• Greg Wille

HUNGRY FOR MORE: Stewart, Wildcats begin spring practice seeking to build on successful 2020 season


BLOCK PARTY: Temple's Samari Howard, shown blocking a Rockwall-Heath punt during the Wildcats' 56-28 loss in the area round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs last December, is primed for an outstanding senior season in 2021 after sharing District 12-6A's Most Valuable Player award in 2020. Howard rushed for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns, caught 24 passes for 347 yards and six TDs and added five 2-point conversions to score 142 points. Howard and Temple went 10-2 overall and 7-0 in 12-6A, earning their first playoff win as a 6A program. Head coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats begin spring practice Thursday afternoon and will play their Blue-White game May 27 at 7 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)




By GREG WILLE

TempleBeltonSports.com

gwille2@hot.rr.com


It goes without saying that Scott Stewart is excited about Temple's 2021 football season, which will be his sixth as the Wildcats' head coach.

There are many reasons for Stewart's enthusiasm and optimism, including the fact that Temple returns seven defensive starters and five offensive starters from its team that last fall went 10-2 overall and 7-0 in District 12-6A and earned the Wildcats' first playoff victory as a Class 6A program.

Stewart's mood brightens even more when he looks at the track that loops around Bob McQueen Field at Wildcat Stadium.

Temple's 4x100-meter relay squad will compete in the University Interscholastic League state meet in Austin next Saturday, and three of its four members are football standouts who are returning for the 2021 season: versatile running back and 12-6A Co-Most Valuable Player Samari Howard, quarterback/first-team all-district receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot and receiver/first-team all-district kick returner Tr'Darius Taylor.

And the relay's other member is senior Carlton Mack, a starting cornerback in 2020.

“I watched Samari in the regional final (4x100 relay) chew up staggers like it was his job,” Stewart said. “He puts us out there (on the first leg). It's unbelievable. A lot of it has to do with strength when you're running the curve. You have to be efficient and you have to be strong. Then it goes to Mikal, then to Carlton and then to Tr'Darius.

“Three of those guys are back, and all of them are on offense. I've got to start rethinking this stuff.”

Stewart was Temple's defensive coordinator for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, so that final comment was of the tongue-in-cheek variety. However, Stewart – whose program begins its four weeks of spring practice Thursday afternoon – was serious when the athletic director spoke about the pride he feels when watching the Wildcats' football players compete in other sports. Examples are the state-bound relay group and junior-to-be linebacker Taurean York, the 12-6A Defensive MVP, battling on the wrestling mat.

“I'm probably prouder as a football coach than I am as an AD, because part of our move-in process (in football) is that they have to play more than one sport. You're not going to be a specialist here,” said Stewart, who has a 48-16 record and five playoff berths as head coach. “It's a pretty simple reason. We compete every day in offseason and have competition teams and we do stuff, but there's nothing that can duplicate competing against another school, competing against another person.

“When you jump in a wrestling match, he's going to end up on his back or you're going to end up on your back. I can't duplicate that in offseason. On fourth-and-1, I want the guy who's had to pick up a bar to win a powerlifting meet or shoot a free throw to win a basketball game or get in the box at 3-2 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and try to do something. You can't duplicate that.”


HIGH EXPECTATIONS: With seven starters returning on defense and five on offense, Temple head coach Scott Stewart thinks the 2021 season can be a successful one for the Wildcats, who begin spring practice Thursday afternoon. Stewart has a 48-16 record and five playoff appearances in five seasons of leading Temple's program. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)



After beginning spring ball with workouts Thursday and Friday, the Wildcats will have their first practice in full pads next Monday. Stewart said Temple will have a scrimmage each Thursday leading up to its annual Blue-White spring game, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 27 at Wildcat Stadium. The Blue-White affair will be preceded by a showcase event for Temple's middle school football players at 5 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium.

One week after Temple walloped Waxahachie 38-0 at home last Dec. 11 for its first postseason win as a 6A program, Stewart's Wildcats met their match and then some in a 56-28 loss to high-powered Rockwall-Heath – the eventual Region II runner-up to Cedar Hill – in the Division II area round at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco.

The Hawks' coaching staff included head coach Mike Spradlin – Temple's successful head coach from 2011-15 – and quarterbacks coach Chad President, who quarterbacked the Wildcats to the 5A Division I state championship game in 2014, along with former Temple head coach Bryce Monsen and ex-Wildcats quarterback and assistant Joey Haag.

Temple's prolific offense produced 503 total yards, but the Wildcats' defense – one week after posting a shutout – couldn't withstand a relentless Rockwall-Heath attack that racked up 446 passing yards by junior QB Josh Hoover and 661 yards overall, scoring eight touchdowns.

“There's no good losses and there's no bad wins. I felt like we had our opportunities,” Stewart said. “We missed an opportunity to block a punt and we missed an opportunity to pick two balls early in the game. We didn't make plays, and if you do that against a really good football team (you won't have success). They've got athletes all over the field.”

Although there's a very real possibility that Temple might run into Rockwall-Heath again in Round 2 next season, the Wildcats currently are much more focused on having a productive spring and then preparing for a challenging three-game slate of non-district competition.

Temple's most high-profile test will be its Aug. 27 season opener at Wildcat Stadium against perennial power Austin Westlake, whose Todd Dodge-coached Chaparrals won the 6A Division II state championship in 2019 and then captured the 6A Division I state crown in January. Westlake incoming senior quarterback Cade Klubnik is committed to Clemson.

On Sept. 3 the Wildcats will host Magnolia West, whose new head coach is former Temple offensive coordinator Ben McGehee. After serving as Sweetwater's head coach for four seasons, McGehee replaced ex-Wildcats assistant Blake Joseph as head coach at Magnolia West after Joseph departed to join the North Texas coaching staff.

Temple will complete its non-district gauntlet Sept. 10 at Hutto. The Wildcats originally were scheduled to play the Hippos last season, but that game was called off because of health guidelines relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Temple instead hosted Arlington Martin, which dealt the Wildcats their only regular-season defeat.

Temple returns seven starters on defense, paced by tackling machine York – a starter since his freshman year – and also first-team all-district performers in incoming seniors Eric Shorter at end and O'Tarian Peoples at safety.


CREATING HAVOC: Senior-to-be defensive ends Eric Shorter (13) and Tommy Torres (90) again will be major factors for the Temple Wildcats during the 2021 season. Shorter earned first-team all-district status in 12-6A and Torres was a second-team all-league pick. They helped Temple shut out bi-district playoff opponent Waxahachie 38-0 last December at Wildcat Stadium. The Wildcats' defense seeks improvement after allowing 56 points in the Class 6A Division II area-round loss to Rockwall-Heath. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)



Returning stalwarts who earned second-team all-district honors in 2020 are hulking end Tommy Torres, outside linebacker Marshall Grays and safety Jaden Jackson. Linebacker Faylin Lee is another returning starter, and fellow incoming senior Johnny Donoso played significant snaps at linebacker and safety.

“Johhny played more than some of the starters. He's just such a hybrid kid. He's a utility guy and a very intelligent, very savvy kid,” said Stewart, whose Dexter Knox-coordinated defense has another emerging player in incoming junior tackle Jaylon Jackson.

With Mack and fellow starting cornerback Keon Williams graduating, Temple is searching for two new starters at cornerback. Senior-to-be Jalen Wardale and incoming junior Triston Cohorn are in the mix. So is athletic incoming junior Naeten Mitchell, who moved back to Temple – his father, Jeremy Mitchell, formerly coached Temple's safeties for Stewart – after earning all-district status at Manor last season.

“He's as hard-working a kid as I've ever seen,” Stewart said of Mitchell, a starting infielder on the Wildcats' baseball team.

At this time a year ago, it was considered highly likely that Harrison-Pilot would become Temple's starting quarterback in 2020 after he started every game at safety as a freshman.

However, senior Humberto Arizmendi won the starting job in a close competition and went on to pass for 2,102 yards and 28 touchdowns and rush for 707 yards en route to earning first-team all-district recognition as the Wildcats' fifth consecutive one-season starter at QB.

The extremely versatile Harrison-Pilot made the switch to slot receiver in stride for offensive coordinator Josh Sadler and grabbed 38 receptions for 502 yards and seven touchdowns, and Harrison-Pilot also saw spot duty at QB and rushed for the go-ahead TD late in Temple's 27-24 victory at Killeen Shoemaker to clinch the 12-6A championship.

CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN: Temple receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot made 38 receptions for 502 yards and seven touchdowns last season as a sophomore, earning first-team all-district honors in 12-6A. The 6-foot, 185-pound Harrison-Pilot will contend to become the Wildcats' starting quarterback in 2021. His 19 official NCAA FBS scholarship offers including Baylor, Texas Christian, Houston, Southern California, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Miami (Fla.). Harrison-Pilot and football teammates Samari Howard, Carlton Mack and Tr'Darius Taylor form Temple's 4x100-meter relay team that will compete in the UIL Class 6A state meet next Saturday in Austin. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)



Highly recruited in the “athlete" category, the 6-foot, 185-pound Harrison-Pilot has 19 official NCAA FBS scholarship offers, including Baylor, Texas Christian, Houston, Southern California, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Miami (Fla.). He has the inside track to becoming Temple's starting quarterback next season, but Stewart said that Arizmendi's success story as a late bloomer makes him want to give senior-to-be Kaleb Hill and incoming sophomore Damarion Willis an opportunity to compete for the QB position.

“The Kaleb Hill kid reminds me a lot of Humberto, almost the exact same skill set. He's a savvy kid who played played JV as a junior,” Stewart said. “I just don't like sitting underclassmen and having them sit around and wait to see if something happens. Humberto got better (playing JV as a junior) than he would have otherwise, and he was first-team all-district at quarterback (as a senior). We've had five one-year starters in a row and they were all either district Offensive MVP or first-team all-district.”

If the strong-armed, elusive Harrison-Pilot does take over at quarterback, Temple's most productive returning receiver will be the small-but-speedy Taylor (18 catches, 345 yards, four touchdowns). Incoming senior tight end Ke'Andre Smith, a second-team all-district pick, likely will be targeted for more catches next season.

The Wildcats expect another outstanding season from Howard, the do-it-all workhorse running back who shared 12-6A's MVP award with Shoemaker star Monaray Baldwin (Baylor). The shifty, sturdy Howard rushed for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns, caught 24 passes for 347 yards and six TDs and added five 2-point conversion runs to pace Temple with 142 points.

There are many holes to fill on the offensive line, as incoming senior Colby Rice, an undersized tackle, is the only returning starter. Stewart said the Wildcats have several good-sized linemen coming along who will be counted on to contribute next season. The candidates include incoming senior Jose Faz, juniors Jeremiah Mungia and Agustin Silva and sophomore Endrei Sauls.

“We've got about three freshmen who are fixing to be sophomores that are bigger than anyone we've had since I've been here. We've made a living with undersized guys, so some of that makes you nervous because sometimes big is just big,” Stewart said. “Our starting center last year (Matthew Frye) was 5-7, 220 pounds, but he'd rather die than lose. (But) at some point physics takes over, and we find that out when we go against hyper-talented teams.”

Temple finally needs to develop a new kicker after reliable four-year starter Aaron Wagaman scored 302 career points, but Stewart thinks incoming senior Danis Bajric, who also punts, will be up to the task.

As the Wildcats begin spring practice and continue to build toward the 2021 season, Stewart is hopeful that his next team will develop the kind of admirable work ethic and cohesiveness that helped make Temple's 10-win 2020 season one to remember.

“It was the funnest group I've ever coached. It may not have been above the Mason-Dixon line just on measurable talent, but that's what I love, because that's what we try to base this program on,” Stewart said. “Foundationally we're all about the stuff you can't measure. You can measure talent; it's hard to measure heart. If you have the program in place, it ought to be that much better when the talent comes."

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