Temple head coach Matt Rhule understands the outside perception surrounding his football team this season has changed after the Owls’ historic 2015 campaign.
That’s expected following the laundry list of accomplishments TU achieved last season, its second-ever 10-win season and its first AAC Eastern Division title among them.
From a perception point of view, Rhule hopes those outside Edberg-Olson Hall see Temple as a team that can win 10 games and could be ranked again in 2016.
“Perception’s different to me than expectations,” Rhule said last week at TU's media day. “So I think the perception is different, but our players … they understand that we can play at that level.”
With expectations higher — both on the inside and outside — Temple still faces challenges as its season kicks off Friday night against Army at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I don’t know if we’re a tough team yet,” Rhule said. “We’ll find out. We’ll found out if we understand what our identity is, but we are deep, talented.
“It’ll come down to whether or not we are going to be a physical, hard-nosed competitive team week in and week out. That’s the question that we have going forward.”
Rhule recently dismissed his first-team offense from a practice during training camp because he was displeased with its effort and it didn’t live up to the standard he sets.
That day, he didn't see what he wanted out of the group he's asking to lead his team, with seniors Phillip Walker and Jahad Thomas being elevated into the core leadership group.
Toughness was a characteristic the Temple teams before had. This is Rhule's team now, as he's heading into his fourth season as head coach. Everyone here is a Rhule recruit.
Is toughness something a team can see grow over time?
"I think you can see toughness every day, I really do," Rhule said. "I don't know if we're there yet. I don't know if we really, truly embrace being a really tough team.
"We like to win — we don't always like to compete. The really, really great competitors, when they're losing, they rally. Losing is when you see the lion inside them emerge.
"There are some guys out here that are doing that. When P.J. starts losing, he just let's go. When Jahad starts losing, Avery Williams, they want to come back and win."
By the same token, Rhule said he’s pleased with Temple’s development and attitude, but it still finds itself searching for its identity heading into its Week 1 tilt.
Army deploys a triple-option offense and an all-attack defense. It’s a unique challenge for a traditional team to get ready for, which is why Rhule’s highlighting the negatives now.
“We’re further away because we’re playing Army,” he said. “You’re trying to progress your team versus each other and then these last five days, you see a major jump usually. Well now, we have to now stop playing versus this defense and face a whole new offense and a whole new defense.
"So even when you get yourself ready for Army, then you're a little further behind the following game and then the following game and the following game. That’s just what it is. I’m not here to complain about it. That’s why I have a sense of urgency I haven’t had before because I can sense that.”
The Owls have holes to fill on defense with Matt Ioannidis, Tyler Matakevich and Tavon Young graduating to the NFL, both from production and leadership viewpoints.
Rhule doesn’t believe Temple can replace what those three brought to the table, especially Matakevich, who was the voice and face of a tough Owls defense.
Matakevich, a seventh-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers, left North Broad Street as the program’s all-time leading tackler at 493, among several other notable achievements.
In many ways, Matakevich represented Temple’s identity: tough, gritty and competitive. Now that he’s gone, the Owls’ identity sings a different tune, one Rhule still has to adapt to.
“We’re probably a quieter team on defense,” he said. “I was talking about that (the other day), sometimes I think practice is dead and then I turn the film on and we’re flying around.
“Last year, Ioannidis was standing right next to me, screaming at the defense. Nate D. Smith was saying off the wall things at practice like, ‘We’re going to kill you offense.’
“It was just a much different vibe. They were so competitive verbally. These kids are just quieter on defense, but on offense now, real leadership has emerged.”
One of the players Rhule expects to help shape the Owls’ identity is senior linebacker Avery Williams, who the head coach said has been a go-to guy for TU at practice.
Williams, who had a productive junior year with 49 tackles and an interception, wears No. 2, which is of significance because TU hands single digits to its toughest players.
The Baltimore native doesn't expect any more responsibility in his final season in the cherry and white because Matakevich is gone. For him, that leadership has always been here.
At Temple, Williams said, no one is on a pedestal and the players take equal responsibility. So now that Matakevich is gone …
“You got to replace a great, amazing player like him," Williams said. "You don’t replace him, but another guy just got to step up. All of us are great players. …
“We’ve never looked at one guy and been like, ‘Bro, you got to make all the plays because the rest of us suck.' If that hat on your head, you got to make a play.”
With two days until kickoff, what exactly is toughness?
“I define toughness to our kids all the time,” Rhule said. “Toughness is physical and emotional strength to handle adverse conditions and do hard tasks.
“So strength is something you develop, it’s not something you’re born with. You don’t ever see a baby and say, ‘Boy, that’s a tough baby.’
“You don’t say that’s a tough baby, you have to develop toughness, so we’re trying to develop it in the young players. It’s not an easy process.”