Temple has battled through several injuries this season. But arguably the most significant one belonged to running back Makonnen Fenton.
After a great start in the season opener at Penn State, where he ran for 118 yards on 28 carries, Fenton broke two of his ribs in the second game against Villanova. This left second-year junior Umar Ferguson and junior college transfer Jamil Porter to carry the workload in the backfield.
Fenton has been the Owls’ special team wizard the last two seasons. He was sitting behind Tanardo Sharps last year, Temple’s second most prolific rusher. That didn’t stop Fenton from being one of the nation’s best kick returners, averaging 26.1 yards per return in 2001 and 27.1 yards in 2002, including a pair of 94-yard returns for touchdowns.
Last season, coach Bobby Wallace found playing time as a receiver for the 5-foot-10, 200 pound Fenton. He instantly showed an ability to make plays with the first string offense, catching 11 balls for 212 yards and a touchdown.
“Makonnen is our starter, he proved that coming out and having a great first game,” running back coach Blair Thomas said. “He has paid his dues as well, being a fifth year guy, and being around for a while has caused him to work to become our starter. He has been working extremely hard to get back, getting treatment everyday.”
Fenton’s injury gave way to Ferguson, another Owl who sat behind Sharps the last two years waiting for his chance to prove himself.
“He is finally getting the opportunity that he deserves,” Fenton said of his teammate. “It is a good thing for him and a good thing for our team. It puts a little bit of pressure on me and makes me want to work harder. And competition is a good thing.”
Ferguson has shown some spark since Fenton’s injury. In his first collegiate game Ferguson rushed for 66 yards on 13 carries and scored his first touchdown. Ferguson has 161 yards rushing and three touchdowns this season, including two against Middle Tennessee State. He split time with Fenton, who saw action for the first time since the ‘Nova game. Fenton’s auspicious return to the produced 77 yards rushing in the win.
“It felt real good because I was anxious to get out there and help the team out anyway I can,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson attributes his success to working hard in the gym and studying his playbook everyday. By far, his biggest influence has been Thomas, who is Penn State’s second leading all-time rusher.
“He helps me everyday, he lets me know what I am doing wrong, he helps me with my steps and ball placement and how to stay confident with the ball,” Ferguson said. “He has helped me in so many ways.”
Thomas has nothing but good things to say about his pupil, who’s quickly absorbing and executing the lessons he’s learned from a former pro.
“Umar has been working extremely hard, and it is good for him to go out there and show what he can do,” Thomas said. “He is a bigger back and a guy that can step up and protect for us, and he has done a great job running the ball.”
Porter, on the other hand, was part of the junior college injection. He joined the team in spring drills after arriving from New Mexico Military JC. Participating in spring practice helped Porter get a feel of Division I-A football. According to Thomas, Porter has acquitted himself nicely during the transition.
“He is a very impressive runner, to be a small guy and not be afraid to stick it inside,” Thomas said. “He has done a good job, and it is good to have stable running backs like these guys.”
Porter has seen limited time due to a lingering illness and Ferguson’s success. Like the other two backs, Porter is just looking for the opportunity to show his skills. He describes himself as a slashing runner who can get to the outside in a hurry.
But not everything has come easy for Porter, who has looked to Fenton for guidance during his first season in Division I football.
“Any time I need help I go to him because he is the leader being the senior of the bunch,” Porter said. “We are roommates on the road and roommates all the time.”
When his roommate is fully healed, both Porter and Ferguson will step aside, but the offense hasn’t struggled much, especially with an impressive vertical passing attack. But with teams aware of the Owls’ ability to stretch the field and Big East Conference play looming, Fenton’s return is timely for a team hungry for wins.
Matt Sitkoff can be reached at email@example.com.