw kickoff and punt return snaps, but he did not record a tackle.

“It didn't go the way we wanted it to, obviously. But I was so excited and so amped up. I played a lot of football here. Just to have the opportunity to come back and play here. I couldn’t be anymore excited and happy. I just tried to enjoy it. I get to keep playing football for a living. Not many guys get to move on after TU. So I’m just thankful and enjoying it and having fun.”

“I was just so happy to see him get out there and play and come back to his old stadium,” Rhule said of his former pupil after Sunday’s game. “For me, it’s always gratifying any time I see any of the guys that played for me being successful in anything, whether it’s their personal lives, their business lives, their football lives. It’s a lot of fun for me. It’s pretty cool for me to turn on the TV and see Tavon making big plays for the Ravens or to see Tyler out there playing and see Matt get activated and make the Redskins.

“I was really happy for Tyler. I’m proud of him and I’m excited he got the chance to come back and play in Philly.”

Matakevich still keeps a keen eye on the Owls and tries not to miss a game, even though professional responsibilities sometimes get in the way. He wasn’t able to catch Temple’s 48-20 homecoming win over Charlotte and had to later settle for highlights because the Steelers were traveling to Philadelphia, but he watched all of the narrow 34-27 defeat at Penn State two weeks ago.

“Let me tell you, it’s been frustrating,” Matakevich said with a chuckle. “I’ve never had to watch those guys play from so far away and now I’ve started doing that. At first, it took a little adjusting getting used to it. But I watch. I thought we had it. I really thought we had that win at Penn State.”

Matakevich mentioned he was able to spend time on Saturday night with former teammate and Temple star running back Jahad Thomas after the Owls’ victory. He and Thomas remain close and Matakevich is always there to provide a listening ear when needed.

That’s the thing about Matakevich and his relationship with Philadelphia, a place he gleefully calls his adopted hometown. Though he’s a Connecticut guy through and through and always will be, there will always be people and places here that will be a part of him forever.

“I love it here,” he said of Philadelphia. “I have some unbelievable memories here, especially on this field. It’s always been good to me. It’s always going to be my home away from home.”

- CSNPhilly.com's Dave Zangaro contributed to this story.

AP Source: LSU fires Les Miles, promote Ed Orgeron as interim head coach

usa-les-miles-lsu-fired.jpg
USA Today Images

AP Source: LSU fires Les Miles, promote Ed Orgeron as interim head coach

Two people familiar with the decision say LSU has fired head football coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to interim head coach.

The people spoke to The Associated Press on Sunday on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made.

Miles' firing, reported first by The Advocate of Baton Rouge, comes one day after No. 18 LSU (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) lost 18-13 at Auburn.

Miles went 114-34 at LSU, the second-most victories in school history. He coached the Tigers to a national title in the 2007 season.

But LSU has not been a late-season contender for a national championship in the past four seasons and started slower than its experience-laden squad was expected to this season.