Temple football is expecting to play its first normal season in two years.
In coach Rod Carey’s third season at the helm, the Owls will be hoping to bounce back from their 1-6 record, fighting for relevance in a conference on an uptick amidst Power 6 realignment.
Carey and his staff were subject to a number of notable players leaving the program. However, the transfer portal works both ways, and Temple brought in players to fill some voids. The coach also has a handful of looming questions that will likely spill into the first few weeks of the season before they can be fully answered.
The Owls’ 12-game schedule gets underway on Sept. 2, highlighted by non-conference matchups with former players at Rutgers and Boston College. Then, American Athletic Conference games against Cincinnati, which finished last season in the Associated Press Top 25, and Central Florida, statistically the conference’s most explosive offense.
Here’s what to expect before Temple’s 2021 season gets underway next Thursday.
Coming off the COVID season
Temple was one of the hardest hit programs in the country when it came to navigating the pandemic last year.
Finishing with just one win can be, in part, attributed to a number of challenges the team had to deal with.
Fall camp this time last year saw pauses in the practice schedule, contact tracing that left the roster a shell of itself, and a delayed start to full-padded tackling. The season opener against Navy was delayed because of COVID protocols and, by the end of the season, Carey said if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have played their final three games.
Against the Midshipmen on opening day, Temple fielded a combined eight true and redshirt freshmen. By the end of the season, against East Carolina, that number jumped up to 26 because of a plethora of injuries, positive COVID-19 tests, and subsequent contact tracing.
Absences were most notable at the quarterback position after starter Anthony Russo went down with a shoulder injury and later missed time due to contact tracing. Re-al Mitchell and Trad Beatty, who spent two weeks splitting time under center, were both ruled out with season-ending injuries. Against ECU, Carey was forced to start Kamal Gray, a walk-on freshman, who was backed up by wide receiver Branden Mack.
“Unprecedented things that people have never gone through can reveal a lot about people,” Carey said at the culmination of last season. “Certainly for the good and the bad. I thought the staff and team handled [the issues] extremely well.”
He put it bluntly that the entirety of last season was a “disappointment’' and, quite frankly, “COVID won.”
The decision to spend preseason camp this year at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, N.Y., was largely in response to myriad of issues they faced last season, according to Carey. With a more normal fall camp now in the rearview mirror, the upcoming season will be a chance for the Owls to put last year’s misfortunes behind them.
Year 3 for Carey
Carey took the reins of the Temple football program in 2019 following an 18-day coaching stint from now-University of Miami coach Manny Diaz. And Carey’s first two seasons were starkly different.
Year 1 saw an 8-5 record, good for third in the AAC, and a trip to the Military Bowl. The following year, the Owls were defeated by six of seven opponents in an abbreviated season. Heading into Year 3, this edition of Carey’s team ranks 10th in the conference’s preseason poll.
Perhaps the most intriguing difference heading into the season is the fact that about 60% of the players on scholarship were recruited by Carey and his staff. The majority of the team is now built in his vision.
Carey brought over coordinators for both sides of the ball from his previous coaching job at Northern Illinois; Mike Uremovich leads the offense and Jeff Knowles commands the defense. Brett Diersen, the special teams and outside linebackers coach, also has ties to Carey at NIU, but made a stop at SMU before joining Temple’s staff in 2019.
At the completion of the season, Carey will be the second-longest tenured Temple football coach since Al Golden (2006-2010), trailing only Matt Rhule (2013-2016).
Notable incoming transfers
Temple added a bevy of transfers from Power 5 programs who should be vying for significant reps this season.
D’Wan Mathis (Georgia), Will Rodgers (Washington State), Ra’Von Bonner (Illinois), Lancine Turay (North Carolina), Keyshawn Paul (Connecticut), Cameron Ruiz (Northwestern), Amad Anderson (Purdue), and Jaquavion Mahone (Kentucky) make up many of the team’s new faces.
Mathis was the most prominent addition, being named the starting quarterback in late April. He’s received praise from both the coaching staff and his teammates for his leadership qualities and ability to extend plays with his legs.
He’s also being protected up front by an offensive line that allowed a conference-low 1.7 sacks per game last year.
Bonner, who is joining a crowded backfield rotation, and Anderson, who will have the chance to compete for reps at wide receiver, were the other two notable additions. Uremovich said the two have done an impressive job of picking up the new system.
The defensive line was one of the most decimated position groups between losing Dan Archibong to the NFL along with Ifeanyi Maijeh (Rutgers), Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State), and Khris Banks (Boston College) to the transfer portal.
That unit has been bolstered by the additions of Rodgers, Turay, and Mahone. Each of whom were commended by Knowles for being some of Temple’s best pass rushers.
As for Paul and Ruiz, they add some depth to the cornerback position and it’s reasonable to predict those two will see a lot of live reps.
Paul didn’t get the chance to play in 2020 after UConn’s football program opted out of the season because of COVID concerns, but he started all 12 games for the Huskies in 2019. Ruiz started five of Northwestern’s nine games last season.
Questions that need to be answered
Not every positional group is completely ironed out and not every rotation is set in stone, one week out from the season opener.
The backfield will be one of the most prominent questions as the season progresses, considering multiple members of the coaching staff have said the room has improved steadily.
There has been a consensus throughout the preseason that redshirt freshman Edward Saydee has been the “most consistent performer,” but there is not an expectation that he will take a substantial amount of the reps.
Bonner, Tayvon Ruley, Kyle Dobbins, and Trey Blair are also each in the mix.
Running backs coach Gabe Infante said it’s the most depth he’s seen in a backfield since joining Temple’s staff and the challenge will be game planning to find the rotational sweet spot.
“That will be critical for me to assess and for us to kind of grow into that role,” Infante said. “I think the depth allows us the ability to pivot and be flexible and dynamic in that way.”
Defensive line coach Walter Stewart recently boasted about hoping to rotate 8-10 players if possible. That may be hindered after defensive end Evan Boozer recently suffered a torn ACL.
Boozer is scheduled to undergo surgery on Monday and is expected to be out for the season.
Rodgers and Manny Walker are the expected starters on either ends of the defensive line. In Boozer’s absence, Tyreke Young or Travon King, who both opted out of the 2020 season, could be options to fill in the hole.