By Elaine Hyde
Temple has been looking for a long-term solution at quarterback forever, and the Owls appear to have finally found their guy in P.J. Walker. He took over as a true freshman last October, and the offense gradually improved as the year progressed. Walker averaged 330 passing yards with a combined nine touchdowns and three interceptions in the last three games.
Now, Temple must put more playmakers around him, especially since Robbie Anderson — who led the team with nine touchdown catches — is no longer around. Sophomore Khalif Herbin, who redshirted last year after playing as a true freshman in 2012, could be one of the answers. But there’s no shortage of candidates. Senior Jalen Fitzpatrick (38 receptions) is the leading returning receiver statistically.
A consistent running game would obviously ease the burden on Walker and the passing attack. The Owls had their issues there, particularly in short-yardage situations. Senior Kenny Harper and sophomore Zaire Williams combined for 1,146 yards and 12 scores, but this is far from an area of strength.
Coming up with a cohesive unit up front will be a work in progress, and bodies figure to get moved around as part of that effort. Junior Kyle Friend is the anchor at center. Redshirt freshman Leon Johnson is being counted on at left tackle. Depth is a concern.
The most glaring defensive needs are developing a pass rush and improving secondary play, primarily at safety. Those deficiencies cost the Owls in several big spots last year. So Sharif Finch, who was a linebacker, is now an end on a line that has seven freshmen and sophomores listed among the two-deep. The coaching staff is high on newcomer Michael Dogbe on the edge.
Linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the nation in solo tackles (106) in 2013 as a sophomore. Nate D. Smith, who patrols the middle, was second on the team with 81 total tackles.
Cornerback Anthony Robey had his moments, but as a group the defensive backs have to do better than three interceptions. Several mid-year junior college transfers — most notably Shahid Lovett and Alex Wells — are being counted on to provide immediate help for the much-maligned back line.
Amazingly, the Owls made only 3-of-9 field goals. And two were in the final game. They also missed five extra points. Nick Visco, who hit all three of the team’s field goals, left the program after his freshman season. That means the job is sophomore Jim Cooper’s to lose. The Owls also have to replace dependable punter Paul Layton, who spent one season on North Broad as a graduate transfer. The return game could use a boost; the Owls ranked eighth in the league in both punt and kick returns.
The Owls made the switch from Steve Addazio’s run-first philosophy to Matt Rhule’s more wide-open approach, and the transition was far from smooth. Temple slumped to 2–10, the program’s worst record since 2006. But it wasn’t a complete disaster: Seven of the losses were by 10 points or fewer and four by three or fewer, including three on long, late passes. The Owls led by 21 in two losses. A few defensive plays at the right time could have led to another win or two.
Rhule was on the staff when Temple won 26 games while in the MAC from 2009-11. He’s confident that it can happen again, perhaps even soon. A lot depends on Walker’s continued progress. And the defense, which ranked last — by a wide margin — in the league, must improve considerably for Temple to take a step forward in the American Athletic Conference.
Thursday, August 28 at Vanderbilt (9-4)
Saturday, September 6 vs. Navy (9-4)
Saturday, September 13 BYE
Saturday, September 20 vs. Delaware State (5-6)
Saturday, September 27 at Connecticut (3-9)
Saturday, October 4 BYE
Saturday, October 11 vs. Tulsa (3-9)
Saturday, October 18 at Houston (8-5)
Saturday, October 25 at UCF (12-1)
Saturday, November 1 vs. East Carolina (10-3)
Saturday, November 8 vs. Memphis (3-9)
Saturday, November 15 at Penn State (7-5)
Saturday, November 22 BYE
Saturday, November 29 vs. Cincinnati (9-4)
Saturday, December 6 at Tulane (7-6)