Al Golden’s 2006 recruits, his first as coach of the Owls, are set to wrap up their 4 years on campus.
It wasn’t an ideal situation.
The year was 2006, and Al Golden was named coach of an Owls program coming off an 0-11 season one year after being removed from the Big East Conference.
Golden was asked to find a new conference home and revamp a program that allowed 60 or more points three times the season before.
And he was asked to do it with pretty much zero ammunition.
“We had no leadership and no seniors to set the tone,” the fourth-year coach said. “I talked to a lot of coaches in the league, and they say when you take over a program, you have 15 to 20 seniors who know how to make it to the NFL or try to win a championship or bowl games.
“We didn’t have any of that,” he added. “We had no seniors.”
Despite no head coaching experience, Golden went out on the recruiting trail and found some freshmen who – four years later – would be his first group of seniors.
“When these freshmen came in, they really had to work to move this forward,” Golden said.
Jump to the present. The Owls are coming off a positive 5-7 season and have bowl aspirations for 2009.
When Golden looks back to year one and compares it to today, he can start by thanking four of the 14 men he recruited to come to North Broad Street that year – tight end Steve Maneri, linebacker Alex Joseph, defensive back Dominique Harris and defensive tackle Andre Neblett.
“When you got guys who are mature and want to come out and work every day and pick each other up, it makes it fun to coach,” Golden said.
Maneri said he enjoyed the recruiting experiment. He only began playing football his senior year of high school in Saddle Brook, N.J.
“I was actually new to the whole football scene,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to expect coming in.”
Maneri said he chose Temple because he was impressed by the confidence of Golden and his coaching staff. They preached to Maneri that the program was beginning fresh and things were going to be different from the past.
“I was excited to come here and change things around,” he said. The past year has been productive for Maneri, who has become a key weapon on offense. Last season, Maneri started nine times and had 14 catches for 150 yards and four touchdowns.
With Bruce Francis’ graduation, Maneri earned the most improved offensive player award following 2009 spring drills. Now, he is a John Mackey Award candidate and is expected to be one of the top options for starting quarterback Vaughn Charlton this season.
“In the summer we’ve been working a lot on catching balls and strength and conditioning, and hopefully it’ll pay off when the lights go up,” he said.
The lights finally came on for Alex Joseph last season. After starting nine games in 2007, Joseph started 10 games at middle linebacker last season. He was second on the team with 87 tackles, 3.5 of them for a loss.
That earned Joseph a third-team All-Mid-American Conference selection by Phil Steele’s College Football and the Dr. Arthur N. Cook Most Courageous Athlete Award from the Owls.
“He’s one of our leaders and is a great tackler,” Golden said. “He plays special teams and in our third-down package. He won our courage award last year from what he did last year. He barely practiced, he limped around and went out on game day and played.”
Joseph, who will be wearing No. 4 this season, is a preseason second-team All-MAC selection and looks to build on last season’s success. Golden said Joseph can get better, and that the only thing stopping him is his health.
“Hopefully, he can keep his foot healthy and have a good season,” Golden said. “He really deserves it.”
Another player Golden said is deserving of success is Harris.
Harris started seven games as a redshirt freshman. In his sophomore year, he led the team with 81 tackles, five pass breakups and three interceptions, while starting all 12 games en route to a 2007 third-team All-MAC selection.
He produced a solid 2008 campaign, moving to strong safety and finishing with 66 tackles, a team-best three interceptions, a team-best three forced fumbles, three breakups and two fumble recoveries. Harris was a 2008 Captains’ Award recipient and earned the Athletic Department’s 2009 Temple Teammates Community Service Award.
“The kids are different now. We have less problems behaviorally and academically,” Golden said. “They understand the tempo and the toughness that we’re looking for and what we’re looking for in the community and in the classroom.”
Senior defensive tackle Andre Neblett agreed with the other seniors and said he chose the Owls because he knew the goals and expectations of the program and had conviction it was going to improve.
“It was great in the first year being thrown into the fire,” he said. “I love football, and this is something that I enjoy.”
The coaching staff had high expectations for Neblett from the beginning, and he answered the call immediately. He started nine times as a freshman, and in 2007, he started every game at nose tackle, producing 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, while earning a second-team All-MAC selection.
“He’s one of the strongest defensive linemen I’ve ever been around,” Golden added. “He’s a smart player. He studies film and works really hard. He’s a leader. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Apparently a lot of people are saying good things about Neblett. He is a preseason first-team All-MAC selection in four publications and is a Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award candidate.
“I just try to get better and better every day and try not to think about the awards,” he said. “As the team succeeds, everyone else will succeed.”
Success seemed impossible four years ago. What was a big recruiting number for Golden in 2006 is now minuscule compared to the 28 recruits he got to commit to the Owls after last season.
There is finally enough ammunition.
“The past four years have been tough, I can tell you that,” Golden said. “We have more men now. We have more guys that are accountable, that are more responsible. They not only support the goals and vision of this program, but they are almost at the point where they will defend it.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at email@example.com. Brian Dzenis contribued to this article.