Chapelle Russell dropped into the flat and saw the dump off pass developing in front of him.
As redshirt-freshman wide receiver Travon Williams eyed the ball coming his way in Saturday’s Cherry and White game at Chodoff Field, Russell patiently loaded himself, waiting to spring.
After Williams secured the catch, he was met with a thundering hit from the redshirt-freshman linebacker.
“I was just hungry to make plays all day,” Russell said. “I was just waiting, waiting for my chance. … I just tried to make a good play.”
Russell is one of Temple’s young defenders hoping to fill the void left by NFL hopefuls including linebacker Tyler Matakevich, defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis, defensive back Tavon Young and others.
The absences of defensive back prospect Young and safeties Will Hayes and Alex Wells were evident on Saturday when redshirt sophomore Derrek Thomas, who converted from wide receiver to cornerback in December, totaled 2.5 tackles while taking snaps with the first team.
With junior defensive back Sean Chandler, who usually plays corner, spending time at safety with sophomore Delvon Randall, Thomas and redshirt senior Nate Hairston filled the position for the Owls.
“We’re working well together,” Hairston said of the secondary. “We may need to communicate a little more, but overall, we look good together.”
During the past two seasons, Temple’s defense has ranked in the Top 25 of Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense and scoring defense.
Despite the loss of Matakevich, the linebacking corps retains veterans Avery Williams, Stephaun Marshall and Jarred Alwan, who all had more than 40 tackles last season. Williams had one tackle, Marshall had one sack and Alwan had three tackles on Saturday.
“The other day I was in a meeting with coach Rhule,” Russell said. “The entire time he was preaching to us, ‘Tyler’s gone. Matt Ioannidis, Tavon those guys are gone,’ but he wants us to be better. They set a mark for us but we have to upstand that. We have to go bigger, better, make more plays.”
From senior quarterback P.J. Walker’s perspective, the speed some of the new defenders could create a match-up advantage.
“There’s a lot of speed out there,” Walker said. “There’s a lot more speed and the same amount of physicality.”
Russell said the Owls had trouble keeping pace with Houston’s offense in a 24-13 loss in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Cougars’ quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. ran for 148 yards in the game, including a 47-yard touchdown run.
“I think that was the biggest problem with our defense, we just lacked speed in areas that we needed,” Russell said. “If we had guys whose [40-yard dash times] are a little faster or accelerated a little faster, there’s plays that could have been stopped for four yards that went for 65.”
Without the leadership of Matakevich, Young and Ioannidis, Rhule has observed several individuals already guiding the new group of talent.
Williams, Marshall, Alwan, Chandler, senior defensive lineman Averee Robinson and redshirt-senior defensive lineman Avery Ellis have quickly taken the role.
“There’s a bunch of guys capable of leading by example,” Rhule said. “And now they’re starting to get to the point where they’re starting to talk to other guys.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.