FOOTBALL 2020: Temple eyes eighth straight playoff trip, but Wildcats' big early goal is improvement
HUNGRY TO IMPROVE: Scott Stewart has guided Temple to a 38-14 record and four playoff berths in four seasons as the Wildcats' head coach, but they haven't advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2017. Temple will be breaking in two new quarterbacks in senior Humberto Arizmendi and sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot as the Wildcats move into their challenging non-district schedule, which begins Friday with an 8 p.m. battle with Class 5A Division I No. 3-ranked Longview at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Temple's home opener is Oct. 9 against Class 6A No. 11 Arlington Martin at 7 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
With the Temple Wildcats competing in the playoffs seven consecutive seasons and playing into December four straight years from 2014-17, it wouldn't be abnormal for this year's preseason chatter to revolve around what they want to accomplish or how far they possibly can go.
However, Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart always was going to put a largely young and mostly unproven football team on the field in 2020, and then the COVID-19 pandemic came along and wiped out the Wildcats' four weeks of spring practice along with summer 7-on-7 action, limiting their opportunities for offseason advancement. Stewart has said “losing spring ball this year was critical.”
So after Stewart watched his squad shine in some areas but struggle in several others in last Thursday's lone scrimmage at home against College Station, he concluded that the goals for these Wildcats should be more about immediate improvements and less about eventual excellence. In other words, the former must happen for the latter to have a chance to materialize.
As Temple prepares to begin its season with a delayed, long-awaited clash against Class 5A Division I No. 3-ranked Longview at 8 p.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Stewart insists that he wants the Wildcats to work hard to shore up their deficiencies as they move through a challenging three-game non-district schedule before beginning the seven-game District 12-6A grind Oct. 16 at Copperas Cove. Temple's first home district game is Oct. 23 against Bryan.
“Our non-COVID goals have always been to be playing during Thanksgiving break and playing into December,” said Stewart, who's guided Temple to a 38-14 record with four playoff berths and last year's shared District 12-6A championship with Waco Midway. “I get it that (the goals include to) win district and win state. You know what I want to do? I want us to be better at Magnolia West (Oct. 2) than we were against Longview. I want us to be better against Longview than we were against College Station.
“We'll start worrying about who's going to represent the district once we get into district and figure out what we've got. I don't know what we have on the offensive line, at quarterback and in the secondary. I've got plenty of questions to where I'm not worried about gold balls right now.”
Temple and Longview are meeting not only for the second straight season but also for the second straight game. The host Lobos controlled the Wildcats 41-10 last November in a 6A Division II bi-district playoff, pushing the defending state champions' winning streak to 27 games before Dallas Jesuit eliminated them a week later.
Stewart's initial impressions of Longview from the Lobos' brawl-shortened home scrimmage against Texarkana Texas last Thursday: “They're fast, violent and intense. Those guys can flat-out roll.”
Temple's home opener isn't until its third game, on Oct. 9 against 6A No. 11-ranked Arlington Martin at 7 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium. The Wildcats and their fans can get an early, up-close look at Martin when the Warriors play 5A Division I No. 1-ranked Denton Ryan at 4 p.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium. The Temple-Longview duel in the nightcap will close a showcase doubleheader that's part of the University Interscholastic League celebrating its 100 years of sanctioning Texas high school football.
Temple's current seven-year streak of playoff appearances with Mike Spradlin and then Stewart is the program's longest since Bob McQueen – for whom Wildcat Stadium's field is named – coached the Wildcats to 10 straight postseason trips and a cumulative 109-14-2 record from 1976-85, including 1979's 15-0 run to the 4A state championship.
Stewart guided Temple to 12 wins and the 5A Division I state title game in his debut season of 2016 and followed that with 10 victories and a regional final berth in 2017. However, the Wildcats haven't tasted postseason success since they moved up to 6A two years ago, posting consecutive 8-3 seasons with Division II first-round losses to Mesquite Horn and Longview, respectively. Temple's most recent playoff win while competing in the state's highest classification came in 2003 against Round Rock McNeil.
But Stewart isn't entertaining any playoff-related discussions about his current Wildcats, at least for now. The top priority is making progress after Stewart thought his team failed to match College Station's physicality in the scrimmage as the Cougars had more success during the two live quarters.
“The other day we said, 'Look guys, I realize we've only been wearing pads for five days and we haven't played in 10 months, but College Station has only been wearing pads for five days and they haven't played in 10 months. Walking off that field, I felt like they were the more physical football team, so tell me why that is,'” Stewart said. “Our focus this week will be on the intensity of the game.”
TIME TO SHINE: Senior Humberto Arizmendi, who quarterbacked Temple's top junior varsity team last year, has earned the starting assignment at QB for the Wildcats' season-opening test against perennial power Longview at 8 p.m. Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Arizmendi, who threw two touchdown passes in last Thursday's scrimmage against College Station, is in an ongoing competition for the job with sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
In each of the last four seasons, Temple had a senior starting quarterback who won his district's offensive player of the year award: Reid Hesse, T.J. Rumfield, Jared Wiley and Vance Willis. Only Hesse was a multiple-season starter at QB.
That could be a good omen for senior Humberto Arizmendi, entering his first varsity season after quarterbacking the Wildcats' top junior varsity squad in 2019. But Arizmendi continues to go through a friendly-but-close competition with talented sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot, who aims to win the QB job after starting all 11 games at free safety and earning second-team all-district honors as a freshman.
The strong-armed, mobile Harrison-Pilot is the quintessential dual-threat quarterback and projects to be a multiple-season impact player at that spot, but Stewart said Tuesday that Arizmendi – an accurate passer and capable runner – will get the starting assignment against Longview based on being a senior and having an impressive performance highlighted by two touchdown passes against College Station.
“It's probably a little bit of both, but I'll back that up by saying nobody on the field grew as much (during the scrimmage) as Mikal did,” Stewart said. “Arizmendi may be the starter for one series, two series, two weeks, two months or it may be the other one. The general plan is to get both of them plenty of time so we can evaluate what we've got in the line of competition.
“We're just going to go in there (vs. Longview) with a laid-out plan to trade every couple series and see if anybody can grab the rhythm, then just play it out from there.”
Stewart said it's possible that the 6-foot, 180-pound Harrison-Pilot could play another position on either offense or defense but that the sophomore will concentrate on quarterback against Longview.
“Humberto did a great job with his touch on the deep ball (in the scrimmage) and had great command of the offense,” Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler said. “We've got the entire season (to let the competition play out). It's going to be the best fit for the offense when it's all said and done. You hope that one guy can control it better than the other, but the competition is on and they're doing a heck of a job. They're making it tough on the coaching staff, I know that.”
In addition, Temple football's recent history suggests that both quarterbacks likely will be needed because of potential injuries as the Wildcats embark on a schedule of 10 games in as many weeks.
Temple lost deep-threat wide receiver Quentin Johnston (Texas Christian) to graduation but returns another skilled wideout in senior AJ McDuffy (22 catches, 364 yards, six touchdowns in 2019). The Wildcats also expect a productive senior season from speedy receiver/kick returner Luke Allen.
“I think he's got a big one in him,” Sadler said. “(Defenses) are going to double-cover AJ, and Luke's going to be there. He had a great summer and has got some strength about him.”
Temple likes the potential of junior receivers Michael Heckstall and Tr'Darius Taylor, with senior Dylan Hinkle in the slot and junior Ke'Andre Smith at tight end.
Dynamic junior Samari Howard returns at running back after rushing for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns en route to being voted 12-6A's Offensive Newcomer of the Year. The Wildcats' rushing attack seeks to complement him with a bevy of backs: seniors Thomas McVade and Bryce Langrum and juniors Jalen Robinson and Tavaris Sullivan.
Temple's traditionally sturdy offensive line currently is an area of concern after three-year stalwarts Markel Carter and Dakari White and other key players graduated. Senior left tackle Alex Rodriguez is the only returning starter, but junior Colby Rice – now at right tackle – got valuable playing time. Senior Matt Frye is the center and senior Kai Lynn is competing with several players at the two guard spots.
“Against College Station, our O-line guys were trying to do their job, but they weren't nasty,” Stewart said. “That's the fragility of the teenage psyche. We're going to simplify the plan and get nasty.”
BACK FOR MORE: Sophomore linebacker Taurean York is one of the youngest but most experienced players on Temple's defense, which struggled in last November's first-round playoff loss at then-reigning state champion Longview. York paced the Wildcats with 80 tackles last season and shared District 12-6A's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
When last seen in a real game, Temple's defense allowed 312 rushing yards and 534 overall yards in the 31-point playoff loss at unbeaten Longview. However, the Wildcats found a silver lining in the fact that they played so many young defenders in that game, giving them an eye-opening dose of on-the-job experience.
Starting all season as freshmen were free safety Harrison-Pilot (46 tackles) and sure-tackling linebacker Taurean York, who led Temple with 80 tackles and was 12-6A's Co-Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
Ends Eric Shorter (57 tackles, second-team all-district) and Tomas Torres, linebacker Faylin Lee, strong safety/outside linebacker Marshall Grays and safety O'Tarian Peoples all got significant playing time as sophomores. And three juniors all performed well in starting roles: second-team all-district tackle Jayven Taylor (66 tackles, four sacks), end Cody Little (36 tackles, three sacks) and cornerback Keon Williams.
They'll be joined this season by junior Jaden Jackson at “boom” safety and senior Carlton Mack and/or junior Tristan Cohorn at the other cornerback post.
Although Temple's Dexter Knox-coordinated defense will have to solidify itself on the fly against top-notch competition, Stewart – the Wildcats' defensive coordinator from 2014-15 – believes it's a unit that's inexperienced in spots but has an opportunity to become a team strength as the season progresses.
“It does, if we can stay physically healthy and get our eyes right in the back end. (On several plays) the other night it was like, 'What are we doing?'” Stewart said. “We'll keep score in 7-on-7 and they won't make a mistake and they'll eat those routes alive. Bad eyes are bad eyes. So we're going to have to grow into that. Can we go out there and have a decent showing? Yeah. Can we go out there and give up 75 points? Yeah, in a hurry.”
After adding 20 pounds of muscle during the extended offseason, the 5-11, 210-pound York expressed confidence in Temple's defensive ability.
“I feel like this defense can be very dangerous when we're all on the same page and clicking on all cylinders,” he said.
Williams is the next young man up in Temple's growing line of standout cornerbacks. Just as Markel Reed (Boise State) taught Roman Jackson (Tarleton State) in 2018 and Jackson taught Williams last season during Jackson's seven-interception campaign, the 5-10, 162-pound Williams now embraces his role as an experienced team leader.
“I'm real confident, very confident. I'm trying to set the standard for the younger guys so they can look up to me like I looked up to Roman and Markel,” said Williams, whose stated goals this season are zero pass interference penalties and 10 interceptions.
“He's not as big but he reminds me of Markel,” Stewart said of Williams. “He doesn't have just unbelievable foot speed, but when he's focused and on his game, he's pretty good at the stuff Markel was good at. Keon plays longer than he is.”
Fleet-footed players such as Howard and Allen should pose problems for opponents on kick returns. Returning for his fourth season as the starting kicker is Aaron Wagaman, a first-team all-district selection last season.
The left-footed senior has accumulated 235 career points and needs 78 more to surpass Temple's program record of 312 by running back Lache Seastrunk, who scored 52 touchdowns from 2007-09. Wagaman also is expected to punt for the Wildcats.