Temple University football players and coaches reported to the Owls’ practice facility on Thursday for the start of preseason camp.
The American Athletic Conference preseason media poll projects the Owls to finish third in the East Division for the second year in a row. Temple, however, has New Year’s Six bowl aspirations.
The Owls finished with a 7-6 record last season and ended their first year under Coach Geoff Collins with a victory against Florida International University in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl on Dec. 21.
Here’s what’s happening at the start of the 2018 season.
Offensive Coordinator Dave Patenaude expects a big jump in production
Last season, Temple started with a 2-3 record. Temple’s offense scored more than 20 points only once in its first five games, a 29-21 victory against the University of Massachusetts on Sept. 15.
This season, Patenaude said he expects the offense to take a huge step up.
“Going into the second year of any offensive system, you always see big advancement,” Patenaude said. “Players understand more of the scheme. We can run more plays since everyone is coming into the season knowing what to expect. I’ve seen the most improvement from year one to two everywhere I’ve been.”
“You will be able to see a lot more versatility with receivers helping in the run game, getting the running backs out of the backfield to play more in the slot, moving the tight ends more because now everybody understands more,” Patenaude added. “Now we aren’t teaching the ‘what’ anymore. We are teaching the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the offense.”
Graduate student quarterback Frank Nutile believes the last six games of 2017 helped the Owls become more comfortable heading into the second year of Patenaude calling plays.
“Last year, I was able to gel with the offensive line,” Nutile said. “We have [senior running back] Ryquell Armstead, [graduate student wide receiver] Ventell Bryant, different receivers and a bunch of new guys. So my experience from those games last year, I can really carry over into this year to help the new starters out.”
Armstead and Bryant are 100 percent healthy for camp
Armstead and Bryant had to consistently battle injuries last season. Armstead played in all 13 games, while Bryant suited up for 10. Although they dressed for a majority of the season, their injuries still affected their performance on the field.
Armstead, the Owls’ second-leading rusher in each of the past two seasons, gained 604 yards in 2017, more than 300 yards less than his sophomore total. Bryant saw his reception total nearly cut in half last season with 29 receptions for 280 yards, compared to a team-high 54 catches for 895 yards in 2016.
It took a lot of preparation week to week for Armstead to be ready to play each week. Armstead said he spent most of his week getting extra treatment and rest to ensure he’d be ready to play.
“We were always walking the fine line of, ‘Is [Armstead] good to go, or are we only going to further injure him?’” Patenaude said. “What Ryquell really needed was a couple-week period where he just sat down and did nothing but rest up. But, we didn’t have the depth where we felt comfortable in putting him on the shelf for a few weeks.”
Armstead primarily shared carries last season with David Hood, who opted not to return for his final season at a doctor’s recommendation. The senior is ready for his last preseason.
“I feel good,” Armstead said. “I’m just super excited for camp to start.”
Patenaude said it’s important that Armstead and Bryant are fully healthy for the start of camp.
Bryant will be looked at as one of the top options to fill a production void left by graduates Keith Kirkwood and Adonis Jennings at the receiver position.
Kirkwood, who signed as an undrafted rookie with the New Orleans Saints, and Jennings, who signed with the Green Bay Packers, each caught seven touchdowns for Temple last season.
“It is critical for Ventell to come in and have a healthy camp,” Patenaude said. “He wasn’t really healthy going through camp last year, so he never truly got on track to start the season. And, with Keith and Adonis playing so well, he never got his chance to fully step in and produce at a high level.”
“Ventell has had unbelievable winter workouts, spring ball and summer workouts,” Nutile said. “He came in and is becoming a great leader and teacher to the young players. Everything he has done over the last six to nine months has really set him up to have a huge year.”
Kareem Ali’s career ends due to injuries
Collins said former defensive back Kareem Ali is no longer on the team because of injury concerns. Ali will work with the athletic department this year to stay involved in the program, Collins said.
“We all love Kareem as a person and as a teammate,” Collins said. “But unfortunately, after having talks with him, his family and the training staff, we feel like it’s best if he doesn’t play anymore.”
Ali did not play in 2017 and only played five games in his career. He joined Temple in 2015 after his career at Timber Creek Regional High School in South Jersey. Ali, whose parents were Temple athletes in the 1990s, was ranked as a four-star recruit out of high school by Rivals.com.
Coaches believe the roster has ‘elite depth’
An NCAA rule change before this season increased the maximum number of players a school could have during preseason camp from 105 to 110.
With more players, a common theme in Collins’, Patenaude’s and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s press conferences Thursday was the depth on the roster this season.
If a player were to get into the same injury situation as Armstead this year, the coaching staff might be willing to rest them for an extended period of time, Patenaude said.
Last season, the Owls had five players with more than 15 receptions. This season, Patenaude believes he has “six to seven” wide receivers who can contribute to the offense. Patenaude said there’s a possibility of being able to line up in four-receiver sets to spread out the opposing defense, which was a luxury Temple did not have last season.
Patenaude said if Temple had two to three running backs they felt comfortable starting, the Owls would have rested Armstead last year. After redshirt junior Jager Gardner suffered a season-ending knee injury in September, the Owls’ running back depth decreased.
Collins said the running back situation was “scary” last season, but he is more comfortable this year with seven tailbacks entering this year’s camp.
“We went through the entire season last year with only two scholarship running backs,” Collins said. “At times, it was a little dicey. Each of the running backs we have this year all are a little different and brings a different style of game, which is hard to defend.”
Gardner, redshirt sophomore Tyliek Raynor and redshirt freshman Jeremy Jennings are players the coaching staff is excited to see this camp, Collins said.
Raynor has battled the injury bug since coming to Temple but is now finally healthy for the start of camp, Collins said. As a walk-on, Jennings caught Collins’ eye the week the Owls played Central Florida last November. Collins said Jennings did a great job of mimicking the Knights’ speed in practice as Temple prepared to face Central Florida and showed he could be a productive running back.
Collins added that his team has great depth at linebacker. Temple is returning all of its starting linebackers from last season. 2017 leading tackler junior Shaun Bradley, junior Sam Franklin and redshirt junior Chapelle Russell will return as second-year starters.
“I think by the end of [last] year, our linebacker core was one of the best in the conference,” Collins said. “I think going into this year, it might be the best in our conference. And I would argue that it is one of the best in the country depth-wise.”
Temple will have 23 practices before its season opener at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 1 against Villanova.