WILDCATS BEGIN AGAIN: After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled their four weeks of spring football practice, fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart and the Temple Wildcats are ready to start fall practice Monday morning. Temple, seeking its eighth straight playoff appearance, begins its regular season Sept. 25 against state-ranked Longview at Arlington's AT&T Stadium. The Wildcats' home opener is Oct. 9 against Arlington Martin at 7 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
If there was one year when Temple really needed to have a full four-week session of spring football practices, 2020 was it.
As the Wildcats seek their eighth straight playoff berth, they're trying to prepare a first-year starting quarterback. They'll have four new starters on the offensive line along with several receivers who lack varsity experience. Their defense includes a slew of young players who were pressed into action last season, plus several inexperienced newcomers.
But even though fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart certainly wanted and greatly could have used an extended on-field look at the players who will make up Temple's 2020 team, the COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas, which included a complete cancelation of spring football action.
So as the Wildcats get ready to begin fall practice Monday morning in advance of their Sept. 25 season opener against Longview, Stewart is hungry to make up for lost time as he tries to build the best team possible.
“Spring ball would've been huge. The thing I told the kids the other day was, 'Guys, I haven't seen any of you play football since November.' So losing spring ball this year for us was critical,” said Stewart, who has a 38-14 record and four playoff appearances with the Wildcats. “I can't in good conscience fill out a varsity roster (right now). Our varsity roster will be set on September 19 after the (Sept. 17) College Station scrimmage."
Temple will practice in helmets, practice jerseys and shorts Monday and Tuesday, then add shoulder pads Wednesday through Friday before the Wildcats get into full pads for the first time Saturday. Their only scrimmage is against familiar opponent College Station on Thursday, Sept. 17 at Wildcat Stadium.
Temple's season opener is against Longview – ranked No. 3 in Class 5A Division I by Texas Football magazine – on Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It will be the Wildcats' second consecutive game against the powerful Lobos, who beat them 41-10 last November in a 6A Division II bi-district playoff game in Longview.
After a game at Magnolia West on Oct. 2, Temple will play its home opener against 6A No. 11-ranked Arlington Martin at 7 p.m. on Oct. 9. After sharing last year's District 12-6A championship with nemesis Waco Midway, the Wildcats' 12-6A opener this year comes Oct. 16 at Copperas Cove, followed by their district home opener Oct. 23 against Bryan.
Incoming junior running back Samari Howard was the 12-6A Offensive Newcomer of the Year after rushing for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns and also performing spot duty at quarterback, and linebacker Taurean York shared 12-6A's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award after starting every game and leading the 8-3 Wildcats with 80 tackles.
Temple's top returning seniors include wide receivers A.J. McDuffy (22 receptions, 364 yards, six touchdowns) and Luke Allen, offensive tackle Alex Rodriguez, defensive linemen Jayven Taylor (66 tackles, four sacks) and Cody Little, cornerback Keon Williams and kicker Aaron Wagaman, entering his fourth season as the starter. Junior tackle Colby Rice has the most experience among the other offensive linemen.
Devan Williams was projected to start at cornerback as a junior but moved away, giving sophomore cornerback Triston Cohorn – a converted running back – an opportunity to compete for a starting job. Starting defensive lineman Isaiah Fach suffered a season-ending knee injury halfway through his junior season, and Stewart said Wednesday he wasn't expecting Fach, also a standout baseball player, to play football as a senior.
Defensive end Eric Shorter was a second-team all-district selection last year as a sophomore, but Stewart said it's unclear if Shorter will be eligible for varsity play this season after he moved out of Temple ISD and then returned.
Plenty of eyes will be on Temple sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot, who was a second-team all-district safety last season (46 tackles, one interception) after starting all 11 games as a freshman but likely will move to the other side of the ball this season. After the graduation of 12-6A Offensive Player of the Year Vance Willis, the 6-foot, 180-pound Harrison-Pilot – son of Temple linebackers coach Chris Pilot – is vying to become the Wildcats' starting quarterback.
Although Stewart likes the prospect of talented athlete Harrison-Pilot becoming a rare three-year starting quarterback, he realizes that Temple's offense has produced success with a different starting QB (Reid Hesse, T.J. Rumfield, Jared Wiley, Willis) in each of Stewart's four years at the helm.
“It absolutely does (sound appealing),” Stewart said of Harrison-Pilot potentially starting three seasons at quarterback. “The other side of that coin is that the last four (Temple senior starting QBs) have been the (district) offensive MVP. It's worked for what we've done. We've just got to see how this plays out. What I do love the most is that there's competition.”
That competition comes in the form of senior Humberto Arizmendi, a junior varsity quarterback last season who's a skilled passer. Although Harrison-Pilot is a true dual-threat QB whose running ability will challenge defenses, Temple's coaching staff is giving Arizmendi an opportunity to prove he deserves playing time.
“Mikal brings things to the table that Humberto doesn't, and Humberto brings stuff (also) and he can absolutely spin it. It changes the style (of the offense) and you probably have a different mentality when he's in there, but that's not good or bad,” Stewart said. “The learning curve for Mikal is going to be what the tell-tale is. Obviously his leg threat (is important). He ran a 22(-second) 200 (meters) as a freshman, and we only had two track meets.
“He can flat-out go and he can throw the ball a country mile. He's starting to hit those windows. We do some sort of 7-on-7 every day, and he's going to need a thousand reps. He's very intelligent, and so is Humberto. Both kids are very savvy. They're the same style with passing. I might give Humberto the edge a little bit just because that's his wheelhouse, and then obviously Mikal (has the advantage) with the run threat.”
Stewart is excited about the potential of junior receiver Michael Heckstall, younger brother of former Temple standout receiver D'Yonte Heckstall, who helped lead the Wildcats to the 5A Division I state championship game in 2016. Stewart said Temple has a large group of slot receivers contending for playing time, including 6-3 senior Dylan Hinkle and Jonah Walker, who moved in from Killeen.
“We've got six, maybe seven slot receivers who are really close to each other, and I'm not carrying six slots on our varsity football team,” Stewart said. “We've got a bunch of the same kid. What they're all good at is catching the ball and running routes. I told them, 'I want to see you go block a 6-foot-2 safety that doesn't want to be blocked. Who's going to pour their guts into that? That's what's going to get you on varsity.'”
On defense, safety O.T. Peoples, linebackers Marshall Grays and Faylin Lee and 6-5, 235-pound lineman Tomas Torres all return after getting significant playing time as sophomores in the playoff loss at Longview.
“When you have two classes in a row that just aren't deep with talent, you've kind of got to plan for the future,” Stewart said. “So last year we knew if we could score a ton of points we'd be OK, because we were going to struggle on defense (because of youth) or at least take some learning bumps, if you will.”
Stewart said he was able to retain both coordinators – Josh Sadler on offense and Dexter Knox on defense – for the first time since he's been Temple's coach but had to hire five new assistant coaches during the offseason. Among them is defensive line coach Robert Havens, now in his second Wildcats stint after leaving for Magnolia West following the 2018 season.
Even while lamenting the loss of a traditional spring practice schedule that annually culminates with the Blue-White game, Stewart said the University Interscholastic League's decision to allow athletes to go through on-campus supervised strength and conditioning workouts and then sport-specific drills during the summer months actually has been a boon for Temple. That's because the Wildcats' work has come closer to the start of their season instead of ending in late May.
“The benefit has been that you don't lose anything during the summer,” said Stewart, whose Wildcats will begin their 2021 season by hosting Austin Westlake, last year's 6A Division II state champion.
Stewart said there's been another benefit about the COVID-19 situation throwing a wrench into Temple's original spring football plans.
“I'll tell you what, it makes you take a look at your organizational skills,” he said. “At that point (in early March) when they shut (school) down and it got close to spring ball, and then they shut down spring ball, it was like, 'If they open it Monday, here's our plan between now and the end of summer. If they open it up the next Monday, we'll just abbreviate the plan.' So (the coaches) met ad nauseam on just organizational stuff.
“We had a four-week spring ball plan, a three-week spring ball plan and a two-week spring ball plan, and after that it was like, 'One week ain't gonna be worth it, so now let's plan our summer and what that looks like.'"