Despite having no starts at tailback in his career, junior Kenneth Harper has been participating in offseason workouts as the top running back on the depth chart, a position that was previously occupied by the Big East Conference’s leading rusher in 2012 and a future third-round NFL draft pick in 2011.
Harper said he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody outside the organization in assuming the role as the starter.
His coach would disagree.
“I think my guys do have something to prove this year,” running backs coach Tyree Foreman said. “I think they have a chip on their shoulder to prove they are worthy of being a Temple running back. There’s big shoes to fill.”
While Harper enters the season ahead of No. 2 option sophomore Jamie Gilmore, neither of the pair, nor the other four running backs on the roster have a collegiate start at tailback. Harper is the only one to have started a game at any position, getting three starts at fullback last season.
Among returning backs, Gilmore was the leading rusher last season. He rushed for 99 yards on 20 carries while Harper rushed for 68 yards on 13 carries. The group will be tasked with replacing Montel Harris and Matt Brown. Harris, tallied 1,087 yards on the ground with 186 attempts while Brown, who suffered lingering ankle issues all year, rushed for 385 yards on 60 carries and finished his career fourth on the team’s all-time rushing list.
“Those are two players that are hard to replace,” Foreman said. “We need to step it up and make sure we had the production that those two guys had. We led the league last year in rushing, so we have big shoes to fill.”
The Owls enter the season without a premier back for the first time in four years. Brown and Harris followed up a season in which Bernard Pierce re-wrote the record book before heading to the NFL.
“I don’t need to prove anything to anybody outside these gates,” Harper said. “The coaches have faith in me and know that I can produce on the field. That’s all that matters is the coaches and the team. I don’t worry about outsiders and who thinks this and who thinks that. It’s me and the team that’s on the field, not [the fans].”
The transition into a new crop of running backs coincides with the hiring of coach Matt Rhule. Under his leadership the team is transitioning from a run-heavy offense under former coach Steve Addazio, to a spread offense that features more passing under Rhule.
“Hopefully it is going to give us more open looks to run and we won’t face overloaded fronts as much,” Foreman said. “Being balanced makes the defense defend the whole field. We aren’t going to run as much as we did, but if we get to a game where we have to run it, I’m sure those guys will be ready to do it.”
While the run-heavy attack led to Temple finishing second in the conference in rushing, the team was last in the Big East in passing offense and second-to-last in passing efficiency. Without a threat through the air, teams were able to put most of the focus on stopping the run. This led to teams baiting Temple to run at the strength of the defense or beat them through the air. Temple proved it couldn’t do the latter.
Despite teams overloading the line of scrimmage, Harris led the conference in rushing. Quarterback Chris Coyer finished last among qualifying Big East quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
“Last year we were running the ball and teams knew that’s what we were going to do so they put seven or eight guys in the box,” Gilmore said. “Hopefully it is a little easier for us this year.”
“When you have a great one like Bernard Pierce they can put eight in the box and he can come out and stiff arm the eighth guy,” Rhule said. “Now you are talking about an opportunity where the defense needs to defend the whole field, the tailback becomes one of the five ball carriers as opposed to the [only] ball carrier.”
The coaches and players reached a consensus that simply earning the starting job wouldn’t be enough, and that being the team’s running back comes with a level of responsibility and expected production.
“I just need to do as the previous running backs did and keep the tradition going,” Harper said. “Temple has a good tradition of running backs and I need to carry the tradition.”
“What has to happen is that you have to replace [Pierce, Harris and Brown] at the same level and the same caliber,” Rhule said. “It’s not about being the starter, it’s about being as good as Bernard or Montel or Matt was. We are challenging everyone to find that kind of a runner.”
With the Cherry and White scrimmage scheduled for this Saturday, April 20, Gilmore said that the running back group not having a prominent starter doesn’t bother him. Not yet, at least.
“Even if they don’t know me they will know me after the spring game. That’s what I want.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.