The quarterback competition, or quarterback controversy, is often the number one topic throughout training camps across the nation, and the story is no different in Matt Rhule’s first preseason as the school’s 26th head football coach.
Last year the battle came down to then-redshirt junior Chris Coyer, who was the favorite to win the job all along.
This year, the competition to be the team’s main signal caller is down to redshirt junior Connor Reilly, senior Juice Granger and freshman P.J. Walker. Through the first four days of camp, it appears to be Reilly’s job to lose. Reilly has been running with the first team since camp broke on Monday, and that was again the case again on Thursday.
There was an odd look to Thursday’s practice, as members of the first team offense were wearing green jerseys while the members of the first team defense were sporting black jerseys.
After a shaky first couple of days and a questionable start to Thursday’s practice, Reilly redeemed himself with a strong performance to conclude the session during 11-on-11s, running the no-huddle and two-minute offense.
Also a member of Temple’s baseball team as a catcher and utility man, Reilly’s size and arm strength have never come into question. However, his ability to make quick decisions, fine-tune his reads and digest the playbook have raised some question marks.
“It’s funny because I know he was a baseball player,” former Temple quarterback and current graduate offensive assistant Adam DiMichele said. “I was watching games last year and I was like, ‘I know this kid can throw a little bit from the sidelines,’ always giving signals (to the offense). I knew of him and I heard of him and when I got him in the spring, he had a few things wrong with his delivery. We tried to alter it, but he has phenomenal arm strength. That’s something you can’t necessarily teach, you’re just kind of gifted. You can work on it, do some drills to work on it, but arm strength is a concern and he has it.”
During three-on-threes and four-on-fours, where running backs and wide receivers ran routes against defensive backs and linebackers with no defensive or offensive lineman included, Reilly went an unofficial 3-6, hitting his wide outs on quick slants and out routes. Granger didn’t fare much better and went 2-6.
“In the spring [Reilly] really just made plays,” DiMichele said. “He would roll right, throw back left for a 60-yard touchdown. He does those kinds of things. He kind of just has a niche for making plays and I think [Rhule] likes that. Now were trying to get him in the mental part of the game, straight, and become a better leader everyday. He’s going to be a good one. I really do believe that.”
Later in practice, during the first session of 11-on-11s, the Owls focused more on running the ball, both in-between the tackles and outside the tackles.
Reilly went an unofficial 1-3, and after rolling to his left on a passing play, Reilly felt pressure coming from the left side and threw across his body to the right side of the field, resulting in an interception. He struggled to make quick decisions and hesitated when sensing pressure.
Granger had two passing opportunities and converted both. With Granger getting reps, Temple ran some read option plays, a system that has caught the NCAA and NFL by storm over the past year.
After a break, positions on both sides of the ball split up to work on individual drills, before finishing up practice with another round of 11-on-11s, including a look at the no huddle and two-minute offense.
This is where Reilly gathered himself, put everything together and showed flashes of why the coaching staff has decided to put him on the first team offensive unit. He went an unofficial 7-11, including a pass that should have been caught when Reilly threw across the middle to senior wide receiver Ryan Alderman.
Granger went an unofficial 2-5, including a touchdown to sophomore wideout Samuel Benjamin, but threw an ill-advised interception into double coverage.
Reilly feathered a beautiful pass to sophomore wide receiver John Christopher, who caught the ball in stride and scored. In what would be the last play of practice, Reilly again dropped back and threw a deep ball to sophomore wide receiver Samuel Benjamin for another touchdown. The throw was a little behind Benjamin, put Reilly placed the ball right on Benjamin’s back shoulder, so the defensive back in coverage had no chance of breaking up the play.
“I thought [Connor] was probably shaky at times early,” Rhule said. “I thought we finished strong as a group.”
“I think he’s understanding kind of some of the things were trying to do down the field,” Rhule added. “Some of those were deep balls and I think our receivers are running. We have a bunch of receivers out with a nick here and a nick there, but the guys that went today were running through. That was a good way to end it. You like to have your quarterback. no matter what happens, always end it the right way and finish.”
Reilly finished the way Rhule envisions his men under center to do so, but he has yet to name a starter for Temple’s regular season opener on Aug. 31 at Notre Dame.
“You have a little bit of success, sometimes you start trying to do a lot of things,” Rhule said. “The great ones have a way of just staying within themselves and doing what they do and letting the game come to them, and so I was glad he finished the practice that way because earlier in practice he was maybe trying to do too much. ‘Oh I made this one throw this one time, so let me try and make it again’ and when you do that you have a lot of interceptions.”
Freshman quarterback P.J. Walker has been taking third team reps at quarterback and has shown some very good things. The dual threat quarterback and 2012 Newark Star-Ledger Player of the Year from Elizabethtown High School in New Jersey has very good mobility and has the ability to throw the ball deep. While talking to the media after practice, Rhule spoke about how he is impressed with the progress Walker has made so far.
“That P.J. Walker is a really smart quarterback,” Rhule said. “So he’s put some pressure on the older guys. No one wants to know that the younger guy knows more than you at the playbook.”
Rhule also said that Walker is progressing faster than expected.
“He’s really accurate and smart and it seems like he likes football,” Rhule said. “We say that term a lot. A lot of guys play football. He likes football. He studies it at night and he comes in, in the day and he knows the answers.”
Rhule also voiced his pleasure with what freshman running back Zaire Williams has been able to do saying Williams “has done a nice job” and “shown some good things.”
Temple’s secondary last year was one of the weaker elements on the team, and although it is a unit that is still very young and inexperienced, Rhule has been impressed with the competition.
“I think the real story at camp so far is the young guys in the defensive backfield,” Rhule said. “You never know when a freshman comes in if he’s going to be competitive or not. [Freshman] Jahad Thomas is down there, we’re having to break him up with [junior wide receiver] Jalen Fitzpatrick. I think we have some really good young guys that have shown up. Who’s going to start at both corners and safety is really anybody’s guess right now. I think it’s a nice battle that I’m pleased with.”
During one-on-ones Tuesday, redshirt freshman wide receiver Nathan Hairston was putting defensive backs on the back burner, running crisp routes and showing a good set of hands.
With senior wide receiver Deon Miller out for the second consecutive day with cramping issues, Hairston ran with the first team offense on Thursday and has a chance to see some significant time.
“Nate has really good hands,” Rhule said. “He has good hands and he’s really fast. He’s worked really hard to make his good hands, very good hands. I think he’s going to play a lot for us. Were going to play five or six receivers and I think Nate’s in the mix to maybe even be a starter.”