Despite Temple’s struggles on defense last season, head coach Matt Rhule is not shy to say it will be a much-improved part of the 2014 team.
“When we were rolling here, we built it around the defense,” Rhule said Monday on ESPN’s telecast of the American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, R.I. “I think we’re moving back towards that with the way some of [the guys] are developing themselves, some of the guys we’ve brought in in the secondary and our pass rush.”
The Owls allowed 476.5 yards per game on defense last season, but Rhule noted Temple allowed less than 250 yards per game in each of the final two games. On top of building on the late-season surge, the defense is now a year older and the coaching staff has had a full year to scout the opposing American offenses.
He believes the turnaround and improvement of young defensive players has hinged on trust. Additionally, the shared experience of losing 10 games a season ago has helped to bring the team together.
“It really started last year just getting them to trust us and trust in the process,” Rhule said. “I think what last year did was it really brought us together as a program.
“I was the third head coach in four years. As a young person, I don’t care how much you may want to trust somebody, that’s hard. I think what we did last year, what we went through last year, we stayed together. We never fractured, and now we’re moving forward as one program.
“Those young guys, they’ve been through some wars now. I think that they really trust what the coaches are telling them, we really trust them, and we’re going to move forward together.”
Matakevich solidifying Owls' D
Whatever success the Owls' defense has in 2014 will likely hinge on the play of Tyler Matakevich.
Matakevich anchored the Owls’ defense last season, leading the nation with 99 solo tackles and earning first team All-Conference honors from the American. He recorded 137 total tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss from the linebacker position.
He was only a sophomore.
“He’s done it in all situations against all opponents and he’s played at a really, really high level,” Rhule said.
Now in his junior season, Matakevich is poised to do his part in improving the 29.8 points Temple allowed per game last year. Matakevich finds himself on the Bednarik Award (nation’s top linebacker) preseason watch list, but like his teammate P.J. Walker, he would pass up the individual accolades in exchange for team victories (see story).
Rhule said the 6-foot-1 Stratford, Conn. native has bulked up to 238 pounds and is “in the best shape of his life.”
Battle in the backfield
Temple returns its three top running backs in Kenneth Harper, Zaire Williams and Jamie Gilmore. The senior Harper heads into 2014 as the clear-cut No. 1 back after tallying 646 yards and nine touchdowns on 136 carries.
But will Williams or Gilmore see the bulk of the carries behind Harper?
As a freshman last season, Williams was second on the team in rushing, amassing 556 yards and three touchdowns on 101 carries. Gilmore gained 195 yards last year as a sophomore, and showed the kind of explosion he can provide, rushing for 92 yards on 16 carries against Memphis.
“We’ve got our thunder back with Kenny, but we’ve got to find our lightning to go along with him,” Rhule said.