Rhule now proven as a player’s coach

If spring practice proved anything, it’s that players love their new head coach.

It was either a genuine feeling among players or some of the finest public relations work by Temple in recent memory.

After the football team’s annual Cherry & White scrimmage on Saturday, April 20, in which the White squad pulled out an anti-climactic 34-28 win, Temple players filed into the media room at Edberg-Olson Hall and were barraged with a standard series of post-spring practice questions.

One by one, they were asked about the team’s make-up, the recent coaching change and what we can expect in the 2013 season. One by one, players stood at the podium, smiled politely and couldn’t stop talking about how happy they are with everything.

We’ve seen players give answers about a “team-first mentality” before, and we’re far too familiar with coach speak. But on Saturday, there was something unifying about the responses that made it clear this wasn’t a team putting up a front.

When asked specific questions, players gave specific answers: They’re happy, they had more fun this spring than they did all of last season and they love their new coach.

Redshirt junior quarterback Connor Reilly certainly had a reason to be in high spirits Saturday. After being buried on the depth chart for two years, he earned the role of starter three weeks into spring practice. In the Cherry & White scrimmage, Reilly passed for 366 yards and four touchdowns.

When asked if the scrimmage was a difficult atmosphere for him to play in – with it being the closest he’s come to a collegiate start to date – Reilly said the biggest challenge was adjusting to the lack of music playing over Chodoff Field.

“I think the one big thing that threw us off was there was no music today,” Reilly said. “We’ve been practicing with music all spring.”

That’s the kind of spring it’s been for a team that has taken on a new attitude under coach Matt Rhule, who at 38 years old is the eighth-youngest coach in the country. Rhule’s up-tempo coaching style, where practices are fast-paced and the offense runs no huddle, has been well received among players who slugged along in former coach Steve Addazio’s incorrigibly run-heavy offense for the past two seasons.

Last year, the Owls were an uptight, closed-mouth group. The loudest sound that could be heard at practice was Addazio’s voice berating yet another offensive lineman. This spring at practice, the Owls are blaring rap music and rehearsing intricate touchdown celebrations. Videos of Rhule doing the “Cupid Shuffle” on Liacouras Walk at Spring Fling and the team participating in “Staff Olympics” were released on YouTube.

“Coach Addazio is a fiery guy. He seems like his general disposition is loud and aggressive,” redshirt-senior quarterback Chris Coyer said. “Coach Rhule can be more relaxed. He likes to joke around a little bit when it’s time to joke around.”

Coyer’s endorsement of Rhule’s style might come as the biggest surprise, as he’s one of the guys who’s had the most to lose in the spring. Coyer moved from quarterback to a tight end/H-back position after Reilly took his job. Coyer doesn’t fit as well into Rhule’s new pro-spread style of offense, which demands the quarterback to be more of a pocket passer.

But maybe a testament to his will to play for his new coach, Coyer has taken to the tight end position. He caught three passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns – including a 65-yard touchdown from Reilly – in the Cherry & White game.

“I’m having fun. I’m just trying to get out there and make plays,” Coyer said. “I’m being an athlete. I’m having a good time out there.”

Rhule’s pass-heavy offense, which puts an emphasis on playmaking, has been met with universal acclaim from the wide receiving corps, an inexperienced group that didn’t catch many balls in Addazio’s run-at-all-cost offense last year.

Khalif Herbin, a sophomore used at wide receiver and on kick returns, caught four balls for 71 yards and a touchdown in the Cherry & White game. Herbin caught only one pass during all of last season.

When asked if he preferred Rhule’s offense to Addazio’s, Herbin said “it’s not even close.”

“I’m [5 foot, 7 inches]170 pounds and [Addazio] put me into the game to block,” Herbin said. “Like I’m going to do that well.”

He added about the spring game: “It was very exciting. I really enjoyed my teammates pushing me and edging me on to do better. I felt like myself for the first time in a long time.”

Herbin’s breakout performance came in front of a crowd of more than 3,500 that included more former players than any other scrimmage game in recent memory. Former Owls turned NFL players Bernard Pierce, Evan Rodriguez, Raheem Brock and Steve Maneri were all in attendance, among many others.

Rhule, who recruited players old and new during his six-year tenure at Temple from 2006-11, detracted any notion that his popularity has led to an influx of enthusiasm to the team.

“I don’t think it’s about me,” Rhule said. “I think it’s about Temple and Temple football. I think there’s real pride in the program from guys in all eras.”

After Herbin’s 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter, former running back Matt Brown took over the announcer’s microphone and yelled, “OK, Leaf Buck! OK!”

At Chodoff Field, with the team under Rhule, it didn’t seem that out of the ordinary.

Joey Cranney can be reached at joseph.cranney@temple.edu or on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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