BOCA RATON, Fla. - Temple's senior class has left its mark in terms of both production and leadership. And during bowl preparations this week, the mantle is beginning to be passed to the next group of leaders.
While Temple's foremost goal is beating Toledo (9-2) in Tuesday's Boca Raton Bowl, the 10-3 Owls also have an eye on next season. And that means turning the team over to the juniors.
Coach Matt Rhule is a big believer in the upperclassmen policing the team while setting a businesslike tone throughout the program.
"Win lose or draw when we get on that plane, they have to take over the team now," Rhule said of his current juniors. "I want them to kind of start get in that preparation phase so it doesn't hit them in the face."
It's not as if the juniors have sat back and just watched as the seniors led the team, but they also have been very respectful toward their elders, a no-nonsense group, who have bought into the hardworking ways of Rhule and his staff and made sure it filtered down to the other players. Yet the seniors understand that this week the leadership transition must take place.
"This is their time to kind of set the bar for next year," said Temple senior all-conference center Kyle Friend, among the best leaders on the team. "As far as transition into a leadership role, the seniors are still doing what they have to do but I think the juniors are understanding that they are going to be taking over next year."
It helps that the juniors have playmakers on both sides of the ball. Quarterback P.J. Walker already has a school record 52 touchdown passes and Tuesday will be his 33d career start. He isn't overly vocal, but has a calm presence in the huddle, one that enabled the Owls to win three games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter.
"I think we have been taking on leadership throughout the season," Walker said. "We have to keep preparing for the game and also not to forget that these seniors are still here."
Most likely, the juniors won't have the type of vocal impact of the seniors. Players like All-America linebacker Tyler Matakevich, all-conference defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis and Friend, not only set the tone, but had no qualms about making sure it was enforced.
Right now, the junior class appears to be a group of players who lead by example, more than vocally, but that should change as they take over.
For those who might suggest that the leadership function is overrated, all one has to do is see when there is an absence of it.
"My freshman year we didn't have senior leadership and even sophomore year it was tilting in the right direction but wasn't [totally] there," junior all-conference running back Jahad Thomas said. "This year, these guys have excelled and put in so much work day in and day out . . . and I learned a lot from those guys, to never quit striving."
Temple was 2-10 in Thomas' freshman year and 6-6 last season - bowl eligible but not invited to the party.
Thomas was the lone non-senior of the seven Temple first-team all-American Athletic Conference choices.
Of the second-team selections, offensive tackle Dion Dawkins and defensive lineman Haason Reddick are juniors, and cornerback Sean Chandler (an emerging leader) is a sophomore.
The other non-seniors who started in Temple's 24-13 AAC title loss to Houston were redshirt sophomore guard Brian Carter, redshirt junior receiver Romond Deloatch, junior linebacker Jarred Alwan and redshirt junior linebacker Avery Williams. In addition, punter Alex Starzyk and placekicker Austin Jones are sophomores and kick returner Jager Gardner is a freshman.
So there are enough players with experience ready to accept the leadership role and working on it this week.
"This will be our team next year," Thomas said. "This game is definitely the stepping stone going into next season."