Notre Dame awaits Owls

Matt Rhule enters his first game as coach against a national powerhouse.


That is the ranking the Owls were handed in Newport, R.I. last month at the American Athletic Conference Football Media Day.

The only team picked by the media representatives to finish worse is a Memphis team that has just seven wins during the past three seasons.

“It motivates me to work harder,” first-year coach Matt Rhule said. “I hope it does the same thing to our seniors. For some people, the correct answer is to say, ‘Those things don’t matter to me.’ They matter to me.”

Proving the doubters wrong will be no easy task for Rhule, as he is inheriting a team that went 4-7 last year under former coach Steve Addazio. Rhule faces a new conference and new opponents throughout the season, a number of whom the Owls have never faced before.

Now, less than a week before the season kicks off, the roster is starting to take shape.

Rhule announced Aug. 22 that junior Connor Reilly will be starting this weekend against Notre Dame.

After a strong spring in which he led his team to victory in Temple’s annual Cherry & White scrimmage, Reilly came into training camp as the presumed favorite to land the starting quarterback position. But quickly, it became clear that Reilly was part of a bona fide competition, as senior Clinton “Juice” Granger and freshman P.J. Walker both impressed during camp.

Reilly was a walk-on last year for the Temple baseball team, becoming the university’s only two-sport athlete on campus. Those days are over.

“I’m not going to continue doing baseball anymore,” Reilly said during camp. “As soon as coach Rhule told me that I was looking to be the starter, I stopped playing baseball and I’ve been focusing 100 percent on football.”

The focus has paid off.

“Juice has played great, and he’s put himself in a position where he could start for us and would play really well if he did,” Rhule said. “We just made the decision that Connor—we felt, as a team, that Connor would do the best job for us, so we’re starting him.”

Reilly said he was smiling when Rhule informed him of the news, and that the decision was based on last Wednesday’s scrimmage. For Granger, who was one of nine athletes on the team to earn a single-digit number awarded for “toughness,” the news came as a disappointment.

“Ultimately, it’s not my decision, it’s up to the coaches,” Granger said. “You just need to stay humble and hungry and continue to just keep working.”

Last year’s starting quarterback, senior Chris Coyer, has been transitioning this offseason to his new role as an H-back. Although a quarterback competition is nothing new for Temple, training camp has been a bit different for Coyer as he is no longer a part of it. Reilly said Coyer has been like another coach to him, as Reilly battled against Granger for the starting quarterback position.

“I’ve seen them both be so competitive,” Coyer said. “It’s really great to see that both of them want it so bad. They’ve both been battling really hard to earn that job.”

As Coyer enters his final year with the team, there is no animosity or anger over his position change. Despite a few more bumps and bruises along the way, he loves his position move.

“I’m having a great time,” Coyer said. “I get to go out and have so much fun just playing football, it’s great.”

The most important aspect of the offense for Reilly, Rhule said, will be the running game.

“We won’t know about our running game until we go out there and face some people,” Rhule said. “But we have to be able to run the football to keep everything manageable. We have a stable of running backs, but our quarterbacks will play better if we can run the football adequately.”

Although there’s no clear depth chart, Rhule confirmed that the top two running backs right now are junior Kenneth Harper and freshman Zaire Williams. Both follow a string of running backs who have shaped the offense in seasons past: Bernard Pierce, Montel Harris and Matt Brown.

“They have definitely been a big influence on me and my work ethic,” Harper said. “They taught me a lot about how to go hard in everything you do, and kind of put everything you’ve got forward and let everything happen as it should happen.”

On the defensive side of the football, four athletes received single-digit numbers. Senior lineman Sean Daniels (No. 1), fifth-year senior linebacker Blaze Caponegro (No. 6), sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich (No. 8) and fifth-year senior Levi Brown (No. 9) were voted on by the team as athletes that represent toughness—a tradition started while Rhule was an assistant under former head coach Al Golden.

“You have no idea,” Daniels said. “I remember my freshman year, seeing it on the wall and I was like, ‘Man, I want to be one of those players.’ And to get No. 1 is just—you can’t really explain it. Temple is a really tough place to play and to be one of the toughest players on the toughest teams out there, that’s a huge honor.”

Matakevich, who was the Big East Rookie of the Year last season, gained 15 pounds to help with physicality on the field as Rhule has challenged him in various aspects of the game since his tenure began earlier this year.

“In the spring, [there was a] brand new coaching staff, brand new scheme, so it took a little time adjusting to it,” Matakevich said. “From the spring till now, everybody’s knowing their assignments. In the spring, we had maybe two or three plays in, now we have a whole playbook in. I’m really, really excited for the season and this defense.”

Matakevich and his teammates will begin their season this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in South Bend, Ind. They will compete against a Notre Dame squad that played for a BCS Championship last year.

“We’ve been to some great places,” Rhule said. “We’ve played UCLA, we’ve played Penn State, we’ve played Maryland. But Notre Dame is Notre Dame. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve done in the past and what they did last year.”

“It’s the same thing that we want to build here long term,” Rhule added. “We want to build the same program here at Temple. To do that, you have to go out there and play them and go let it all hang loose. We’re going to go play and have fun. The players might be tight, but the coaches aren’t.”

Reilly will be making his debut as a starter in front of about as big an audience as a young quarterback can experience.

“I’m trying to take a deep breath, count to three, slow everything down,” Reilly said. “It’s definitely going to be a great experience. But once we enter the field on Saturday and the ball hits my hand, it’s just a football game.”

Rhule expressed his belief that the very fact that Temple is competing against the Fighting Irish is indicative of how far the program has come in recent years.

“Think about six or seven years ago,” Rhule said. “Did any of us really imagine that Temple would be on national TV playing Notre Dame on NBC in front of that many million households? Now that we’re here, let’s not be nervous about it. Let’s go have fun and play.”

There is no denying that the Owls have come a long way from where they were when Rhule first arrived as an assistant coach back in 2006. Still, the doubters remain, as Temple readies for a conference with teams like Louisville and Cincinnati on the horizon.

“I want people to look at Temple with the respect that I think they should,” Rhule said. “When they don’t, I want our players to go out and do something about it.”

“I wish I could do something about it, but I can’t,” Rhule added. “No one wants to see me running down the field. But they can do something about it.”

Avery Maehrer can be reached at or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.

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