During the 2009 season, Temple coach Al Golden and the football team had a pretty simple game plan: get the ball to then-freshman running back Bernard Pierce as often as possible. A year later, the offense needs to receive more consistent production from the passing game in order to keep opposing defenses guessing.
In hopes of doing just that, a lot of personnel changes have been made since last year’s campaign.
Last year’s starting quarterback, redshirt-senior Vaughn Charlton, is now a tight end. Charlton, who started nine games last year and threw for 1,390 yards and 10 touchdowns, volunteered to make the transition during spring practice. That move put junior quarterback Chester Stewart and redshirt-freshman Chris Coyer in a competition for the starting job before Golden named Stewart the starter for the Mayor’s Cup.
“[Stewart has] really come a long way,” Golden said. “Particularly the last six months. He’s really been coming on strong.”
Stewart, who started four games last season, passed for 514 yards and three touchdowns last year, and led the team to a 3-1 record. In order for the 6-foot-3 signal caller to be successful this year, Stewart is going to need to display the patience necessary to play the position at a high level. Stewart, who didn’t play quarterback until his senior year at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., has made progress in that aspect, he said.
“[I’m trying to] be more mature,” Stewart said. “I’m making better decisions on the field with the ball. Being able to run the offense and move the ball around.
With seven career starts, Stewart was the safe choice to lead the Temple offense. However, it would not be surprising to see Coyer on the field this year, whether it is in a traditional sense or in a package designed around his versatility.
In the backfield, despite sophomore running back Matt Brown sitting atop the depth chart, Pierce is still the man. The Ardmore native was named to a number of preseason watch lists, including the Maxwell Award List, given annually to the nation’s best player. Pierce rushed for 1,361 yards in 12 games last year en route to being named the Mid-American Conference’s Freshman of the Year and found his way onto the First Team All-MAC squad. Additionally, Temple has launched a campaign to promote Pierce as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Still, when it comes down to it, the team is more important than any individual accolades, Pierce said.
“It’s an honor to be even considered to be in the running for the Heisman,” Pierce said. “Then again, I’m worried about this season, and I’m worried about my team … I can’t actually think too much about myself.”
Despite all the grandeur associated with Pierce, Brown has outworked the Heisman Candidate recently, which led to the depth chart recognition, Golden said. The fifth-year coach also stressed that the depth chart changes regularly and that a strong push from either player could be the difference.
“We do that depth chart every day,” Golden said. “[For Pierce to regain his starting role,] he has to run like Bernard and stay healthy … I expect to see both those guys carry the ball and get a lot of reps [against Villanova].”
“I was out [with a concussion] for a while so it’s still up in the air,” Pierce added. “But, as of right now, I am [second on the depth chart]. I just have to keep working hard and try to get my starting spot back.”
An influx of new receivers should provide Stewart with plenty of options in the passing game. Senior Michael Campbell returns after catching 27 passes last year for a team-leading 419 yards. Junior Rod Streater, who transferred from Alfred State during the offseason, is expected to start opposite Campbell. Junior Joe Jones, who started nine games last year while catching a team-high 28 passes, is expected to compete with freshman Deon Miller and junior Darryl Shine for playing time. Shine transferred from Fullerton College in California during the offseason.
The extra competition has been welcomed, Campbell said.
“I’m glad that I got these guys here because it gives me more depth at my position,” Campbell said. “They’re all great receivers and they can make plays.”
“[The receivers will] make plays for me,” Stewart agreed. “I won’t always throw the perfect pass, but I know they’ll go make that play for me.”
To say that there’s a competition at tight end would be an understatement. When Golden and his staff released the depth chart to the media, five players were listed at tight end. None of the players were distinguished as a starter. Of those five, only one, senior Matt Balasavage, played tight end regularly in high school.
Along with Balasavage and Charlton, freshman Alex Jackson, junior Evan Rodriguez and junior Morkeith Brown are competing for the starting spot. Regardless of who starts, tight end should be a productive position for the Cherry and White, Rodriguez said.
“The competition is real tough right now,” Rodriguez said. “We really don’t know who’s going to start or who’s going to play. Each player at the tight end position brings something different to the game.”
Last year, Golden was quick to mention the progress of the offensive line as a significant factor in Pierce’s success. This year’s unit figures to be just as strong, as the Owls return eight linemen with starting experience. The right side of the line figures to be the strongest, as both senior right guard Colin Madison and senior right tackle Darius Morris garnered First Team All-MAC selections last year.
Redshirt juniors John Palumbo and Jeremy Schonbrunner are expected to compete for the starting center position. Junior Steve Caputo has shifted from left guard to left tackle, opening the door for junior Wayne Tribue to compete for the starting job at guard.
For arguably the first time underneath Golden, the Owls have depth and talent at every offensive position. Whether this will translate to success on the field remains to be seen. If the passing game can prove to be more consistent than it was last year, opposing defensive coordinators will have to attempt to stop something other than the running game.
Imagine how lethal Pierce would be then.
Kyle Gauss can be reached at email@example.com