In-flux Temple secondary readies for Rees, Irish


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."

No. 24 Penn State looking to turn around road skid against Purdue

No. 24 Penn State looking to turn around road skid against Purdue

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.  -- National rankings and bowl games didn't matter a whole lot to Brandon Bell when the linebacker committed to Penn State, a program then under unprecedented NCAA sanctions.

Four years later, the usually stoic linebacker found himself considering his team's sudden ascension Tuesday after its biggest win in front of more than 107,000 fans and a national audience.

"It's great, definitely," Bell said. "It's definitely not over though."

With five games left, No. 24 Penn State (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) can make a run at a conference championship but faces plenty of hurdles.

Before considering they'd need No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State to lose some games, the Nittany Lions first need to find their game away from the friendly raucous of Beaver Stadium. They've lost seven straight true road games and eight of 10 since 2014 but can turn that around against Purdue (3-4, 1-3) with a win at Ross-Ade Stadium.

A player who enjoys being smack-talked and says he thrives on hostile energy, Bell has always liked the challenge of playing on the road. Bell's played in all but two of those road games and said the trick is to maintain your energy level throughout the game, something that's easier to do with an atmosphere like the one Penn State last played in.

With Ross-Ade Stadium less than half the size of their facility, Penn State coach James Franklin said players will have to "bring their own juice."

Penn State players know they'll need it. Some had already taken notice of Purdue before taking the field following a massive pyrotechnics display on Saturday night. As he waited to head over to the stadium, tight end Mike Gesicki watched parts of Purdue's 27-14 loss to No. 8 Nebraska.

"I think that people are kind of disrespecting Purdue," Gesicki said. "They gave Nebraska a very tough time in the first half and Nebraska is obviously one of the toughest teams in the country."

And one that plays an offensive style Penn State hasn't faced yet.

Purdue quarterback David Blough has passed for more than 767 yards with seven touchdowns in his last two games. He completed nearly 60 percent of his throws against Nebraska working Purdue's short and intermediate passing game in its first game since Darrell Hazell was fired.

"These type of teams, they kind of pass it to open up the run," Bell said. "At the same time, definitely got to be more read-oriented on the wide receivers and tight ends. The team's going to try to make you look this way and then throw it back this way. Definitely got to be able to keep your head on a swivel."

Interim coach Gerad Parker will coach his second game after changing up the Boilermakers' approach in the wake of Hazell's Oct. 16 dismissal.

"Change has happened, so we changed a lot of things in our routine," Parker said. "You need to demand out of yourself that you believe and think a different way, that the mind's a powerful thing and then take off and move faster out on that practice field so you'll move faster during the game."

Despite its road woes, Penn State's practice plan won't change, although Franklin altered his schedule due to a funeral on Tuesday. He did opt for one adjustment earlier in the week, however. On Sunday, Franklin sat in on the offensive and defensive meetings to make sure the postgame excitement from the Ohio State win had died down.

"We don't need to change our approach on the back end, and you know, it's business as usual for us," Franklin said. "It was a great game. It was a great environment and it was great to see our players go out and play well and it was great to see the fans enjoy it so much, and our alumni and Lettermen and all those things. But again, it's on to the next game."


Ex-Penn State TE Brent Wilkerson gets probation for indecent assault

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Ex-Penn State TE Brent Wilkerson gets probation for indecent assault

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A former Penn State football player will serve five years' probation and register as a sex offender after pleading guilty to indecent assault.

Twenty-two-year-old Brent Wilkerson was sentenced Tuesday after pleading guilty in connection with a February outing to several bars with a young woman and others.

Police say Wilkerson was drunk but the woman was sober when he insisted on making sure she got home safe.

The woman tells police Wilkerson pushed her upstairs to her bedroom where he fell asleep. The woman says she went to bed later and woke up to find Wilkerson kissing and fondling her and fondling himself. He later apologized in a text message.

Wilkerson was kicked off the team in March. Court records say he lives in Clinton, Maryland.