Since early last year, Temple has lived by a simple vow: to never suffer through a season as disappointing as the 2-10 struggle the team endured the year before.
After closing out the season, the Owls returned to the practice field on a Monday morning in early December, and showed coach Matt Rhule how committed they were to 2014.
Their demonstration consisted of 1,000 yards of plate pushes at 6 a.m.
“We’re going to get ready for 2014 right now,” Rhule said at a news conference following that practice.
As Temple awaits its first game against Vanderbilt on Thursday, it is evident that 2014 is finally upon them.
“As a program, we’re light years ahead of where we were,” Rhule said before the start of camp. “Our kids know what to expect, they know how we do things. All the things that I’ve come in and changed, now they not only have learned to expect them, but they understand why. They recognize that not only are some things expected, but also that these things work.”
Junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said he has also noticed a sharper learning curve on the defensive side.
“[Defensive coordinator Phil Snow] told us when he put the defense in it was going to take about a year and a half to fully understand the defense,” Matakevich said. “Each day we’re really learning from him and taking all of the stuff he’s saying and [executing] it on the field.”
Matakevich, who recorded 137 total tackles in the 2013 season, leads a defense that struggled immensely last year, as it ranked 108th among Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total yards allowed per game with 473.6.
Arguably the biggest question for the defense heading into the opener lies in the secondary, only returning cornerback Anthony Robey from last year. Robey, who missed time during training camp while recovering from a sports hernia injury, said he finds the open battle has boosted the competitive nature of the defensive backs.
“We’re all out there working together helping each other compete. I definitely see more competition during practice.” Robey said. “It’s a good thing to see that they’ve amped up the play of the unit.”
On the offensive side of the ball, returning starter P.J. Walker has taken on the role of team leader by becoming more vocal and leading by example.
Following a season with 20 touchdown passes, an additional three rushing touchdowns with only eight interceptions while completing 61 percent of his passes, Walker’s expectations heading into Vanderbilt are high.
The biggest step for Walker, Rhule said, is mastering the art of winning close games.
“Games are lost before they’re won, I think Walker learned that the hard way last year,” Rhule said. “He threw that pick against Connecticut and they ran it back for a touchdown and won the game. I think that was a step for him.”
Walker finished third in passing efficiency rating in The American last year (150.8), trailing first-round NFL draft picks Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, as well as ranking sixth in yards per game (231.6).
After a summer of film study, practice and participation in the Manning Passing Academy alongside national superstars like Florida State’s Heisman winner Jameis Winston and Oregon’s dual-threat signal caller Marcus Mariota, Walker will look to build on those numbers to compile more wins.
“[This offseason] I’ve gotten stronger, gotten faster and really just became a student of the game as well,” Walker said during summer practices. “I feel much more comfortable, I’ve learned a lot.”
Walker believes his studies will help give those around him more opportunities to make plays.
“I’ve learned the playbook pretty well,” Walker said during the Owls’ inaugural media day. “Knowing the playbook makes your instincts much faster. Now, instead of being late on that one pass, I’m a second early, leading the receiver. Instead of getting tackled for a five-yard gain, now he has an opportunity to make the guy miss and go.”
“Knowing where you want to go with the ball is very important, and that’s something I’ve worked on this summer,” Walker added.
Walker is backed by a group of running backs who are looking to improve from what was a lackluster 2013 season.
Incumbent tailbacks Kenneth Harper and Zaire Williams respectively ranked eighth and 10th in rushing yards last year.
Williams, who tied for second-most yards per carry among the top ten rushers in The American last year, came into camp trying to take carries away from penciled-in starter Harper and Jamie Gilmore.
At wide receiver, the Owls have depth with 18 wideouts on the roster. The competition, while tight, features a few front-runners, including the undersized redshirt sophomore Khalif Herbin, a player Rhule and Walker spoke highly of numerous times throughout camp.
“[Khalif] is an explosive player,” Rhule said. “What he’s done is he’s bought into attention to detail. He’s bought into playing when he’s tired, he’s bought into all those other things when the ball isn’t in his hands. That makes it a lot easier to get the ball into his hands because he’s doing all the little things.”
Also heading the conversation at the receiver position is senior Jalen Fitzpatrick, coming off a 2013 season where he caught 38 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
“[Jalen] has been doing some great work inside as well as outside.” Rhule said, “I expect him to be a leader and a dynamic threat. I challenge our staff to get him the ball where he can be a dynamic threat.”
Despite the depth at the offensive skill positions, Rhule has shifted his focus to identifying five reliable offensive linemen. Returning only one starter, offensive captain and starting center Kyle Friend, the offensive front will count on partial contributors in redshirt junior Eric Lofton and sophomore Dion Dawkins.
As the anchor of the offensive line, many of the younger linemen look to Friend as a leader and mentor.
“I’ve been shadowing Kyle Friend,” Lofton said. “He’s taught me that you have to know more than just what you’re doing.”
Lofton, who finds himself in a position battle approaching the Owls’ first test, said he understands the importance of making every repetition count.
“Right now everybody just has to work every day,” Lofton said. “Coach [Rhule] always says that there are only five steaks on the table, only five people can eat, so you’ve got to go out here and play your hardest.”
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17.