ALL-AROUND PERFORMER: After sharing District 12-6A's Most Valuable Player award in 2020, versatile Temple running back Samari Howard – shown blocking a punt in the area-round playoff loss to Rockwall-Heath – will return for his senior season with the Wildcats in 2021. Howard rushed for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns, made 24 receptions for 347 yards and six TDs and ran in five 2-point conversions to score 142 total points. Howard and Temple went 7-0 in 12-6A and 10-2 overall, including the Wildcats' first playoff victory as a Class 6A program. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The Temple Wildcats probably will always carry a feeling that their 2020 football season should have – or at least could have – lasted longer. As a general rule, teams who go undefeated in district and win 10 games believe they should advance beyond the second round of the playoffs.
However, District 12-6A champion Temple drew an extremely difficult matchup in the Class 6A Division II area round against high-scoring Rockwall-Heath, whose relentless offensive attack was too much for the Wildcats to contain or match in their 56-28 loss Dec. 18 at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco.
After taking some time away during the holiday break and assessing how Temple's stellar 10-2 season ended, fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart concluded that the Wildcats didn't play to their full potential against Rockwall-Heath and probably needed to do that to have a realistic shot to beat the Hawks, whose outstanding junior quarterback Josh Hoover passed for 446 yards and five touchdowns to highlight a 661-yard, eight-TD overall outburst.
“I don't think it ever comes down to one game. Obviously I think the 'no-duh' statement of the day is we picked a bad night to have a bad night,” Stewart said Tuesday morning before welcoming his players back to campus. “I thought we had opportunities (vs. Rockwall-Heath). I think they're real good. They proved that by beating the No. 7 -ranked team (previously undefeated Cypress Bridgeland by a 48-24 score) the next week.
“They've got the right guys in the right places, and it's just a matchup nightmare – especially when your triggerman is the caliber that guy (Hoover) is mentally. Obviously he's physically gifted, but when a kid understands the offense like a coach does and when a kid understands what the defense is doing like a coach does, if he can spin it, you're going to have problems.”
It's not easy for the fiery Stewart to handle any loss, and he's had three times as many victories (48) as defeats (16) in five playoff seasons of leading Temple's program. He and his staff certainly will take an in-depth look at what the Wildcats could have done better. That would figure to include a thorough examination of what they will need to do better if they get another opportunity against Rockwall-Heath in the playoffs next season, when Hoover and several of his talented weapons will be seniors for head coach Mike Spradlin, Temple's successful head coach from 2011-15.
But Stewart said he witnessed a situation in his pre-Temple past when a team was so hell-bent on avenging a loss from the previous year that it “set the program back five years” when that squad lost again to the same opponent the following season. As such, Stewart said he and the Wildcats won't waste any time or energy talking about a potential playoff rematch with Rockwall-Heath, which reached the Region II final last week before losing 27-24 in overtime to perennial power Cedar Hill.
“What's going to give us a better chance to win that game is what we do today in offseason. I'm never going to circle a date. I couldn't care less if we ever play Rockwall-Heath again,” said Stewart, who was Spradlin's defensive coordinator from 2014-15. “I would love the opportunity to play them again and I will think about that the day that that's confirmed. I'm not going to think about Rockwall-Heath one time between now and next (postseason).”
From Stewart's arrival in Temple in 2014 through the 2017 season, the Wildcats played six opponents in 5A Division I playoff games in consecutive seasons: Corsicana, Houston Stratford, Manvel, Port Arthur Memorial, Richmond Foster and Richmond George Ranch. Temple went 10-2 in those games, including 6-0 in the first meetings. The only rematches the Wildcats lost were against eventual state champion George Ranch in the 2015 Region III final and against eventual state runner-up Manvel in the 2017 Region III final.
Although Temple could dwell on its playoff defeat against Rockwall-Heath, Stewart has tried to break away from that tendency and instead savor the many things the Wildcats achieved in 2020.
Along with its eighth consecutive playoff berth and a fifth district championship in those eight seasons, Temple won its first outright district title since 2015, its first outright league crown in the state's largest classification since 2007 and its first district championship as a 6A program. The Wildcats' 38-0 home victory over bi-district foe Waxahachie on Dec. 11 was their first playoff win as a 6A program, their first postseason victory in the state's largest classification since 2003 and their first playoff shutout since 1993.
In addition, Temple junior running back Samari Howard was voted Co-Most Valuable Player of 12-6A and sophomore middle linebacker Taurean York was selected as Defensive MVP of the district.
The fact that Temple accomplished so many noteworthy things while experiencing the unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic – including no spring practice, the start of the season being delayed four weeks and its rivalry clash with Belton being canceled (the Tigers forfeited) – added another layer to Stewart's pride in the Wildcats' season.
STEADY SUCCESS: Scott Stewart has guided Temple to the playoffs in all five seasons as the Wildcats' head coach, and their District 12-6A championship this season was Temple's first outright league title in the state's largest classification since 2007. The Wildcats won 10 games before their season ended with a 56-28 defeat against Rockwall-Heath in the Class 6A Division II area round. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
“To me, it's about reflection of what you accomplished. I've always by nature been a half-empty guy and I'm trying to get away from that. I'm very proud of these seniors for just the legacy of how to deal with adversity,” Stewart said. “And that's statewide; that's not a Temple thing. These young men and women have had to deal with stuff that you or I never had to worry about, that never was a blip on the radar. To do that and to find a way to stay focused and come away with a couple of gold balls, it's a special group.
“You talk about a murderers' row of who's on the other sideline; it's a murderers' row just to make sure you're out there week in and week out. The way these kids handled those situations . . . to my knowledge, we didn't put ourselves in precarious situations where we'd have to be shut down. I'm just real proud of this group for dealing with those external distractions. Being a teenager in 2020 would be tough enough, but then you throw in a pandemic.”
Senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi was emblematic of Temple's team making the most of its opportunity amidst the uncertainly that 2020 brought. The junior varsity quarterback as a junior, Arizmendi won a close preseason competition with sophomore standout Mikal Harrison-Pilot to become the starting QB.
Arizmendi helped the Wildcats set the tone for their year by throwing four touchdown passes in a statement-making, season-opening 40-13 win over Longview at Arlington's AT&T Stadium, giving Temple some revenge for its 41-10 loss to the host Lobos in the 2019 bi-district playoffs. Blending sharp passing and effective running, Arizmendi threw for 2,102 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 707 yards on his way to earning first-team all-district recognition.
Harrison-Pilot joined him on the first-team all-league squad after moving to receiver and making 38 catches for 502 yards and seven touchdowns, along with rushing for the go-ahead TD late in the Wildcats' 27-24 win at Killeen Shoemaker that clinched Temple's outright district championship.
After the playoff defeat, Arizmendi discussed what it meant to him to be a part of a tight-knit Wildcats team that overcame numerous obstacles to produce a superb season that long will be remembered.
“I'd say the relationships we built and the family that grew (are most important). It was one of the most outstanding things you could ever witness,” Arizmendi said. “Coach Stewart said it was never about winning or losing. It was all about us being a family. Like he said, four months ago we didn't even think we were going to play football, and now look at where we are.”
The Wildcats' balanced, explosive offense of coordinator Josh Sadler compiled 503 yards against Rockwall-Heath and averaged 418.5 yards for the season despite having a first-year varsity player at quarterback and four first-year starters on a line whose two coaches were in their first year at Temple.
Looking ahead to the 2021 season, the strong-armed, elusive Harrison-Pilot is expected to take over as the Wildcats' quarterback, which would be his third starting position in three years; he was a second-team all-district pick at free safety as a freshman in 2019. A prototypical dual-threat QB, the 6-foot, 185-pound Harrison-Pilot already has scholarship offers from Baylor, Houston (where his father, Temple defensive assistant coach Chris Pilot, played football) and Oregon State.
The Wildcats have had five senior starting quarterbacks in Stewart's five seasons as head coach, and the first four – Reid Hesse, TJ Rumfield, Jared Wiley (Texas) and Vance Willis – were district offensive players of the year before Arizmendi contended for that award in 2020.
SAME FACE, NEW PLACE? Temple sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot, shown scoring the go-ahead touchdown run in the Wildcats' 27-24 win at Killeen Shoemaker that clinched the outright District 12-6A championship, was a first-team all-district receiver in 2020 after making 38 catches for 502 yards and seven TDs. The strong-armed, mobile Harrison-Pilot is projected to become Temple's starting quarterback next season, succeeding first-team all-district senior QB Humberto Arizmendi. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Harrison-Pilot gives Temple the prospect of having its first multiple-season starting QB since Hesse started the final 10 games for the 12-2 Wildcats in 2015 and helped lead them a 12-4 record and a berth in the 5A Division I state championship game in 2016. The last time Temple began a season with a non-senior as its starting quarterback was 2013, when then-junior Chad President (now Rockwall-Heath's QBs coach) suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game before he returned to help fuel Temple's 2014 team to a 13-2 record and a trip to the 5A D-I state title game.
Stewart said he believes Harrison-Pilot will develop and flourish after getting to go through a full offseason in Temple's quarterback training program. However, Harrison-Pilot's all-out playing style and willingness to absorb hard hits means that the Wildcats also will need to prepare a viable backup QB. Senior-to-be Kaleb Hill and incoming sophomore Damarion Willis are among the options.
With productive wide receivers AJ McDuffy (Texas Southern) and Luke Allen graduating and Harrison-Pilot switching to quarterback, small-but-speedy incoming senior Tr'Darius Taylor (18 receptions, 345 yards, four touchdowns) and senior-to-be Michael Heckstall will be counted on to lead the receiving corps next season. Expect incoming senior tight end Ke'Andre Smith to play a larger role in the passing game.
Temple cobbled together a surprisingly effective offensive line this season, with excellent chemistry making up for its relative lack of size and standouts. Senior-to-be tackle Colby Rice will be the only returning starter, but Stewart thinks the Wildcats have several younger linemen who will make an impact.
The most dangerous weapon Temple's offense will have in its arsenal in 2021 is Howard, who shared 12-6A's MVP award with versatile Shoemaker senior and Baylor signee Monaray Baldwin. Simultaneously a long-distance threat and a durable workhorse, the do-it-all Howard dominated in his second varsity season. He rushed for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns, caught 24 passes for 347 yards and six TDs and scored five 2-point conversions for 142 total points, along with aptly handling various other duties as assigned.
“He returns punts, he returns kicks, he blocks punts, he holds (on kicks), he plays plays receiver, he plays quarterback and he plays running back,” Stewart said of Howard, 12-6A's Offensive Newcomer of the Year in 2019 after rushing for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns as a running back and fill-in QB.
Stewart said he hopes incoming senior Jalen Robinson (209 rushing yards, three TDs) will form a potent 1-2 punch with Howard next season to lighten Howard's workload by at least a small amount. The coach added that sophomore-to-be running back Jer'vonnie Williams is an intriguing prospect.
As for defense of coordinator Dexter Knox, Temple entered its second-round clash with Rockwall-Heath allowing only 263 yards per game and had permitted a combined six points in its previous two games, including the first-round shutout of Waxahachie, which produced just 152 yards. Temple's defenders shut out several teams for entire halves, including Longview, Magnolia West, Copperas Cove, Bryan and Killeen.
So, what happened to the Wildcats' previously stingy defense against Rockwall-Heath? Well, Rockwall-Heath happened. The same prolific, fast-paced offense that Spradlin used to rack up incredible amounts of yards and points in his five seasons at Temple proved to be the ultimate downfall for this season's Wildcats, who allowed 11 more points against the Hawks than they did in their preceding four games combined (45).
Rockwall-Heath rushed for 215 yards despite losing star junior running back Zach Evans to a first-half knee injury (rugged senior Preston Landis rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns), and Hoover's 25 completed passes – with no interceptions in 33 attempts – averaged 17.8 yards as Temple's usually active couldn't disrupt Hoover's well-timed intermediate throws or his long-range bombs to fleet-footed juniors Jay Fair and Jordan Nabors.
“I don't think we 'busted' any coverages. Obviously you want to put a premium on technique, which we always talk about. I don't how to do anything different. The plan works,” Stewart explained about the defensive strategy against Rockwall-Heath. “I think the big deal – and probably what Mike Spradlin would tell you, too – is when you don't match up well (defensively) on the edges, that's the first thing they look at: 'What does that matchup look like?' Because then that quarterback post-snap can tell you where the help's coming from, who has help, who doesn't.
“We even tried to roll (coverage) the other way, and he was just going to where we weren't rolling. That's a 1-on-1 matchup, and if you can't consistently cover guys who are probably better than you are at a specific position (it's difficult to contain the offense). Because if you want to max-load it, they're also good enough to run the football. They're huge up front and they're well-coached. I mean, that's what that offense does. That's why we run it. You have to match up well. We knew that going in.”
Stewart also lamented the fact that Temple defenders were unable to intercept a couple of early Hoover passes, preventing turnovers that could have given the Wildcats much-needed momentum.
“First drive, we put our hands on two passes. When a kid of that caliber makes a mistake, you've got to come way with it, and we just didn't catch the ball. And I don't think we touched another ball for the rest of the night,” he said. “You're not going to beat somebody that good if you don't make them pay for their mistakes.”
Since Temple rose from 5A to 6A in 2018, its defense hasn't been able to withstand the explosive, well-rounded attacks of the teams who have eliminated the Wildcats. In its 6A playoff losses (45-38 vs. Mesquite Horn in 2018, 41-10 at Longview in 2019 and then Rockwall-Heath), Temple has allowed 20 touchdowns and per-game averages of 47.3 points and 602.7 yards (322.7 passing, 280 rushing).
While Temple's offense will graduate seven starters, its defense projects to have seven starters coming back along with versatile senior-to-be Johnny Donoso, who can play any safety or linebacker position as needed.
It's rare for the Wildcats to graduate both starting cornerbacks at once, but they'll need to replace first-team all-district performer Keon Williams and Carlton Mack. Stewart said seniors-to-be Tristan Cohorn and Jalen Wardale are the leading contenders to start at cornerback next season.
Temple also must replace two playmaking senior linemen in first-team all-district nose tackle Jayven Taylor (66 tackles, 15 for loss) and second-team all-league tackle Cody Little (35 tackles, 4½ sacks). Jaylon Jackson likely will rise into a starting role after playing well as a sophomore, and coaches think sophomore-to-be Ayden Brown has the ability to contend for a starting job at the other tackle spot.
HUNGRY FOR MORE: Sophomore linebacker Taurean York (left) and junior ends Eric Shorter (13) and Tommy Torres will return for Temple's defense next season. York was voted District 12-6A's Defensive Most Valuable Player after making a team-high 94 tackles as a 15-year-old. Shorter (65 tackles, 14 for loss, 5.5 sacks) was a first-team all-district pick, and Torres (37 tackles, 4.5 sacks) was a second-team all-league pick. Temple's defense shut out Waxahachie in a bi-district playoff game but allowed 56 points and 661 yards a week later against area-round opponent Rockwall-Heath. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Otherwise, the Wildcats' defense should return intact. The precocious York (94 tackles) led Temple in stops for the second straight year and earned 12-6A's Defensive MVP honor as a 15-year-old. Stewart said York made a huge jump this season in terms of understanding how the entire defense operates.
The Wildcats are in excellent shape at defensive end as feisty first-team all-district performer Eric Shorter (65 tackles, 14 for loss, 5½ sacks) and second-team all-league pick Tommy Torres (37 tackles, 4½ sacks) – an emerging, imposing force at 6-5, 255 pounds – will be back for more as seniors.
Temple also expects big things next season from four other incoming seniors: first-team all-district free safety O'Tarian Peoples, second-team all-league safety Jaden Jackson (48 tackles), second-team all-district outside linebacker/strong safety Marshall Grays (37 tackles, team-high three interceptions) and linebacker Faylin Lee (42 tackles, two interceptions).
On special teams, Temple's top kicker in 2021 will be someone other than four-year starter Aaron Wagaman for the first time since 2016. The left-footed Wagaman, a two-time first-team all-district pick, scored 67 points as a senior and fell 10 points short of breaking Lache Seastrunk's Temple career record of 312. Wagaman also handled punts and kickoffs in 2020. Incoming senior Danis Bajric likely will take over Wagaman's duties, while Tr'Darius Taylor and Howard again will be dangerous on kick returns.
Temple's program clearly is in a good place and on the upswing, with a slew of talented and productive players primed to add to its success next season. Improving whatever weak spots the Wildcats have identified will be vital, because Stewart has penciled in a state-powerhouse opponent for the 2021 season opener at Wildcat Stadium: Austin Westlake.
The Chaparrals of veteran head coach Todd Dodge won the 6A Division II state championship in 2019, and on Saturday third-ranked Westlake (13-0) defeated No. 1-ranked and two-time defending 6A Division I state champion Galena Park North Shore 24-21 in a state semifinal.
And one more thing: Temple very well might have to get past Rockwall-Heath and Spradlin's relentless offense in an area-round rematch to advance farther in the playoffs than the Wildcats did in their special 2020 season. It certainly won't be easy, but then again, nothing in 6A Region II football is.
“The message they're fixing to hear is, 'Congratulations on a good season.' We're going to wrap that up and recap it,” Stewart said before he addressed his team Tuesday. “We have to find an inch. Nobody's going to turn their nose up at 10 wins, but I didn't come to Temple for 10 wins. You come to a place like this to hopefully at some point be a perennial four, five, six rounds (deep in the playoffs as a program). So we've got to find that inch. We're not far off.
“And this is the hard part. I've said it from the day I got the job: Going from bad to good is easy. Going from good to great is a little bit harder. Going from great to elite . . . that's one of the toughest things. It's about inches. Why are we willing to play Westlake? Because that's a representation of what the best in the country looks like. So I want to know what it feels like, what it smells like and what it tastes like. And I want these kids to know that."
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