Entering summer practice as a freshman running back, Sean Szarka figured that if he worked hard enough and impressed the coaches he could earn some playing time.
By the start of the season, Szarka had switched positions to slot receiver, and now is a starter.
Originally expected to be redshirted this season, Szarka is part of a pass-happy offense and generating big plays every time he touches the ball, providing greater depth for a maligned receiver corps.
Had he been redshirted he would have been taken off the active roster and unable to play in any games, while still maintaining four years of eligibility.
But Szarka admits he doesn’t like sitting on the bench and was willing to help the team out in anyway possible.
Even more remarkable is his transition to a new position and having the capabilities to start as a true freshman.
“It’s hard to learn all your plays real quick, considering that I’ve only been here a month and a half,” Szarka said.
“Just the speed of the game takes a lot to get use to.”
Szarka’s contribution in the slot has been fruitful to the offense, creating mismatches with slower linebackers as the defense must contain Szarka’s 4.4 speed. Playing the slot also requires running patterns across the middle and underneath the defense.
Midway through the season, Szarka has found his niche as the second leading receiver in yards and yards per catch (19.1), as well as getting some time as a kick returner.
With his burgeoning talent, the unassuming Szarka is quickly becoming Temple’s secret weapon.
Offensive coordinator Dave Brock has also worked Szarka into gadget plays, such as reverses and end-arounds, putting a sizeable onus on Szarka in the Owls ever improving offense that generated a season-high 500 yards against Syracuse.
In that game, Szarka hauled in a 42-yard reception, setting the team up for a field goal.
On two other plays in the game, he rushed for first downs.
Szarka’s versatility and speed adds another element to the Owl offense while keeping defenses honest and constantly wondering how he will be utilized next.
Coach Bobby Wallace is just happy he can use Szarka any way he can with Tanardo Sharps a fixture as the lone back.
“We already have a great back that’s a senior [Sharps],” Wallace said, “so his playing would have been limited had we kept him at running back.
With his ability to catch the football, we just felt like we could get the ball to him more and utilize his talents this year as a receiver.”
Coming out of New Jersey’s Roxbury High, Szarka had many offers thrown his way from bigger football programs such as Michigan St., Iowa and Syracuse.
At the time he was being recruited, Szarka didn’t even recall talking to Temple.
“One day in the mail I got a letter saying ‘we offered you a scholarship,'” Szarka said. “I didn’t even know where it was. I didn’t even know they were in the Big East.”
After inquiring and speaking with the coaches, he was sold on Temple and signed a letter of intent.
Moreover, what he appreciated from Wallace and his staff was their honesty and realistic outlook with his place on the roster.
“These guys (Temple coaches) were up front, honest with me and they told me,
‘You might play, you might not.’ I didn’t feel comfortable with a lot of coaches,” Szarka said. “I think they were trying to give you something that you were not going to do.”
In addition to liking the coaching staff, he’s enjoying the atmosphere of a big city, which has made his adaptation that much easier.
His growth and confidence as a player has reached new levels after scoring his first collegiate touchdown this season against top-ranked Miami.
“I was so shocked, I didn’t even know what to do,” Szarka said. “I didn’t even realize it until after the game.”
While both Szarka and quarterback Mike McGann develop and get more comfortable with each other, the sky could be the limit for a potentially lethal duo.
And if asked to fill a potential void at running back next season, Szarka would happily oblige, but concedes, “It’s basically up to the coaches…but I’m happy where I’m at.”
“He can be a running back, there is absolutely no question he can be a running back, but it’s just what is best for this team,” Wallace said.
Regardless of his position, it’s pretty safe to assume that as long as Sean Szarka is out on the field, that’s what will be best for the team.
Jason Haslam can be reached at Jasonhaslam@yahoo.com.