As the Irish approach their 2017 opener vs. Temple, I reached out to Ryan Wallen, who covers the Owls for 247Sports, for his thoughts on the matchup.
Otter Room: What are the post-Matt Rhule expectations and what are your initial thoughts on new Temple coach Geoff Collins?
Ryan Wallen: Temple fans still expect the program to win in 2017 despite the departure of Matt Rhule and graduation of seniors like Haason Reddick, Phillip Walker, and Jahad Thomas. Social media has been buzzing from fans about the opener against Notre Dame and even the team itself believes it has a legitimate shot to knock off the Fighting Irish on Saturday.
There is no longer this sentiment of “Temple playing big teams,” as the Owls and the fans feel they belong in this type of game each and every week. Now there are some things that are up in the air, which may kill the momentum from last year’s American Athletic Conference championship performance and back-to-back ten-win seasons, but realistically, fans expect this team to go to win at least 7 or 8 games, get to a bowl, and win it.
I think Geoff Collins is a man very similar to his predecessor, Matt Rhule. Several players have commented that despite Rhule leaving for Baylor back in December, once Collins was hired, it was like nothing ever changed in terms of the team mentality and atmosphere around the facility. Collins brings what you could say is an unorthodox approach to coaching, but the players love it because it is centered around fun and competition.
Practices have featured tug-of-war and water balloon fights, so that gives you a taste of what kind of a guy he is. It will be interesting to see however how Collins manages possessions, the clock, and the entire system in a real-game situation come Saturday given that he has strictly been a defensive coach for the entirety of his career.
OR: I actually grew up in Philly and Temple football was barely on the radar of the Philly sports scene, but in the last 5-6 they’ve become are very consistent program. Has their recent success helped them gain a little more traction and support in Philadelphia?
RW: There definitely has been a steady increase in the buzz surrounding Temple football, not only on campus, but throughout the city over the past couple of years, culminating in last year’s AAC Championship. I think this is even apparent from the large contingent of fans that turned out in Cherry and White when the Owls took on Penn State and Notre Dame in 2015 and the city hosted College Gameday.
Fans and the players themselves truly believe they can compete with any team in the country on any given day. As a Temple student myself, there has been several instances when I am around in the city and I hear people talking about Temple football and will get a “Go Owls” thrown my direction. There is a huge buzz surrounding this game because of the obvious positive implications it would have for Temple if they were to pull the so-called upset. Things like this did not happen just over a decade ago as the program was close to being shutdown after repeated season of losing.
There is definitely a winning attitude in North Philadelphia nowadays, and the fact there are these “expectations” I mentioned earlier just shows what the Rhule-era did for Temple football in the eyes of students, alumni, and the entire FBS, as now Temple is scheduling more Power 6 opposition for upcoming years. It is definitely an exciting time to be a Temple football fan.
OR: Phillip Walker and Jahad Thomas nearly led Temple to the upset of ND in 2015, who do the Owls have lined up to replace them at QB and RB?
RW: Well, the QB question is still very much up in the air as Collins has yet to name a starter for Saturday’s contest and replacement for Walker. The competition is currently between four players: redshirt junior Frank Nutile, redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi, redshirt freshman Anthony Russo, and true freshman Todd Centeio. The four of them have a combined 11 career snaps taken, so there is little experience at the QB position.
Temple fans were hoping to get some clarity this week as Collins released his “Above the Line” chart, which is essentially a list of the players who could see game action in the upcoming game, but all four quarterbacks were listed. Since Collins does not believe in depth-charts, no word on who will be starting has been released to the media. Collins has said that he can see two quarterbacks, maybe even three, play on Saturday. When asked if Collins knew who he was sending out for the first series, he simply nodded his head. If I were to guess, Nutile will be the guy who starts the game Saturday. I expect Marchi and Centeio to see some playing time as well in sub-packages since they are the more mobile quarterbacks Temple has.
As for replacing Thomas, this will be a much easier task. The Owls return junior running back Ryquell Armstead, who despite having to split carries with Thomas in 2016, still rushed for 919 yards and 14 touchdowns. Armstead has NFL potential and it will be interesting to see how he fairs against an outstanding Notre Dame front. Jager Gardner will also see carries against the Irish, but I expect Armstead to be the workhorse given the unknown situation at QB.
OR: What do you see as the biggest strength and weakness for Temple in 2017?
RW: The Owls biggest strength heading into 2017 has to be the secondary. Temple has three, maybe four, soon-to-be NFL players in the defensive backfield, led by senior safety Sean Chandler. The three-year letterwinner had 51 total tackles last year despite missing four games due to injury. Chandler will play alongside junior Delvon Randall, who really stepped up his game last year in Chandler’s absence, accounting for 65 total tackles and four interceptions in 2016. Both safeties wear single-digits (Randall No. 2 and Chandler No. 3), meaning that they are two of the nine toughest guys on the team, following a Temple tradition.
Also joining them in the secondary is North Carolina Central grad transfer Mike Jones, who most likely would’ve been drafted into the NFL if he entered the draft last year, and redshirt senior Artrel Foster (another single-digit, No. 8), who had a very quiet, but solid 2016. He will be matched up against Equanimeous St. Brown, which will be a test for the Meadville, PA-native because of St. Brown’s size, but Foster has done well before against bigger receivers. Collins also just has a knack for really being good coaching defensive backs, especially during his tenure at Florida, so the DBs are by far Temple’s biggest strength.
The Owls also are very set at the skill positions on offense, particularly wide receiver. Temple returns their top three receiver from a season ago: Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood, and Adonis Jennings: all of which have big play potential if they have a quarterback who can get them the ball. In addition, the Owls special teams is second to none with two all-conference caliber kickers in the form of Austin Jones, who is coming off of a torn ACL and Aaron Boumerhi, a former walk-on with a Brandon McManus-type leg; both will see playing time according to Collins.
The biggest weakness coming into the Notre Dame game would have to be the quarterback position, which I touched on earlier just because the lack of experience, and the linebacking core. Temple graduated all three starting linebackers from a season ago, but the guys who I expect to play have the speed and athleticism to make up for their lack of experience. Shaun Bradley is a name to watch out for this season in that group. I am less worried though about the linebackers, and more worried about the QB.
OR: Temple nearly pulled the upset in 2015 and the 2013 game was actually a lot tighter than the final score indicated, how do you see Saturday’s game playing out?
RW: I think Saturday’s game will primarily come down to how Temple’s quarterback(s) handle the pressure in the spotlight in front of a crowd of 80,000+ on Saturday and whether the Temple offense can take advantage of a less experienced Irish secondary. Establishing a run game with Armstead early with some creative looks and even some option will open this up immensely.
It may be hard though for the Owls to control the line of scrimmage facing the Notre Dame front-seven, but given the offensive sets the Owls will run, as long as the offensive line gives whoever is under center a few seconds of protection, Temple can compete in this contest, even if they are kicking field goals on every possession. If Temple’s defense, much like two years ago, can keep minimize the Irish rushing attack led by Josh Adams, and put the game in the hands of an inexperienced Brandon Wimbush, the better the Owls stand a chance.
I think that the fact Temple is an 18.5-point underdog is an insult to the talent this Owl team has going into a game against an opponent that had four wins last season and lost its starting quarterback, but the fact Notre Dame may be overlooking the Owls could play into Temple’s favor, just as it did against Penn State in 2015. With that being said, I do feel as though the Irish will pull off a narrow victory, similar to the 2015 College Gameday contest, winning 21-17.