LAST GO-ROUND: Battle-tested Temple seniors Harrison-Pilot, York lead way as Wildcats begin practice
MESSAGE DELIVERED: Temple seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart addresses his team after the Wildcats completed their first practice of fall camp Monday, just past 9 a.m. as they stayed out of the day's most extreme heat. Temple, the defending District 12-6A champion, will continue to practice in the morning until the Wildcats have their first afternoon workout Friday. Temple's season opener is at McKinney at noon on Saturday, Aug. 27. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
When it comes to season-opening football practices with the Temple Wildcats, this year’s version definitely is not the first rodeo for Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Taurean York.
The longtime teammates and close friends reported early Monday morning for their fourth and final high school training camp, sounding confident, looking fit and clearly excited and energetic about what the 2022 season might bring for Temple’s optimistic squad.
Wide receiver/quarterback/safety Harrison-Pilot and middle linebacker York are battle-tested veterans, having helped spark the Wildcats to at least a share of three consecutive District 12-6A championships – featuring a 21-1 league record – and back-to-back trips to the area round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs.
Entering their fourth season as varsity starters, the highly recruited Harrison-Pilot and Baylor commitment York discussed what the beginning of one last go-round means to them.
“This is crazy, because I was literally just in middle school watching and being a ball boy, (knowing) I would one day be up here. Now I look up and it’s my senior year and now I’ve got to try to do something my senior year because I’ve got to leave my legacy,” said the 6-foot, 196-pound Harrison-Pilot, who starred alongside York at Travis Science Academy. “It’s all gone by so fast. I’m going to do everything full-speed and whatever happens, happens.”
Temple’s leading tackler in each of his three seasons and a two-time 12-6A Defensive MVP, York took stock of how he’s progressed from 14-year-old varsity starter to an undisputed team leader at 17, only one semester from graduation.
“I think I’m just blessed beyond all measures. I think I’ve worked really hard from Day 1 when I was 14 years old to Day 1 (now) when I’m 17 years old,” said the 6-foot, 215-pound York. “Time has flown by tremendously fast due to COVID, and football is just a game where you do the same things over and over, the days pile up on top of each other and it goes by fast. I’ve just got to take it in each and every day.”
Temple seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart pledged to keep the Wildcats out of extreme heat as much as possible, and on Monday morning they reported to campus before 6:30, hit the grass practice fields around 7 and finished the workout in helmets, practice jerseys and shorts by 9:05 in fairly comfortable conditions.
Aside from the typical speed bumps that come with any first practice, Stewart liked what he saw from a group that will strive to earn Temple’s 10th straight playoff berth.
“It looked like a first day. We’ve got a lot of stuff to fix. But again, the biggest room in the house is the room for improvement. The kids were excited and we had 260-something kids here, and that’s the good part,” said Stewart, who’s guided the Wildcats to a 57-19 record (.750 winning percentage) in six years at the helm. “Day 1, I’m not going to say it’s the easy part, but it’s easier than Day 2 and Day 3. What we talked about today is, ‘Be better tomorrow than you were today.’
“Everybody wants to talk to me about goals, but I don’t ever circle anybody on the schedule. If we can be better tomorrow than we were today and you do that enough times in a row, that at least gives you a chance to be talking about something special later on. We’re not talking about something special later on right now.”
ON THE RUN AGAIN: Temple senior Mikal Harrison-Pilot returns for his fourth season as a varsity starter after making six touchdown receptions and rushing for eight TDs last year for the Wildcats, who went 9-3 overall and 7-0 in District 12-6A for the second straight season. The four-star recruit includes Texas, TCU and Houston among his possible college destinations. One of Temple's best blockers is junior Endrei Sauls (71), who's moving to center after earning first-team all-district honors at left guard in 2021. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Versatile performer Harrison-Pilot liked the energy that the Wildcats brought to their opening day of practice.
“It was real good. This morning we were up here at 6:15 and everybody was yelling and yapping. They were ready for it,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be a special year. We’ve got a whole new offense in. I feel that energy. We brought it today and hopefully we continue it on.”
Added York: “It looked like a first day. Everybody showed up, a lot of familiar faces showing up after some time (apart) and being gone on vacation. They were here on time. The special teams meeting was packed. We’ve got some kinks to iron out with the freshmen practicing with us. That’s a first, for sure.”
Temple will continue to practice each morning until Friday, when it has planned an afternoon session. The Wildcats add shoulder pads to their outfit on Wednesday, then on Saturday they’ll get into full pads and begin full-contact drills.
The team’s lone scrimmage is a three-way get-together with Killeen – whose first-year head coach is former Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler – and Manor on Friday, Aug. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Manor.
Stewart said Monday that the Wildcats’ season opener at McKinney on Saturday, Aug. 27 has been moved up to noon instead of 1 p.m. He originally signed the game contract expecting that the opener would be played on a Friday night.
“I talked to those guys (with McKinney ISD) and we’re talking about a heat-index advisory,” Stewart said. “The hottest part of the day is 3:30 to 5, so in theory we’ll be getting off the field instead of coming out of halftime or playing that last quarter in the (most extreme) heat.”
Temple’s home opener at Wildcat Stadium – the first of its five games on Bob McQueen Field – is against Willis on Friday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. The Wildcats’ quest for a fourth straight 12-6A title begins at Bryan on Sept. 23, followed by Temple’s district home opener against new opponent Pflugerville Weiss on Sept. 30.
One Wildcat who’s steadily growing into a leadership role along with experienced teammates such as Harrison-Pilot and York is junior offensive lineman Endrei Sauls, who was a first-team all-district selection at left guard in 2021 but is making the move to center this season.
Sauls said he’s grown an inch to 6-2 and dropped 8 pounds to get to 292, becoming not only stronger but also more athletic and well-conditioned in preparation for his new position. He said Temple’s opening day of practice was positive and went according to plan.
“It felt pretty good. Obviously we’re not going to be as good as we are in the middle of the season, but it was a really solid first day,” said Sauls, whose fellow returning starters on the offensive line are two seniors: right tackle Jeremiah Mungia and right guard Agustin Silva. “It felt good to get back into helmets and it felt good to get back into the groove of things.”
Sauls takes over at center following the graduation of Jose Faz, who earned first-team all-district recognition despite being undersized at 5-8 and 250 pounds.
“During the back end of the season, I was told that I was going to be moving to center (this year),” explained Sauls, whose primary offensive line coach is Mike Bickham. “So then I would watch more of Faz and then during the offseason I went back to the game film and watched a bunch of him and how he attacked stuff. And I’ve been watching a bunch of NFL and college guys and how they do it and just trying to adapt my game as best as I can do.”
Sauls believes his imposing presence at center can bolster the attack of Temple’s offense, which has a new coordinator in Robby Case (promoted from special teams coordinator) but lost prolific three-year running back Samari Howard (Army West Point) to graduation.
“It definitely benefits the offense. No knock to Faz, but there was some stuff he couldn’t do. That’s no knock to him, because he was a great athlete,” Sauls said. “It opens up some stuff that we can do and adds more options to the playbook.”
Harrison-Pilot had high marks for the progression of quarterback Reese Rumfield, a skilled thrower who returns as the starter after passing for 1,831 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore. Case’s promotion to coordinator and the recent arrival of highly regarded QBs coach Brad Stanfield could help propel Rumfield and Temple’s offense to new heights.
“Reese is way more comfortable, because he can do his own job and get to do whatever he wants to do as a quarterback. He feels more confident in what he does and his throws are way smoother and way better than last year. I can’t wait to see it,” said Harrison-Pilot, who made 28 catches for 472 yards and six touchdowns last season along with rushing for eight TDs. “We’re all going to be good.
“You can tell it’s a whole different gameplan. Coach Case knows what he’s talking about and he knows the players he wants to get the ball to. Coach Stanfield is a legit quarterbacks coach. He’s trained a lot of great players and now he’s training Reese. Seeing Reese develop as a player, now I just want to see what he does. I know his senior year’s going to be real great for him, although I won’t be here.”
On May 30, Harrison-Pilot announced that the five programs he’ll make his college choice from are Texas, Texas Christian, Houston (where his father, Temple co-defensive coordinator Chris Pilot, played football), Oklahoma and California. On Monday he said he’s leaning toward remaining in the Lone Star State and added that “it might be soon” when he announces his verbal commitment.
“I thought about my birthday, which is Nov. 28, but I was like, ‘Man, that’s a little far.’ I think I’ve got an idea where I’m going to go,” Harrison-Pilot said. “I’ve got to find a special date, a date that means something to me so I can drop it on that date.”
After being hindered by injuries during the early stages of his junior season, the do-it-all Harrison-Pilot said he feels great physically entering his senior campaign – aided by a healthy nutritional boost.
“I’ve been drinking 15-ounce smoothies every morning. They’ve got bananas, strawberries, Greek yogurt, almond milk and spinach,” he said, smiling. “This year I’m feeling really healthy and really good. Hopefully I’ll continue to be healthy, because if so it’s going to be a crazy year for me.
“The only thing I’m working on is my release point and the top of the route, just getting the little stuff in. I feel it’s going to be the same thing as last year, being everywhere on the field, just being me and being a real athlete.”
TEMPLE'S TACKLING MACHINE: Temple linebacker Taurean York (5), shown celebrating a takeaway during a home win against Hutto last season, led the Wildcats with 141 tackles as a junior in 2021 and has paced the team in tackles in each of his three varsity seasons. The two-time reigning District 12-6A Defensive MVP is verbally committed to Baylor and plans to graduate from high school in December. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
As for his longtime running buddy York, the three-year tackling machine remains firm in his verbal commitment to Baylor but said he does plan to make official visits to Louisiana State and Mississippi this fall before signs a binding national letter of intent in December, which is also when he’ll graduate one semester early.
York, ranked near the top of his class academically, said he’s all right with vocally motivating teammates this season even if that means ruffling a few proverbial feathers. After all, he and his fellow seniors have only one more opportunity to push the Wildcats – eliminated by high-scoring Rockwall-Heath in the area round the last two seasons – beyond Round 3 of the playoffs for the first time since 2017, the final year of their stellar run in 5A Division I.
“I feel like the entire team, honestly, can use that extra edge, and that’s why I’m here. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, but that’s OK,” York said. “Like Kobe (Bryant) said, ‘Banners hang forever. Friends come and go.’ So I’m more focused on winning a championship right now, so I don’t care if I hurt their feelings.
“I would rather hurt one person’s feelings than 10,000 people’s feelings in Temple when we lose in November. Plus, 20 years from now all they’re going to remember in a championship banner and a ring. They’re not going to remember the time I hurt their feelings. Emotions come and go.”
By no means are Harrison-Pilot and York the only reliable leaders for Temple. Stewart said New Mexico State-committed senior safety Naeten Mitchell, senior defensive lineman Jaylon Jackson, senior defensive back/receiver Steve Jackson (a transfer from Troy) and Rumfield all are displaying leaderships in their own ways.
“There’s not a lot (of numbers) in this senior class, but there’s a lot of leaders. Naeten Mitchell is a quintessential leader. Reese Rumfield is a year away from being a senior, but I thought he did a good job of talking to guys,” Stewart said. “These kids have known Steve forever because he went to Temple as a freshman. He’s more of a vocal guy and he’ll do a good job. Jaylon Jackson talks more trash than two radios. He’s full of it sometimes, but he works hard and they do listen when he talks. Such a great personality.”
In the coach’s mind, this team of Wildcats is one he’s ready to go into battle with.
“It’s going to be fun. This is a good group, they work their tails off and there’s never been a lot of that prima donna stuff here. There’s just not,” Stewart said. “As far as how talented we’ll be compared to years past, I guess we’ll see. I think there’s plenty out there, but I do like their mentality and their mindset and their blue-collar, yeoman’s approach. Grab your hard hat and go.”
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