The Owls defense will need to replace production from four starters – two linebackers, a tackle and a safety.
While freshman running back Bernard Pierce and the football team’s vaunted rushing attack got most of the hype last year, Temple’s defense put together yet another impressive season.
The Owls limited opponents to a Mid-American Conference-best 108.9 rushing yards per game and allowed a mere 21.7 points per game, but four defensive starters from the EagleBank Bowl have graduated.
Two of those points of interest exist in the linebacking corps, where seniors John Haley and Alex Joseph have left substantial holes to fill. Juniors Tahir Whitehead and Quentin White are expected to compete for starting jobs, along with sophomore Marcus Green. Redshirt freshmen Blaze Caponegro and Gary Onuekwusi could also see significant playing time. Caponegro, a 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound linebacker from Wall, N.J., recorded two interceptions in last Saturday’s Cherry and White game.
Senior Amara Kamara is slated to move back to linebacker after spending his junior year at defensive end. Kamara primarily played linebacker during his first two seasons on North Broad Street and recorded 138 tackles in the process. Senior Elijah “Peanut” Joseph will likely slide from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
Replacing Haley and Joseph will be harder than just replicating their statistics on the field, redshirt senior linebacker Jordan Martin said.
“It’s not easy to fill that leadership,” Martin said. “We’re seeing that now. As time goes on, we’ll feel more comfortable.”
On the defensive line, the Owls must replace nose tackle Andre Neblett’s production, particularly in the run defense aspect. Neblett, a 6-foot, 295-pound bruiser, excelled at negating the opposing center’s blocking ability in the running game. A number of players are vying for Neblett’s old starting spot, including senior Elisha Joseph, redshirt freshman Levi Brown and sophomore Kadeem Custis.
Junior defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Adrian Robinson both return for the Owls. Robinson, who recorded a MAC-best 13 sacks in 2009, was named the MAC Defensive Player of the Year last season.
In the secondary, three-year starter Jaiquawn Jarrett returns at free safety, but four-year starter Dominique Harris has graduated, opening up the competition at strong safety. At cornerback, junior Kee-ayre Griffin, senior Marquise Liverpool, sophomore Maurice Jones and redshirt freshman Zamel Johnson, a transfer from Hofstra, are competing for the two starting jobs.
Harris, who started 44 games during his career, was a third-team All-MAC selection last season and recorded 71 tackles. Junior defensive back Kevin Kroboth, who started nine games at cornerback last season, is competing with sophomores Vaughn Carraway and Justin Gildea to replace Harris.
A highly-touted wide receiver out of high school, Carraway moved to safety a week before the Cherry and White game. Carraway, who played on both the offensive and defensive units in high school, showed little signs of rust, as he grabbed an interception during the scrimmage.
“At first, I wasn’t very sure if I was going to be all right [playing safety],” Carraway said. “But, after a few practices, I got used to it. I like more of the contact that you get on defense.”
“[Carraway] would definitely be a guy who helped himself today,” Temple coach Al Golden added. “He’s way more physical than anybody thought he was going to be. The ball skills are obviously there at safety. He’s seeing the ball come out of the hand of the quarterback, which is why he’s able to get hands on balls or intercept. The physical nature of them has really been a bonus for our team right now.”
Unlike past years, the Cherry and White game does not mark the end of Spring Practice for Temple. Instead, the Owls have two more practices and an additional scrimmage before concluding for the summer. With that in mind, the players know that no depth chart is set in stone, Martin said.
“It’s not over,” Martin said. “We know that we still have two practices left. It’s just making people compete right now in practice. Everybody knows that someday you could be a starter, and the next day, you could have your spot taken. It’s making competition king.”
Kyle Gauss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.