FOOTBALL 2020: Receiver McDuffy, running back Howard growing into go-to leaders for Temple Wildcats
TEMPLE'S DYNAMIC DUO: Senior wide receiver AJ McDuffy (left) and junior running back Samari Howard are key leaders on offense for the Temple Wildcats, who begin the regular season against Class 5A Division I No. 3-ranked Longview at 8 p.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. McDuffy made six touchdown receptions in 2019, while Howard rushed for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns to earn District 12-6A's Offensive Newcomer of the Year award. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Sure, it was only a preseason scrimmage last Thursday night at Wildcat Stadium, but junior running back Samari Howard and senior wide receiver AJ McDuffy produced moments that exemplified what the Temple Wildcats hope and think they can be during the real season.
From Temple's 32-yard line, Howard took a handoff, found ample running room on the left side and sprinted deep into College Station territory before powerfully breaking a defender's tackle attempt at the 15 on his way to a 68-yard touchdown.
“Being a junior and from playing last year, I know how to fill a bigger role than last year. That's making me play even harder. I'm stronger and in my opinion I think I'm faster,” said the quick-shifting Howard, the 2019 District 12-6A Offensive Newcomer of the Year.
Earlier in the evening, McDuffy beat his defender to the back-right corner of the end zone to catch a 14-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi. Later, McDuffy ran a deep route down the right sideline and was grabbed by his defender – resulting in a penalty flag for defensive pass interference – but fought through the contact to catch Arizmendi's pass anyway before dashing in for a would-be 45-yard touchdown.
Alas, McDuffy's second TD of the night was wiped away because he was flagged for turning around to taunt the defensive back around the 5-yard line, apparently the result of an ongoing trash-talk battle. It was simultaneously an outstanding play and an opportunity to learn, which McDuffy quickly found out when he got an earful from Temple head coach Scott Stewart.
“It's just (about) being smarter and playing your role and staying as a team as a whole,” McDuffy said Saturday morning at Temple's photo day. “You have to play your game and not let anybody sidetrack you.”
Said Stewart: “As standard operating procedure, I'm going to chew tail on stupid stuff. Now, I know who I need to linger on with and who I just say what I need to say. I talked to AJ for about 8 seconds and I never had to say another word.”
Last season, Howard and McDuffy had the luxury of learning on the job and growing into their roles without needing to set the pace within their own position groups.
Howard rushed for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns, while McDuffy made 22 receptions for 364 yards and six TDs. Howard split playing time at running back with Anthony Jackson (Texas-Permian Basin), the Wildcats' explosive three-year performer who finished his career with 2,905 rushing yards and 38 total touchdowns. Meanwhile, the unquestioned leading wide receiver was big-play specialist Quentin Johnston (Texas Christian), who in two years made 78 receptions for 1,735 yards (22.2 yards per catch) and 24 touchdowns.
“You don't just replace those guys, with the leadership and intangibles they brought to the table,” Stewart said after last season.
But this year, as Temple seeks its eighth consecutive playoff berth and a second straight district championship after sharing last season's 12-6A title with Waco Midway, McDuffy and Howard are certainly expected to step forward as clear-cut leaders for a squad that's unproven at several positions.
Stewart has no doubts about whether McDuffy and Howard are capable of emerging as team leaders in addition to continuing to provide steady, stellar play.
“Where AJ has really grown is in the technical part of his game. He's worked his tail off,” Stewart said of the 5-foot-11, 175-pound McDuffy, whom he affectionately calls “Johnny Six Names” because McDuffy's given name is Frederick Leroyal McDuffy and he'll also answer to AJ Freeman (his older brother is former Temple standout receiver Aaron Freeman), the name on his Twitter profile.
“After last season and into the offseason we really emphasized route running and the nuances of running routes, and (wide receivers) Coach (Robby) Case has done a phenomenal job with him," Stewart added. "Everything is angles. The cerebral part of AJ's game has gone to another level, and then he's still got what he's got, which is he's a hyper-competitive kid.”
“It's just working on my craft and being more explosive, getting quicker and finishing my routes. I know I have to put more effort in not just for myself but being a leader for the team – how to lead and love our brothers and build a bond with everyone,” said McDuffy, whose junior season was highlighted by his two touchdown catches in Temple's 66-34 win at rival Belton. “I have to bring the energy and keep bringing my brothers up. Even if they mess up a play, I just tell them to get it right on the next one.”
As for Howard, who also filled in admirably at quarterback on several occasions for then-senior and 12-6A Offensive Player of the Year Vance Willis, Stewart said the versatile junior has an internal drive that lends itself to pushing himself and his teammates to succeed.
“Samari's the consummate leader,” Stewart said. “He's a hothead at times, but you can't take all of that out of him. He has gotten to where he doesn't lose control of that. When he was a freshman, he'd be a hothead. It's a different story when you completely lose your mind versus when you have that extra year and you have that extra drive. That's the part he does have, the maturity. He carries himself well and he's got great grades.”
“I think mentally I've chilled out and I'm not a hothead anymore,” Howard said, although he added that he won't hesitate to verbally challenge teammates to pick up their level of play.
As Temple prepares to face Class 5A Division I No. 3-ranked Longview in the teams' long-awaited season opener at 8 p.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Stewart said the 5-8, 170-pound Howard possesses a skill set comparable to that of Lobos star senior running back Kaden Meredith. As a junior, Meredith carved up the Wildcats' defense for 248 rushing yards and a 67-yard score in Longview's 41-10 win over Temple in a 6A Division II bi-district playoff game last November at Lobo Stadium.
“He does. Where that guy's a slasher, Samari's more of a hiccup, Jeff Carr kind of guy,” Stewart said, referring to Temple's speedy, highly productive running back from 2013-14. “He's got the athleticism and can go out there and spin the ball (at quarterback when needed).”
When an injury prevented Jackson from playing in Temple's season opener last year at Round Rock Cedar Ridge, Howard rose to the occasion and broke onto the scene in his varsity debut. He rushed 25 times for 254 yards and a touchdown, helping the turnover-plagued Wildcats rally from a 28-9 deficit and have a shot to win before the Raiders prevailed 35-29.
And when a knee injury kept Willis out of action in Temple's homecoming game against Waco, Howard stepped in at quarterback and rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns and threw a TD pass to then-senior tight end Tyson Magana to fuel the Wildcats' 57-13 victory. He also played some at QB in the playoff loss to Longview, rushing for a team-leading 44 yards and throwing for 43.
With emerging senior Arizmendi and talented sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot in an ongoing competition at quarterback (Stewart plans to play both of them vs. Longview), it's unlikely that Temple will require Howard's services at QB this season. He'd be ready if called upon, of course, but Wildcats offensive coordinator Josh Sadler said Howard already has plenty on his proverbial plate.
“Samari's the go-to guy. He's going to have to wear the burden of the offense, and he's going to be the guy that everybody looks at as that electric fireplug for us,” Sadler said. “He had a great offseason. He's very serious and everything he does has a purpose.”
Sadler compared Howard's studious approach to the game to that of three former Temple standouts: current Texas players Ta'Quon Graham and Jared Wiley and ex-quarterback T.J. Rumfield, now playing baseball at Virginia Tech.
“He's a student of the game and watches a ton of film,” Sadler said of Howard, who runs a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and is receiving recruiting interest from Texas Tech, Rice and California. “He has a purpose in the weight room and does the right things to get himself prepared. He has a big vision of what he'd like for his athletic ability to be able to do for him. He loves his teammates and also has that big-picture view.”
Temple's stable of running backs includes seniors Thomas McVade and Bryce Langrum and juniors Jalen Robinson and Tavaris Sullivan, and Sadler said their effectiveness could allow the Wildcats to take advantage of Howard's versatility as a receiver out of the backfield and/or from the slot.
After coming up 34 yards short of the 1,000-yard mark last season while splitting time with Jackson, Howard said he wants to blast past that milestone this season and score at least 15 touchdowns. Meanwhile, his comrade McDuffy – who in June verbally committed to play for Texas Southern – said he's aiming this season to catch 50 to 60 passes for 900 to 1,000 yards while being complemented in the receiving corps by players such as senior Luke Allen and juniors Michael Heckstall and Tr'Darius Taylor. Sadler commended McDuffy for the strides he's made since last season concluded.
“AJ's always been very strong-handed,” Sadler said. “The thing he's getting better at, and Coach Case has done a heck of a job with him, is how to handle press coverages and different types of leverage coverages. He's gotten a little faster and has a year under his belt now.”
McDuffy and Howard grew up watching Temple's tradition-rich program make deep runs in the playoffs, including 20 postseason games from 2014-17 with trips to the 5A Division I state championship game in 2014 and '16. That's why putting on the Wildcats' distinctive blue-front, white-back pants means a lot to them, as does helping Temple break its two-year losing streak in the first round of the playoffs.
“I want it all the way bad,” McDuffy said. “That's the focus point I have in my mind – high expectations.”
“It's been a dream to play for Temple and play against the best teams in the state. It makes me feel good,” Howard said. “You have to represent the right way, because Temple is not an easy city to play in. It's definitely a lot of pressure, but you've got to represent for the people who wore those pants before you and put everything on the line to play in those pants."