As the Owls took the field for their opening drive of the team’s 49-10 win against Tulane Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, something was different.
Lining up in the backfield behind junior quarterback P.J. Walker was freshman running back Ryquell Armstead—not junior Jahad Thomas, who sat out the team’s first drive due to tardiness at a team activity earlier in the week.
On the second carry of his first career start, Armstead fumbled, leading to a Tulane field goal and a 3-0 Temple deficit.
After Thomas resumed his featured role for the rest of the first half, coach Matt Rhule gave his freshman another opportunity in the third quarter. The faith in Armstead lead to a pair of 16-yard touchdown runs.
“For me to fumble, and him to respond and let me play again and bounce back and have the confidence in me, it gave me more confidence,” Armstead said. “And showed me they actually cared about me a lot.”
Rhule used Thomas’ benching to send a message to his veteran running back; there’s a talented back behind him.
“Jahad Thomas is a great guy, but everyone has to be at the building on time,” Rhule said. “He was a couple minutes late, so he didn’t start. If a player shows up late, they’re not going to start. You saw what Ryquell Armstead can do at the end of the game, so be on time.”
Armstead finished the game with six carries for 34 yards and two touchdowns.
In last week’s 37-3 win against the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Armstead had 11 rushes for 43 yards. Prior to the Charlotte game, Armstead had nine carries for 30 yards in three games.
Rhule said Armstead, who has 107 rushing yards in 2015, has etched out a complementary role in the Temple backfield.
“The way we look at it, we’ve decided he’s going to play, and Jahad’s not real, real big, so we can’t use him up a ton,” Rhule said. “But we’re going to use him. He’s competitive. He wants to play.”
Armstead has carved himself out some added carries in the Owls’ past two games, but Thomas remains the Owls’ featured back. The junior handled 14 carries for 54 rushing yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s win. He also added a 16-yard touchdown reception.
Through five games, Thomas has 557 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to go along with 12 catches for 156 yards.
He has become a bigger part of the offense after running for 384 yards and catching 14 passes for 364 yards last season.
“If the team needs me to make a play or give the team some energy or just come in and do what I do, I want to be that guy,” Thomas said. “When things are not going right, I want the ball in my hands to make a play.”
Armstead said he is ready to play and practices “everyday like [he’s] going to start.” At the same time, as a young player, he is observing the veteran ahead of him on the depth chart.
“Jahad’s a great back,” Armstead said. “I’m learning a lot from him. I don’t love being second, but being able to play behind him is helping me be a better player, so I’m with cool with it.”
Owen McCue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @OwenMcCue.