Season Preview: Temple’s offense focused on run game

For the Temple Owls, it’s back to the basics in 2015.

“Coaches stress good football teams can run the ball at will,” center Kyle Friend said Aug. 17 at Temple’s media day, “and that’s something that we’re trying to accomplish here.”

After experimenting with a no-huddle offense last season, the coaching staff has changed course this summer. Instead of pushing the pace, the Owls will focus on being physical.

Running the football opens other doors for the offense, Friend said, and the senior acknowledged the shift in philosophy has put more pressure on the offensive line.

“We have to rise to the occasion, rise to the challenge,” he said. “We’re trying to get a good rush game going. … It’s something that you have to take day by day and try to chip away at.”

The numbers last season are not pretty. Temple finished 118th out of 128 FBS teams in 2014 with 107.8 rushing yards per game. Its leading rusher was a defensive back the season before.

Still, while its run game was poor, Temple’s pass game also struggled. Quarterback P.J. Walker endured a turnover-plagued sophomore campaign and scoring went down.

At 6-6, the Owls were bowl-eligible. Perhaps a few more plays from Walker, Temple enters Saturday afternoon’s season opener against Penn State coming off a bowl game.

There’s nothing Temple can do about last season. It’s history. The Owls’ focus is Penn State, and then Cincinnati, a game that carries more weight to Temple than PSU.

“Being an older guy and knowing the game, you have to take things week by week and treat everybody the same,” Friend said. “The offensive line, our thing is just try to be 1-0 every week. Focus on who you’re playing and don’t play up to the expectations. Don’t play down to it.

“We’re going to treat every opponent the same. We’ve been down the road where you underestimate an opponent and that’s never worked out, so I’m treating every opponent the same. Preparing the same mentality and physically for every opponent that we play.”

Staying healthy will be important for the offensive line this season. In 2014, the O-line battled injuries and inexperienced linemen were forced into game action.

That experience, however, may prove to be helpful. Friend believes this year’s line is two-deep, meaning if one goes down to an injury, the Owls can replace him without missing a beat.

“Guys, like I said, Leon (Johnson’s) in there. Bryan Carter, all the guards, they’ve been rotating at every position so they know it all,” Friend said. “Guard, tackle, whatever it is, I think we’ve got a lot of guys who can play at any spot on the offensive line. As far as the two-deep, we’ve got some good guys we’re not afraid to put in if somebody goes down.”

While Temple’s plan to run more puts more burden on the O-line, it also requires the running backs to fight for more yards. Jahad Thomas returns as the team’s leading rusher.

Thomas, in his first season as a tailback, ran for 384 yards on 80 carries in 2014, while also adding 364 yards on 14 catches and a receiving touchdown. His biggest game came against Tulsa on Oct. 11, when he racked up 152 yards on 14 carries and a 20-yard TD catch-and-run. He had 11 plays over 30 yards last season.

“We know what he can do and we feel good about him,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “What I want to see, I want to see him finish plays. As I told him, I said, ‘You got 11-plus plays (of over 30 yards), but you also have a lot of plays where you were tackled inside the 10. A lot of those times we didn’t score, so just having him finish.”

There is a familiarity between Walker and Thomas, as the two played at Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Both are heading into their junior seasons, and for Walker, there’s a comfort level in having Thomas in the backfield with him.

“He’s not just a good running back who can make plays with the ball,” Walker said. “He’s smart. He picks up a lot of the blitzes that some guys probably won’t be able to do at this point. Just because of the fact he did some of the things that we learn now, he did in high school.”

Ask Rhule and he gets excited about his three freshmen backs, T.J. Simmons, Ryquell Armstead and Jager Gardner. Simmons is a four-star recruit from Lakeland Christian School in Lakeland, Florida. Armstead is a local kid and a three-star recruit from Millville, New Jersey, and Gardner comes from Black Mountain, North Carolina.

“All three tailbacks are explosive, dynamic kids,” Rhule said. “Ryquell Armstead has been a standout so far in camp in that group of kids. …

“I brought all the freshmen in here (Aug. 16) and I said, ‘Take a breathe, man. When you guys were in ninth grade, the first day of ninth-grade football, were you guys worried about if I’m going to start as a senior, am I going to get a college scholarship? No, you’re worried about if I’m going to get my head knocked off.’ Getting them to just relax, take the pressure off.”

In some capacity, the three freshmen will have a role in 2015. Rhule said he has five RBs to work with, including redshirt freshman David Hood. Zaire Williams has moved to outside linebacker.

But with the emphasis being placed on the run game, Temple’s offense will be aided by the return of Robby Anderson and transfer Adonis Jennings being ruled eligible. Anderson was dismissed from Temple after the 2013 season because of academics, but he has since earned his associate’s degree from Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, and came back to Temple.

After summer courses, the redshirt senior was allowed back on the football team. Jennings transferred to Temple after one year at the University of Pittsburgh, and was granted eligibility after petitioning the NCAA so he would not have to sit out a season. The two receivers add height and skill to the position that was lacking last season.

The way Rhule sees it, the additions of Anderson and Jennings will help Walker take the next step forward in his development.

“Oh my gosh, yeah,” Rhule said. “To be quite honest, I think when Adonis got eligible and Robby’s grades were coming in, I think the whole coaching staff was sitting around and P.J. was in the back of the room waiting for it. Those guys are competitors. It’s not a slight against the other receivers, it makes the other receivers better.”

*Story originally published on on Sept. 4, 2015.