BUSINESS FIRST: Reunion angle aside, Temple, Rockwall-Heath aim to knock each other out of playoffs
FULL STEAM AHEAD: After last week's 38-0 bi-district playoff win over Waxahachie at Wildcat Stadium, junior running back Samari Howard (8) and senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi (10) lead the District 12-6A champion Temple Wildcats (10-1) into their Class 6A Division II area-round playoff game against Rockwall-Heath (8-2) at 7 p.m. Friday at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco. The Hawks, 42-14 winners last week over Garland, are guided by former Temple head coach Mike Spradlin. The winner will advance to next week's Region II semifinal against No. 7-ranked Cypress Bridgeland. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
WACO – When Rockwall-Heath's football team stands on the home sideline at Baylor's McLane Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday and looks across the field at Temple, four coaches wearing the Hawks' black and red colors will be men who in the past played integral roles for the Wildcats.
There's Rockwall-Heath second-year head coach Mike Spradlin, who from 2011-15 spearheaded the impressive resurgence of Temple's tradition-rich but previously struggling program.
There's Hawks inside linebackers coach Bryce Monsen, the Wildcats' head coach from 2005-10 and a former assistant to Temple coaching legend Bob McQueen.
There's wide receivers coach Joey Haag, who played quarterback for Temple in the late 1990s and went on to coach the Wildcats' running backs for Spradlin and then current Temple head coach Scott Stewart, who was Spradlin's defensive coordinator from 2014-15.
And there's quarterbacks coach Chad President, the outstanding all-around athlete whose dynamic play and leadership at QB as a senior helped to propel Temple's 2014 team to 13 wins and the Class 5A Division I state championship game.
Therefore, it would be easy to label this Class 6A Division II area-round playoff clash between surging Temple (10-1) and high-scoring Rockwall-Heath (8-2) – led by President-coached star junior quarterback Josh Hoover – as something of a family reunion, perhaps even a feel-good story.
But although there certainly will be plenty of handshakes and hugs exchanged beforehand and afterward, from the opening kickoff until the final gun this highly anticipated matchup will be all about intense competition and playoff survival.
“I'm going to give him 3 hours of everything I've got in the tank, and if it ain't good enough I'll go hug his neck and tell him I love him and wish him the best,” Stewart said about the 65-year-old Spradlin. “The guys I know on that (Rockwall-Heath) staff are in the upper percentile of human beings I respect on this earth because of what they do and how they do it. Mike's been a class guy since the day I've known him. Same with Joey, Chad and Bryce. They're just salt of the earth guys.”
District 10-6A runner-up Rockwall-Heath is the next obstacle in Temple's path as the 12-6A champion Wildcats – 38-0 home winners last Friday over bi-district opponent Waxahachie – pursue their first state championship since 1992. Having secured its first playoff win since 2017 and its first postseason victory in the state's largest classification since 2003, Temple now aims to advance to next week's Region II semifinal against seventh-ranked Cypress Bridgeland (12-0), which needed four overtime periods Thursday night to defeat Spring Dekaney 47-44.
“Personally, I don't think about the state championship right now. Everything is Rockwall-Heath, and everything prior to (last weekend) was Waxahachie. So you get in that rhythm. To me, if you look ahead you diminish your chances of success,” said Stewart, who gives each of his players a “playoff book” that presents a detailed, day-to-day plan of how to hyper-focus on navigating the postseason road.
Spradlin coached Temple to a 44-17 record and eight playoff wins after the Wildcats had gone 37-77 with one postseason victory in the previous 11 seasons. He's fully aware of the extra attention this game is receiving because of the Rockwall-Heath coaches' ties to Temple. However, he's also insistent that come game time, those close relationships will take a back seat to what's at stake for both teams.
“I'm trying to put it in perspective. It's an elimination tournament. So when you're playing a game, we want to win, and they want to win – period. It's a football game. That's all it is,” Spradlin said. “Somebody's gonna win; somebody ain't. And the team that doesn't is gonna be done, and we want to be the team that's still playing. And they do, too.”
Said President about coaching against his alma mater in a high-stakes environment: “During pregame we'll say, 'What's up?' and talk about the old times. After that, it's back to the business part of it. It'll be a chess match between a lot of good coaches.”
In addition, there's no hurt feelings or ill will on either side of the matchup. After turning Temple's program into a consistent winner, Spradlin departed after five seasons to become athletic director of Magnolia ISD, where he made it through three years before the coaching bug bit him again, leading him to take the Rockwall-Heath job in early 2019.
Spradlin's unexpected exit from Temple opened the door for Stewart to get his first head coaching opportunity, and the Troy graduate has guided the Wildcats to a five-season record of 48-15, highlighted by their trek to the 5A Division I state championship game in his 2016 debut.
“There is zero in this for me in regard to some kind of personal satisfaction that it's Temple. That's the farthest thing from my mind. I honestly wouldn't care who it is right now,” said Spradlin, whose final two Temple squads went 25-4 (12-0 in district) with eight playoff wins with Stewart running the Wildcat defense. “I want to win because our kids have worked their tails off and they've worked through COVID and they've done everything we've asked them to do. I want to win for them – just like Scott does for Temple's kids.
“I've kept up with (Temple) obviously because I care about Scott and I care about Temple. The good thing is we're all gonna hug each others' necks when we're done and move on. That's a plus to me, that there's people I like across the field. (But) it doesn't add any extra fuel. I think people think it does somehow, that Scott wants to beat me or I want to beat them to show them something. It really is the furthest thing from my mind.”
Rockwall-Heath's 42-14 home win over Garland last week – the Hawks scored the final 28 points – was its first playoff victory since 2015. The Hawks haven't reached Round 3 since they went 10-3 in 2014. Rockwall-Heath's only losses this season were 72-57 at No. 19 Southlake Carroll (8-1) in its second game and 38-27 at No. 18 Rockwall (10-1) in the district opener.
“They're a great team and we're not going to overlook them. They're well-coached,” Temple senior offensive tackle Alex Rodriguez said.
The Hawks average 50.4 points per game and carry a five-game winning streak into their first-ever meeting with Temple, whose swarming defense has permitted six points in the last two games. The Wildcats, in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, score 38.3 points per game and have racked up eight straight victories since their 43-25 home loss to No. 14 Arlington Martin (9-1) in the non-district finale.
The offensive-minded Spradlin concocted an explosive, versatile attack throughout his five-year run in Temple, and he's done the same thing at Rockwall-Heath. The Hawks average 524.3 yards per game (282.5 passing, 241.8 rushing). Second-year starter Hoover has passed for 2,718 yards and 27 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, with speedy junior Jay Fair and sure-handed senior Corban Cleveland making a combined 117 receptions for 1,742 yards and 19 TDs.
Meanwhile, two hard-charging running backs – junior Zach Evans and senior Preston Landis – have rushed for a combined 2,209 yards and 32 TDs behind a beefy, experienced line led by 6-foot-5, 295-pound Hunter Smith, a feisty senior tackle with several college offers.
So, what's the key for Temple's increasingly stingy defense to contain Rockwall-Heath's potent crew?
“Eat your Wheaties. You've got to get mentally prepared to go get in a slugfest. They're going to get theirs, and you can't get frustrated,” said Stewart, whose team has allowed 17.8 points per game – including several touchdowns that weren't scored against Temple's defense. “There's a reason why people run this (power-spread shotgun) offense and there's a reason we run this style of offense. It takes advantage of what the defense gives them.
“Knowing that, you have to change up the looks and don't give them what they think they're getting and see if they're that good. At least make them do something they haven't done. They have proven that when they know where you're lined up and they know exactly what you're doing, they're going to score 50 points a game.”
“We're basically going to see our own offense (vs. Rockwall-Heath),” Temple junior outside linebacker Marshall Grays said after last week's romp over Waxahachie, featuring his 26-yard interception return for the game's first touchdown. “Coach Spradlin and Coach President are up there. It's like a taste of our own medicine, basically.”
MR. PRESIDENT'S NEW WARDROBE: Rockwall-Heath quarterbacks coach Chad President (center) poses with QBs Josh Hoover (17) and Colin Liles after the Hawks beat bi-district playoff opponent Garland 42-14 last Friday. President quarterbacked the 13-2 Temple Wildcats to the Class 5A Division I state championship game as a senior in 2014, graduated from Tulsa and now is in his second season coaching at Rockwall-Heath for Mike Spradlin, whom he played for at Temple. Hoover, a junior, has passed for 5,644 yards and 59 touchdowns in two seasons with President as his position coach. (Photo courtesy of Rockwall ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Multiple injuries curtailed President's once-promising career as a quarterback at Tulsa, and he passed on his final season of eligibility before graduating in May 2019 with a degree in exercise and sports science. He already had accepted a job offer from Spradlin to become the wide receivers coach at Rockwall-Heath, where he also teaches a college preparation class called AVID.
“Right when Coach Spradlin called me (about the job), it was a no-brainer for me to come join (former Temple) guys who have the same fight and drive that I have. We're just wearing red and black now,” President said, adding that Spradlin instituted much of the same culture – notably a huge emphasis on weight training – that he used while building Temple back into a winning program.
“He literally graduated and was here a day later. I knew I was going to get a good one when we hired him, because I know what I know. But good grief, Chad's unbelievable. He's a great football coach – I mean fantastic,” Spradlin said. “He's doing a great job, and he and (QB Hoover) have a real connection. Chad offers up so much, because he's played and coached in this offense since he was a ninth-grader. It's crazy when you think about it. Literally he's in his 10th year being around this offense and doing it and executing it and coaching it.”
But if President – an elite wide receiver as a Temple sophomore in 2012 – was hired to coach the Hawks' receivers, then why is he instructing prolific quarterback Hoover, a three-star recruit with college offers from Arkansas, North Texas and Tulsa? Allow President to explain.
“Coach Spradlin wanted me to be the wide receivers coach, but our offensive coordinator (Kenric McNeal) is a smart guy,” recalled President, who coaches games from the press box. “We all three sat down and (McNeal) said, 'You played quarterback in this system. I think we need to make the change.'”
Spradlin signed off on it, and just like that, President became the Hawks' quarterbacks coach. President, who turned 24 last month, is a father and now has his younger brother Bryce living with him after a move from Temple. The 5-11, 225-pound Bryce President is an emerging middle linebacker who played for Rockwall-Heath's freshman team this season.
It doesn't surprise Stewart in the least that President, who turned 24 last month, is a rising star in the coaching ranks. Temple's coach has known that President has an abnormal acumen for the game ever since President essentially deciphered the defensive calls of newly hired coordinator Stewart during the Wildcats' second day of 2014 spring practice.
“I tweeted out something that he's the highest-IQ player I've been around. He was a scary playmaker, and he may be a better coach,” Stewart said. “Here's what I know: That kid (Hoover) would be talented no matter where he was and no matter who coached him, but the fact that someone like Chad is coaching him? You're not going to rattle that kid's cage. He is being taught the concepts of the game from (President and Spradlin), I can promise you that. And it shows on the field."
Stewart reiterated that President, who was promoted to Temple's varsity squad as a freshman and overcame a torn ACL early in his junior season, always has had the "it" factor.
“When Chad was 18 years old, he called and congratulated me on getting this job. I was like, 'If you ever want to come back home . . .' With that dude, there's no interview needed. He's such a special kid,” Stewart said. “He was such a special player, and not (only) because of his physical ability but because of his ability to lead his teammates, which is not that common. It's hard to explain what it is, but you know it when you see it. They don't come along very often. He is a walking, living, breathing example of that. He's going to make everybody he coaches better. With the level of maturity he has at such a young age and his knowledge of the game, it's scary.”
When President arrived at Rockwall-Heath in May 2019, he immediately was struck by Hoover's arm talent, to use a new-age football term.
“He's special, man. When I got here that first day, he was 15 years old. The way the ball comes out of his hand, it's not normal,” President said of the 6-2, 208-pound Hoover, who as a sophomore passed for 2,926 yards and 32 touchdowns with only seven interceptions for a 5-5 Hawks team that missed the playoffs. “His IQ is through the roof, and he's a good processor and a coachable kid. A dime dropper is what I call him.”
Said Spradlin about the rapport between President and Hoover: “Chad's a big part of Hoover's success, and then Hoover's a big part of Hoover's success.”
Stewart is plenty confident in the ability of coordinator Dexter Knox's athletic, relentless Temple defense, including an active four-man line and sophomore middle linebacker Taurean York, the Wildcats' leading tackler for the second straight season. But Stewart also resorted to humor to describe the challenge that Hoover and his skilled comrades pose to the Wildcats.
“The best bet to shut him down is if he doesn't get on the bus. I mean, if he just stays in Rockwall, we have a chance. We can probably slow him down if he doesn't get on the bus,” Stewart said with a laugh. “This kid, you're not going to stop him. The answer is to change up your looks and see if you can figure something out protection-wise. There's not a glaring weakness on their offense.
“Hoover can make every throw on the field. There's zero question as to the caliber of that kid's athletic ability. It's been a while since we played one of those. He's a big kid and has every tangible, and it looks like he has the intangibles. What makes him especially scary is he knows when (the pressure's) coming. He knows when he has to cut off that five-step drop and turn it into a quick release. He does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield and reading defenses. That's why he can throw to spots, because he understands, 'If that safety does that, there's my spot. If that cornerback does this, there's my spot.'”
Hoover has a slew of skilled receivers. The fleet-footed Fair (57 receptions, 1,036 yards, nine touchdowns) has offers from Texas Christian, Houston, Arkansas and Utah. Spradlin said two-year standout Cleveland (60 catches, 706 yards, 10 TDs) is the Hawks' version of New England Patriots slot receiver Julian Edelman.
“He can flat-out fly,” Stewart said of Fair. “If you're going to wear No. 1 in a Mike Spradlin offense, you better be able to roll.”
Juniors Jordan Nabors (27 catches, 485 yards, two TDs) and Lance Mason (17-287-three), a tight end, are other key targets.
Utilizing their talents is Haag, the former Temple quarterback and Wildcats running backs coach under Spradlin and then Stewart. He's the son of highly respected former longtime Temple assistant coach Chuck Haag.
“The great thing about getting Joey – he was already up here at Frisco – is that he just gets it. He gets me,” Spradlin said. “What I love about Joey is he's a soldier, a hard-working guy and, of course, he's on the Haag tree. Chuck's one of my favorite humans ever.”
Stewart also raved about the qualities Joey Haag brings to a coaching staff.
“He is an absolute grinder. He gets 100 percent out of kids because of the relationships he builds with them. Those kids love him and want to run through a wall for him,” Stewart said. “They're good because they're talented, but they're good because of their coaches, too.”
STUBBORN BLUE CREW: Temple defensive standouts such as junior end Eric Shorter (13), senior tackle Cody Little (44), senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor (95) and sophomore middle linebacker Taurean York (5) helped the Wildcats limit Waxahachie to 152 yards in a 38-0 bi-district playoff win last Friday at Wildcat Stadium. Temple will contend with a much more explosive offense when it takes on Rockwall-Heath in a Class 6A Division II area-round duel at 7 p.m. Friday at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco. The Hawks average 50.4 points per game and have a 2,700-yard, 27-touchdown passer in junior Josh Hoover and two running backs (junior Zach Evans and senior Preston Landis) who've rushed for a combined 2,209 yards and 32 touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
The especially daunting thing for Temple's defense is that Rockwall-Heath's offense is far from just an aerial circus. The explosive Evans (5-11, 190) and the punishing Landis (5-10, 188) were good last season, but the alternating backs have been great this year, aided by a line with four returning starters. Evans, who has numerous major college offers, has rushed for 1,163 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Landis has 1,046 yards and 18 TDs on the ground.
“The running backs are unbelievable. They both run hard,” Stewart said, comparing Evans and Landis to Temple's wildly productive backfield tandem of shifty Jeff Carr and rugged Marques Hatcher from 2013-14. “It's a little bit of thunder-and-lightning stuff. You trot one off and trot one on with fresh legs.”
Stewart never has coached on a staff with Monsen, but they crossed paths a few years ago when Monsen was Belton's defensive coordinator. Stewart came away impressed with the well-liked former Temple head coach whose 2007 Wildcats had a perfect district record.
“I know Bryce just from proximity, but in my limited exposure he's one of the best human beings. He goes out of his way just to come up and say, 'Coach, you're doing a great job,'” Stewart said of Monsen. “Everybody I've talked to has said he's such a genuine, good human being. They're not going to remember what you did or what you said, but they are going to remember how you made them feel. That man is the personification of that.”
Monsen is in his second season coaching Rockwall-Heath's inside linebackers and has two outstanding senior performers in 6-foot, 232-pound tackling machine Grady Brewer and Jaylin Nwigwe (5-11, 205).
“When (Brewer) blitzes, he has bad intentions. He's just a good football player, very instinctive,” Stewart said. “They're hyper-aggressive. They get after it and play hard. They're pretty talented up front and their safeties are sound. They remind me a lot of us in the secondary.”
Rockwall-Heath allowed 52 and 72 points in its first two games against Lewisville and Carroll, respectively, but the Hawks' defense improved and posted shutouts against McKinney Boyd and North Mesquite before limiting playoff foe Garland to 14 points last week.
Spradlin's defense must find a way to contain Temple's effective combination of dual-threat senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi (1,842 passing yards, 26 touchdowns; 570 rushing yards) – who spreads the ball around to a deep receiving corps – and do-it-all junior running back Samari Howard (1,127 rushing yards, 15 TDs; six receiving TDs).
“That guy's fantastic. He can go. He's elusive, he's powerful, catches the ball well, all those things,” Spradlin said about Howard. “And Humberto's a stud. He does a great job executing the offense. You can just see him getting more confident every week."