ONE MONTH AWAY: Following 10-win season, Temple starts 2021 slate by hosting state champion Westlake
FULL SPEED AHEAD: Temple running back Samari Howard shared District 12-6A's Most Valuable Player award as a junior last season, when his skills and versatility helped the Wildcats go undefeated in league play and finish with a 10-2 record. Howard and head coach Scott Stewart's Temple squad will begin their 2021 season with a big challenge when they host Austin Westlake on Aug. 27 at Wildcat Stadium. The Chaparrals of head coach Todd Dodge won the Class 6A Division II state championship in 2019 and captured the 6A Division I state title in 2020. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Exactly one month from now, the Temple Wildcats begin their 2021 football season with one huge test.
Traveling to Wildcat Stadium and Bob McQueen Field on Aug. 27 for a 7:30 p.m. showdown will be perennial power Austin Westlake, whose Chaparrals won the Class 6A Division II state championship in 2019 and then captured the 2020 6A Division I state title in January.
With legendary head coach Todd Dodge having announced last week that he will retire after this season, Westlake's quest to send him out with a third consecutive state crown starts against a Temple team that has high hopes of its own.
Head coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats compiled a 10-2 record in 2020, winning the District 12-6A championship with a 7-0 mark before Temple's season concluded with a 56-28 loss to Rockwall-Heath in the area round of the 6A Division II state playoffs.
The Wildcats' top returning players include dynamic senior running back Samari Howard, co-Most Valuable Player of 12-6A last season; highly recruited junior wide receiver/quarterback Mikal Harrison-Pilot; speedy senior receiver Tr'Darius Taylor; junior linebacker and leading tackler Taurean York, the reigning 12-6A Defensive MVP; and two first-team all-district defenders in senior end Eric Shorter and senior safety O'Tarian Peoples.
Three players who moved to Temple since the end of last season could be immediate contributors: senior wide receiver Devan Williams (who played defense for Temple in 2019 before moving to Wichita Falls City View), junior defensive back Naeten Mitchell (Manor) and sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield (Midlothian Heritage). Rumfield's father, former Belton football and baseball standout Brock Rumfield, was hired as a Temple assistant coach this spring.
Meanwhile, Westlake features Clemson-committed senior quarterback Cade Klubnik, who was voted the state's 6A offensive player of the year after powering the Chaps to last season's state championship. Sports Illustrated recently named Klubnik the nation's best quarterback in the 2022 recruiting class.
Westlake's assistant head coach and defensive coordinator is Tony Salazar, a safety at Mary Hardin-Baylor from 2000-03 who earned All-America honors with the Crusaders. Salazar's Chaps defense shut out Denton Guyer in the 2019 state title game, then allowed 14.3 points per game in six playoff games last season.
Westlake's coaching staff also includes former UMHB defensive standouts Matt Cody and Baylor Mullins, Belton graduate and former Temple College pitcher Tyler Vail and former Cameron Yoe quarterback Jack Rhoades.
Temple and Westlake played each other in non-district competition from 2012-15. The Wildcats earned a 20-14 home win in 2012 before the Chaparrals prevailed in the next three clashes (45-41, 49-48, 28-17).
The second of Temple's three non-district games is Sept. 3 at home against Magnolia West, which has a new head coach in former Temple offensive coordinator Ben McGehee. He's the Mustangs' third consecutive head coach to have been a former Temple assistant coach, following JD Berna and Blake Joseph. After Joseph departed to join the North Texas staff, McGehee was hired by Magnolia West following his four seasons as head coach at Sweetwater. Temple won 28-13 at Magnolia West last October.
In a scheduling quirk, Magnolia West is the only returning non-district opponent for Temple. The Wildcats' first road game in 2021 is Sept. 10 at Hutto, whose Hippos were scheduled to play at Temple last season but had to pull out of that game because of factors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wildcats replaced Hutto with Arlington Martin, which won 43-25 at Wildcat Stadium last Oct. 9 to hand Temple its only regular-season defeat.
After getting an open date following their three-game non-district slate, the Wildcats will begin defense of their 12-6A championship with a Sept. 24 road test at old rival Bryan. Temple's first home game in district play is Oct. 1 against emerging contender Harker Heights. The Knights jumped out to a 20-0 lead against Temple last year in Killeen before the Wildcats charged back to earn a 38-36 victory.
Temple's only Thursday game on the regular-season schedule is Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at Leo Buckley Stadium against Killeen Ellison, whose Eagles have a new head coach in Danny Servance, formerly the head coach at Odessa. Temple beat Ellison 39-15 last season.
On Oct. 15, Temple will travel to Tiger Field to battle neighboring rival Belton for the first time since 2019 and for the first time since Brett Sniffin became the Tigers' head coach. Belton forfeited its game at Wildcat Stadium last Nov. 13 because of positive COVID-19 cases within the Tigers' program. Temple, a 66-34 winner at Belton in 2019, will be seeking its eighth straight victory over Belton, a streak that began in 2011.
On Oct. 22 Temple will host always-talented Killeen Shoemaker, whose Grey Wolves pushed the Wildcats to the brink in each of the past two seasons before Temple pulled out close wins. Last Nov. 19, Shoemaker led 24-20 at Leo Buckley Stadium before Harrison-Pilot's 8-yard touchdown run with 1:41 remaining gave the Wildcats a 27-24 lead. Temple's defense then delivered a final stand to clinch the outright 12-6A championship for the Wildcats.
Temple's final road game on the schedule is Oct. 29 at traditional rival Killeen, whose Kangaroos lost 49-6 at Wildcat Stadium last year. The Wildcats will wrap up their regular season Nov. 5 at home against Copperas Cove. Temple beat the host Bulldawgs 55-21 in last year's league opener.
Stewart carries a 48-16 record into his sixth season as Temple's head coach. The Wildcats seek their ninth consecutive playoff berth.