For Temple football, the 2013 season was supposed to be the year that everything settled down and consistency began to develop. The Owls were supposed to be in their second year of the Big East Conference, being led by a head coach in his third year of service at the university.
Instead, the team prepares this offseason heading into what, on paper, appears to be the second-straight rebuilding year. After the Big East imploded, the Owls now find themselves in the newly-constructed American Athletic Conference and being led by the school’s third football coach in four years.
Where Temple can find solace, and consistency, is the returning linebacker core featuring two young talents in sophomores Tyler Matakevich and Nate D. Smith.
Matakevich and Smith finished their freshman campaigns ranking first and second on the team, respectively, in tackles. Matakevich won the Big East Rookie of the Year award and set a school record by being the first freshman to record 100 tackles.
“Both of them have a lot of ability and instincts,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “They are going to be good linebackers. And they are both young, which is nice, so I’m looking forward to seeing their growth over the next few years. When you have two to three years to work with a player you really benefit.”
What was perhaps more remarkable about Matakevich’s rookie season is that he managed just two total tackles in the first three games of the season. After erupting for 15 stops in the fourth contest against South Florida on Oct. 6, 2012, he started and led the team in tackles in each of the seven remaining games.
“Coming into the season I was a freshman and young and I didn’t really understand the schemes,” Matakevich said. “I didn’t have as much experience, but when [senior linebacker Olaniyi Adewole] went down I had an opportunity and I didn’t let it pass.”
While Matakevich and Smith have time to grow, the pair of linebackers have already noticed strengths in the other’s game that they can build upon.
“Tyler has great instincts,” Smith said. “He gets to the ball every single play and I just feed off of that. We make each other better.”
“Nate just goes 100 percent,” Matakevich said. “We definitely feed off each other and make plays but he is always going to make plays. I never even know if he’s doing the right or wrong thing because he is always going 100 miles an hour.”
Matakevich’s and Smith’s instincts led to them anchoring a defense that suffered from inconsistent play last year. While Matakevich and Smith led the team in tackles, they did so on a defense that was often gashed both in the air and on the ground. In 2012, Temple ranked last in the conference in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass defense efficiency, and second-to-last in red-zone defense and opponent third-down conversions.
“Last season didn’t go exactly as planned,” Matakevich said. “We were a young team but that’s no excuse.”
The success that the linebacker duo had last season hasn’t translated into a secured starting position for either player. When the initial depth chart was released, Matakevich was slotted as the starter at the “Will” linebacker position while Smith was buried at third at his position of “Mike” linebacker.
“[Smith] is not running with the ones right now, he has to make a commitment to being physical day in and day out,” coach Matt Rhule said about Smith. “He hasn’t earned the job and he is battling. Nate is resilient and he wants to play, he just needs to play the way we want him to play.”
The two players listed above Smith on the depth chart are seniors Wyatt Benson and Adewole. Benson played fullback last season while Adewole registered 29 tackles to Smith’s 75.
“Everybody has to earn their spot, I don’t care what they did last year,” Snow said. “If they are the best guys then they will start.”
A returning group of core players at the linebacker unit should help solidify the defense that is attempting to have a bounce-back season, Snow said. While the linebacker group was able to remain relatively intact, the safety position is one in which inexperience could be a factor.
After losing both Vaughn Carraway and Justin Gildea in the offseason, the team will be attempting to replace the starting safeties who were the team’s third and fourth leading tacklers. Junior Chris Hutton and senior Abdul Smith are currently listed as the starting safeties and combined for 20 tackles last season. Carraway and Gildea teamed up for 122 stops in 2012.
“We have some experience at each position, the one that we don’t is the safety position,” Snow said. “It is important [to have good linebackers] because the safeties won’t have to have as many tackles because the ball in the run game won’t get to them, so that helps a young safety.”
“The linebackers will be the strength of the defense because of experience and leaders,” Smith said. “We need to be more unified as a defense as a line-backing core. Last year was a little shock because it was so new but we will benefit from experience.”
In a new conference, with a new coach, playing time will be earned, not given, coaches said.
“Everything is earned. If you are looking at what you did last season you aren’t ready for this season,” Rhule said. “I am not going to assume anyone can do something, they have to show it.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.