“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” –William Faulkner
Two weeks into spring practice, that seems to be the unofficial slogan for the Owls’ defensive unit.
Last season, Temple improved three games for a 4-8 record, and the defense took a step in the right direction and became the strength of the team. The Owls ranked first in the nation in red-zone defense and led the Mid-American Conference in five categories including total defense.
“The biggest thing was our guys were confident,” defensive coordinator and assistant coach Mark D’Onofrio said. “We played a lot of young guys who had some experience and who grew up and ended up buying into the system that we were running. Overall the No. 1 thing that made us successful was that the kids played really, really hard.”
However, D’Onofrio was quick to point out that he doesn’t want the unit to get ahead of themselves. Compared to Temple’s 1-11 record in 2006, there was no place to go but up last season.
“We had success by the standards where we were the year before,” he said. “We obviously improved quite a bit. Yet we’re not where we need to be. We won four games.”
A good portion of those victories can be attributed to the defense. Especially the defensive line, led by ends Andre Neblett, a junior All-MAC honoree, and senior captain Leyon Azubuike and tackles senior Terrance Knighton and junior Junior Galette.
“Andre Neblett and Terrance Knighton, when you have those interior guys, [and] Leyon and I, it’s just easier to play,” said Galette, who posted 7.5 sacks last season, good for third in the MAC.
“With those guys, it’s a competition amongst all of us, who can get to the quarterback first, who can do this. We take great pride in the D-Line,” Neblett said.
D’Onforio is aware of what the line can do on the field, but he emphasized their impact off of it.
“They all work hard,” he said. “They all have leadership qualities. They all have respect for other teammates. They have certainly helped bring along their teammates and some of the younger players.”
Another area of success last season was in the secondary. Junior defensive back Dominique Harris accumulated a team-high 81 tackles, three interceptions and five break-ups. He will be joined by senior Georg Coleman and corners junior Anthony Ferla and sophomore Jamal Schulters.
“Dom’s an active guy,” D’Onforio said. “He shows up around the ball, he’s physical. He’s a great kid, a hard worker. We expect big things out of him. We’re looking for him to take the next step as a leader back there.”
When practice opened two weeks ago, coach Al Golden said there was still a need for improvement.
“You can’t be considered a great defense until you’re great against the score, in other words you lead your league in scoring defense,” he said. “We didn’t do that last year.”
“Bottom line is how many points you give up. We have to get that number down,” he said.
A number that the coaching staff has to get down is at the linebacker position. Golden said there’s talent at the position but they lack “a dominant group of linebackers.”
“I think we’ve got some good competition,” D’Onofrio said. “We’ll see how it plays out here this spring. We’ve got seven or eight guys that are fighting it out right now. Competition will improve that position and make us better.”
D’Onforio admits to being excited for the future. The Owls started 20 freshmen last season, most in the nation, and returns all 11 starters on defense.
But he conceded that there’s still work to be done — trying to be better than last season.
“We got a lot of improvements still to do. We came a long way. We’re excited about where we were based on where we were at but it’s certainly not a championship level yet.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.