Four years ago, Matt Rhule took over Temple’s football program and had to convince a group of high school seniors to take a leap of faith in him and become his first recruiting class.
The Owls were coming off a 4-7 season and Rhule had never been the head coach of a college team before. He signed 21 recruits from the Class of 2013, which Rivals.com ranked No. 84 in the country. Not one player was rated better than a 3-star recruit.
The group’s 27 victories during the past four seasons are the ninth most wins by a senior class in program history, including a 19-7 record over the past two seasons.
The seniors will play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history and compete for a conference championship for the second year in a row when they take on Navy on Saturday. They can move into third all-time with wins in the conference championship and bowl game.
“For the guys who came in here with coach Rhule, it’s very special to us because this is exactly what he said would happen,” senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said. “We just had to trust and believe.”
“He told me, it would be a rough start, but at some point we will be good,” senior quarterback Phillip Walker said. “I trusted him and what he said.”
Of the 21 players Rhule signed in 2013, five played their last home games on Saturday in Temple’s 37-10 win against East Carolina.
That group includes quarterback Walker, Dawkins and running back Jahad Thomas, who all came to Temple as 2-star recruits.
Now, Walker is the most decorated quarterback in program history—he became the first Temple quarterback to pass for more than 10,000 career yards on Saturday.
Thomas is one of the most versatile players in the Football Bowl Subdivision with at least two total receiving or rushing touchdowns in nine games this year, and Dawkins is a likely selection in next June’s NFL Draft.
“Everything in our program is about player development,” Rhule said after Saturday’s win. “We’re trying to get them to be the best student that they can be, the best man that they can be and the best player that they can be. … You see guys go from walk-ons or no-star recruits to guys that are going to play in the NFL. That’s just the whole point of the program is to just develop every guy.”
Aside from the familiar names, there are other players from the 2013 recruiting class who have played a role in the best two-year stretch in Temple history.
Playing in the shadow of former All-American Tyler Matakevich for three years, linebacker Jarred Alwan has put together a solid career in his own right, totaling 149 tackles in 48 career games.
Defensive lineman Averee Robinson has been a staple of Temple’s defensive line, nicknamed the ‘Wild Boys,’ for the past two seasons. He has 10 tackles for loss over the past two years, including three sacks this season.
This year’s senior class also includes the redshirt-seniors like linebacker Avery Williams and defensive lineman Haason Reddick who bought into Rhule’s process and progressed each year throughout their careers.
This senior class went 2-10 in its first year with Rhule, then 6-6 the next season before going 10-4 last year. Winning the American Athletic Conference Championship would be the next step for this group.
“The progress we’ve made as a team is having the will to not lose,” Walker said. “We knew it would take everybody on our team and every coach to play for one another. We knew what was at stake and we played for one another.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.