Rhule expects special teams improvement

The unit returns both starting kickers and features a top-ranked coverage team.

Senior Paul Layton punts during Temple’s Oct. 19 win against Army. | AJA ESPINOSA TTN
Senior Paul Layton punts during Temple’s Oct. 19 win against Army. | AJA ESPINOSA TTN

For Temple’s young players, finding playing time on a team that is returning double-digit starters will be a tough task. Coach Matt Rhule said special teams is a place where they can make their names known.

“I think we have created a mentality on our kick-off team that guys want to be on it,” Rhule said. “For the younger guys, that is your first real chance to get on the field and show what you can do. If you go down there on kickoff and you make a couple tackles, I can guarantee you will get more of a look on offense or defense.”

In 2014, the the Owls ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with three blocked punts and eighth in the FBS with five blocked kicks.

Temple’s special teamers were also able to help win the field position battle for the team. The kickoff team allowed 19 yards per return and the punt coverage unit allowed three yards per return,  the fifth fewest in the FBS.

With players such as redshirt-junior Avery Williams, the team’s starting strongside linebacker, pitching in, Rhule said finding a spot on special teams is something his team is taking pride in.

“We have a lot of guys that understand the importance of [special teams],” Rhule said. “They see how it impacts the game and they want to win, so they will do whatever.”

The Owls’ kicking and punting duties were handled by a pair of freshmen in 2014. Alex Starzyk won the punting job last year in camp, while Austin Jones kicked field goals for the team.

Starzyk had an average of 38.41 yards on his punts last season, while tallying seven punts of 50 or more yards.

Jones ranked 102nd in the FBS with a 59.1 field goal percentage. His 13 field goals made were 10 more than the team converted during the 2013 season.

Rhule said he was impressed with his place kicker’s mental approach during an up-and-down freshman campaign.

“He showed early on that he has the moxie to do it,” Rhule said. “The thing he never did was he never made excuses.”

The return game featured a returner-by-committee approach last year.

Ten different players, including junior running back Jahad Thomas, redshirt-senior wide receiver John Christopher and redshirt-junior defensive back Nate L. Smith, returned punts or kicks.

The Owls’ punt returners totaled three touchdowns last season and the kick return team ranked 90th in the FBS, as it averaged less than 20 yards per return. Thomas was the team’s top kicker returner with 332 kick return yards.

Rhule said he is looking for more production from the return game this season.

“In our mind, we don’t have a kickoff returner and we don’t have a punt returner,” Rhule said. “We rotated guys at punt return last year and kick return last year. That hasn’t be dynamic enough for us … we can really improve our return games … those are areas where we really have to make a step.”

Freshman Cortrelle Simpson, a wide receiver from Lackey High School in Indian Head, Maryland, is an option for Rhule at the return position. Simpson accumulated 827 return yards last year for the Cougars.

“[Simpson] came early for summer school,” Rhule said. “He has been out there catching punts.”

Owen McCue can be reached at owen.mccue@temple.edu  or on Twitter @Owen_McCue

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