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How Rhule pieced together this Temple team

The stories may grow in stature over the years, the recruiting tales, the origin stories for this group of Temple Owls having their historic season, playing for a league title this week, with a chance for a New Year's Eve or New Year's Day bowl in play.

Temple head coach Matt Rhule.
Temple head coach Matt Rhule.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff file photo)

The stories may grow in stature over the years, the recruiting tales, the origin stories for this group of Temple Owls having their historic season, playing for a league title this week, with a chance for a New Year's Eve or New Year's Day bowl in play.

The truth as it stands going into the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday at Houston isn't bad. The veterans who are leading Temple now - the bulk of the seven all-AAC first-teamers - most of them didn't have too many Division I offers. Some had none. And it wasn't as if Temple was the promised land. Some Mid-American Conference success garnered respect, but Temple wasn't at the top of the MAC. There were rumors of joining the Big East, but just that.

From then to now it took some gut instincts, and definitely some gambles that paid off. The signature move was when the recruiting coordinator, an assistant by the name of Matt Rhule, took a trip to a practice field in Connecticut to lay eyes on an undersize linebacker, Tyler Matakevich.

"In the staff meeting, there was some back and forth on film about whether he was good enough," said Owls assistant Ed Foley.

Steve Addazio was finishing his first year as Temple's head coach. "Steve had faith in Matt and took him, based on Matt coming back and really standing on the table for this kid," Foley said.

How high did Rhule, now Temple's head coach, have to jump on that table?

"I would give credit to Steve," Rhule said this week. "Steve trusted me. One thing about Steve Addazio: If you said, 'This kid can play,' he trusted you."

Matakevich went on, of course, to be one of seven NCAA Division I-A players to make 100 tackles in each of his four seasons. On Wednesday he was named AAC defensive player of the year.

Rhule basically remembers seeing the same kind of instinct for being in the thick of a play during a high school scrimmage. The intangibles overcame the tangibles.

Other coaches stood on the table for other kids. Rhule can remember Zach Smith, now Ohio State's receivers coach, taking a similar stand for star receiver Robby Anderson, although he did have some other offers. A year later, assistant Fran Brown came back from Elizabeth High telling the new head coach, Rhule, that they should take not just quarterback P.J. Walker from the New Jersey school, but tailback Jahad Thomas. Rhule looked at a game film and agreed.

"Jahad had no other offers," Rhule said of the tailback who made all-AAC first team.

One key, Temple's coaches say, is playing the long game. Yes, you want potential pros. Who doesn't? But a program such as Temple's has to be able to imagine development. Sometimes, even the coaches ended up surprised.

Senior starting guard Shahbaz Ahmed - "questionable about whether he was going to be a Division I player or not," Foley said - was recruited as a defensive end. He was about 230 pounds. They figured he'd get to 255. Now he's at 296, and NFL scouts expect him to be in somebody's camp next year.

A key, Foley said, is getting guys into Temple's summer camp.

"I remember Shahbaz working out on Geasey Field when he was here like it was yesterday," Foley said. "At the front of every drill, trying to win every drill. We didn't have pads on, but we could see."

Foley, Temple's tight ends and special-teams coach and the assistant head coach, was recruiting coordinator at the end of the Al Golden era. Now that job belongs to linebackers coach Mike Siravo.

"The thing is, this is a tough, tough, hard-nosed program," Siravo said. "Part of the recruiting process, when you're recruiting a high-profile guy - you're like a celebrity, and everybody tells you you're wonderful. And then you get here."

Siravo said he thought they do a good job of telling the truth about what it's going to be like: "It's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done."

He added, "It's all about getting their minds right for that long haul their first two years, and if they can come through and embrace the culture here, they'll be fine."

He knows that sometimes it's hardest for the highest-rated recruits, who have the mind-set, "I'm supposed to be good, I'm supposed to play."

"They [may] not realize, 'I'm with pros, I'm with guys five years older than me, and the game is humbling.' "

So the stories get passed on about the guys who bided their time and became a big part of Temple's current story. Defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis is another player they figured would be a defensive end, but he grew into a defensive tackle, expected to be drafted.

Some recruiting calls were easier than others. Foley remembers Addazio looking at center Kyle Friend on tape. Instant yes. Defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike was another player they saw in their camp and were impressed with.

So can the current head coach grade the recruiting coordinator from that year when the current fourth-year players were being recruited? Half the tackles in Saturday's victory over UConn came from that class. Matakevich, Ioannidis, and cornerback Tavon Young are all headed for the Senior Bowl. Not bad, right?

"We did really well that year," Rhule said. "If you have three kids in the Senior Bowl, none of whom redshirted - you probably have five or six future pros from that class. That's a hit."

Football recruiting classes are large enough to allow for a few chances and even some misses. But for success to follow, especially the likes of what Temple has achieved, the hit percentage on those initial gut feelings has to be high.

"It has to be," Foley said.