As a starting freshman at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey, P.J. Walker and company struggled through a 1-9 season. However, by his senior year, he was the leader of an undefeated state championship team.
Walker believes he can develop into the leader and winner that his early struggles have taught him to be.
“I know what it takes to go through all those growing pains and be able to win games,” Walker said. “I know what it takes to build a program. In my freshman year of high school, we had guys that were pretty good but we didn’t have anyone to lead us, we didn’t have guys who wanted to work.”
Alongside Walker, Temple features a bevy of running backs, led by returning contributors Kenny Harper, Zaire Williams and Jaime Gilmore.
Incoming freshman David Hood is a freshman tailback prospect out of Galloway, N.J. who has found himself in the competition and conversation for the Owls’ 2014 running back options before camp.
“He’s explosive, he’s fast and he’s quick,” coach Matt Rhule said. “He can play corner and he can play running back. That kind of athleticism kind of pops. You can see it, he definitely has that and it’s just a matter of where he’s going to fit in.”
With such depth, Rhule hasn’t counted out the idea of splitting carries multiple ways going into camp.
“The thing about running backs is you have a tendency of getting the ball to the guy who is going to make the most plays,” Rhule said. “So if Kenny is the guy who I think will make the most plays then we’ll have him in there. If another guy emerges and looks dynamic then we’ll do that. Zaire averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year and Jaime went out in the Memphis game and had some long runs.
“There’s a lot of guys who are poised to be the next one up, and now it’s a matter of stepping up and doing it,” Rhule added. “That’s what the next couple weeks are for.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Owls look to middle linebacker and defensive leader Tyler Matakevich to build on a strong sophomore campaign in which he finished in a 10th-place tie for most solo tackles in NCAA Division 1 play (98).
Senior Anthony Robey will be the lone returning starter from last year’s secondary, but as the Owls’ only fifth-year senior, he’ll take on a leadership role as Temple’s anchor in the secondary.
Poised for their second year in defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s system, Matakevich and Robey feel more comfortable in their assignments and techniques approaching the season.
“He told us right off the bat it would take a year to learn the ins and outs of the defense,” Robey said. “A lot of guys look way better this offseason than last.”
The Owls begin training camp Aug. 1, a time Rhule and his staff will use to sort out any question marks as to who will make up Temple’s starting core in 2014.
“I don’t know who the great players are, but we’ve got a lot of good ones,” Rhule said. “There are a lot of guys who can help us, from the freshmen on up, there are a lot guys who have played a lot of football.”
“There are a lot of kids that think they can be the guy,” Rhule added. “We’ve got guys who have gotten hurt or redshirted that have played before. There’s a lot of guys who think they’re going to be the next guy, so I think they’re really excited to get out there and prove it.”
E.J. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ejsmitty17.