Simply enough, push is about to come to shove. Notre Dame is ready to put its 4-8 debacle of a year ago in the rearview mirror for good. Meanwhile, Temple would like to repeat most of 2016, even with a new coach at the helm after Matt Rhule went to clean up the mess at Baylor.
Perhaps as notably as the loss of Rhule, the Owls lost four-year starting quarterback Phillip Walker, the school’s all-time passing yards leader.
To get a better idea of how Temple has adjusted to new head coach Geoff Collins and the number of options to replace Walker, let’s turn to Matt Vender of OwlScoop.com, the pertinent rivals.com affiliate. This will be Vender’s fourth season covering Temple, and his institutional knowledge certainly shows in some of his in-depth responses here.
DF: Perhaps Matt Rhule’s departure should not have come as a surprise. That is what happens at Group of Five schools. Did that seeming inevitability of the coaching transition allow for a somewhat smooth offseason or has the turnover remained a prevalent concern?
MV: The transition was relatively smooth. Obviously, the team was disappointed when Matt Rhule met with them and announced he was leaving for Baylor. While people on the outside thought Rhule would jump ship, the players were still shocked for a short period of time. The loss of Rhule made them look like a different – and unorganized – team in the Military Bowl loss to Wake Forest.
But when Geoff Collins was hired, there was a feeling of familiarity even though the Owls’ first-year coach is from Atlanta and spent a large chunk of his coaching career in the South. Collins coached with Rhule in two different stints – Albright College and Western Carolina University. Collins also coached former Temple defensive backs coach Francis Brown, who followed Rhule to Baylor, as a player at Western Carolina. The Collins transition was fairly smooth because he had Rhule and Brown to lean on.
Obviously you have not yet seen a Geoff Collins-coached team take the field, but what have your impressions of him been so far?
When talking to reporters, Collins likes to be secretive, as is the case with many college football coaches. Florida coach Jim McElwain – Collins’ close friend and mentor – has yet to name a starting quarterback, and Collins has taken the same approach as his former boss. (Quite literally as Vender offered this answer, McElwain named sophomore Feleipe Franks the starting quarterback for this week’s matchup with Michigan, rather than Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.) Collins has also held back on releasing a traditional depth chart. Instead, Temple put out a list of players who are “above the line” at the beginning of the week. The “above the line” phrase has been used by Collins ad nauseam since the start of spring practice, but it signifies the players who are ready to play in game action.
Like Rhule, Collins is energetic and runs fast-paced practices. The practices have been interesting to watch because often 44 players – and sometimes up to 88 – can be on the field at once. During practice, Collins jumps around and coaches different position groups, including the fullbacks. He has provided the program with a burst of energy and a new flavor, while also continuing a lot of the traditions Rhule started.
Related to that, Temple has a few new coordinators now, just like Notre Dame does. There has been a touch of defensive reshuffling to adjust to Mike Elko around here. Is the Temple personnel expected to match with the new coordinators’ intentions?
On offense, I have confidence in Dave Patenaude, the newly minted offensive coordinator who has yet to coach at the FBS level. While at Coastal Carolina, Patenaude played seven different quarterbacks last season and still went 10-2. The quarterback situation at Temple is uncertain but judging from Patenaude’s past success, he should be able to get production from at least one of the quarterbacks on the roster.
And while Temple only returns four starters on defense, there is still a wealth of young talent. Defensive coordinator Taver Johnson has a deep defensive line group, young and speedy linebackers, two solid boundary cornerbacks in redshirt senior Artrel Foster and graduate transfer Mike Jones, and what Collins has called one of the best safety duos in the country. While the Owls’ youth on defense could show at times this season, Collins and Johnson should be able to get this unit to produce. The Owls ranked third in total defense last season.
Patenaude certainly has his work cut out for him after the Owls lost Walker. Is Patenaude really going to attempt to overcome that by using three quarterbacks this weekend?
Could three quarterbacks see at least one snap on Saturday? Sure. But I’d expect redshirt junior Frank Nutile to start the game. Redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi will probably be given a series in the first half. If Marchi moves the ball and Nutile struggles, there could be a quick swap. The Owls also have “specialized packages” for true freshman Todd Centeio, who has shown impressive flashes in preseason camp. This is not a smokescreen. There has not been enough separation at quarterback.
The quarterback quandary is the obvious question on offense. What are the big questions on defense for Temple?
The big question coming into spring practice was the linebackers. The Owls lost three starting linebackers to graduation. The group of linebackers are young but the speed has stood out during practice. Sophomore Shaun Bradley is the expected starter at middle linebacker, while sophomore Sam Franklin and redshirt freshman Isaiah Graham-Mobley will likely accompany Bradley in the starting lineup. For all three guys, it will be their first college starts. And for Graham-Mobley, it will be his first college game action. Despite the talent and speed at the position, the lack of experience is a concern, especially heading into a hectic environment like Notre Dame.
Temple will also replace edge rushers Haason Reddick, the No. 13 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, and Praise Martin-Oguike, who is competing in training camp for a roster spot with the Miami Dolphins. Two senior defensive ends in Sharif Finch, who has dealt with chronic knee issues and received a medical redshirt last season, and Jacob Martin are returning and project to start against Notre Dame. The Owls will also utilize redshirt freshman Quincy Roche and redshirt sophomores Dana Levine and DeAndre Kelly.
Due to a lack of experience, linebacker and defensive end are the two biggest questions heading into the season. I still expect them to pressure the quarterback, and I also expect the linebackers to grow up quickly.
This is not a rebuilding job for the Owls new coaching staff. Rhule, and Steve Addazio and Al Golden before him, had an established program. What are the season expectations around the football facilities?
From talking to players and people inside of Temple’s Edberg-Olson Hall, they believe that beating Notre Dame is attainable. Redshirt sophomore defensive back Kareem Ali told reporters earlier this week they plan to “beat [Notre Dame’s] #$%.” Bradley said that the Owls are going to South Bend to blow out Notre Dame. The expectation amongst the players is to beat Notre Dame. They made that clear throughout the week. The other expectation is to win another conference title, as they did last season. And of course, Temple expects to win a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
What are your expectations for the first season of the Geoff Collins era?
While I like the talent and depth on this team, I think No. 19 South Florida will be too much for Temple to handle. The Bulls are my pick to win the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and conference championship. But the expectations for Collins, even in his first year, should be high. Rhule left Collins with a talented roster. I expect Temple to win seven or eight games, finish second in the AAC East and play in a bowl game.
Before getting to any Saturday-specific predictions, let’s use a catch-all here. What other notes should Notre Dame fans be aware of or particular players should they be on the lookout for this weekend?
I mentioned Centeio briefly earlier, but he’s expected to see some action on Saturday. Collins has talked about “special packages” the Owls have put together for a certain quarterback, although he has not named that player. Centeio will likely come in and spell the starter (hypothetically Nutile) to run some run-pass-option plays. The Dwyer (Fla.) High School product could be a difference maker if he turns loose for a long run.
Temple’s safety duo, featuring junior Delvon Randall and senior Sean Chandler, is probably the best in the AAC. Collins has said Randall and Chandler might form one of the top safety combos in the country. While there is some inexperience on the defensive side of the ball, the safety spot is one of the strengths of the team.
Sophomore receiver Isaiah Wright could be asked to do some interesting things. The Connecticut native was used as a running back, receiver and Wildcat quarterback last season as a true freshman. He could see action at all three positions Saturday.
The receiving corps as a whole, led by redshirt junior Ventell Bryant and seniors Adonis Jennings and Keith Kirkwood, is strong. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, he will have a wealth of weapons to target.
How do you expect Saturday to play out? Readers here know I like to use spreads as an evaluation metric. This game opened with Notre Dame as “only” an 11-point favorite. That has now spiked as high as 18 points. Would you expect a closer game throughout than that?
I envision Notre Dame putting up a lot of points, despite the fact that I like the talent on this Temple defense. A few mistakes by the young linebacker group could severely hurt the Owls. I am unsure of how Temple will be able to pressure Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, especially against the left side of the Notre Dame offensive line. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s athleticism will be too much for Temple to handle.
Dare I ask for a score prediction? I suppose I dared.
Notre Dame 38, Temple 24.
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