ONGOING QUEST: After Temple extends run of success, Stewart says upgrading Wildcats' strength vital
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
BITTERSWEET FEELING: The Temple Wildcats will welcome back team captains Naeten Mitchell (4), Mikal Harrison-Pilot (7) and Taurean York (5) as seniors for the 2022 season, but they must say goodbye to senior captains Tommy Torres (90) and Samari Howard (8). The Air Force-committed Howard was voted District 12-6A's Offensive MVP after rushing for 1,728 yards and scoring 22 total touchdowns, and he became Temple's all-time leader in TDs (57) and points (360). York, a three-year starting linebacker, won his second straight 12-6A Defensive MVP award after making 141 tackles. Coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats (9-3) compiled a 7-0 district record for the second consecutive season. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The Temple Wildcats produced many accomplishments during the 2021 high school football season, and head coach Scott Stewart is very proud of them for that.
They achieved a 7-0 record in District 12-6A for the second consecutive season, earned Temple’s third straight 12-6A championship overall, posted the Wildcats’ ninth playoff berth in a row, compiled a nine-game winning streak and won a Class 6A Division II playoff game for the second straight year.
Although Stewart, who has a 57-19 record in six years at the helm, certainly is pleased that Temple did those things, he’s definitely not satisfied with where the program stands.
Eleven days after the Wildcats’ 9-3 season ended with a 45-33 loss to area-round nemesis Rockwall-Heath in Burleson, Stewart on Tuesday reflected on Temple’s previous three months and what it means for the Wildcats as they move forward.
“I was really proud. You look (late in the third quarter) and it’s a two-point game. You saw them. I mean, how freaking ridiculous are those guys?” Stewart said about fifth-ranked Rockwall-Heath, whose Hawks defeated 10-win Temple 56-28 in the area round last December. “I think with that time off, time heals wounds. There was just a bunch of broken hearts. They played their butts off. I think anybody that has eyes saw that Rockwall-Heath was a more talented football team. It wasn’t a great matchup as far as what they try to do and what we try to do, and still it was a two-point game (late in the third).
“I do not second-guess calls that were made. Those things can always be second-guessed. Those kids flat running played their tails off,” added Stewart, whose squad couldn’t overcome losing a fumble on a handoff to begin the fourth quarter. “I knew we were going to have to take some chances, but I was very proud of the way they played. We played a really good football team really hard. I talked to a couple of their coaches after the game and it was like, “Gosh dang, that was a physical football game.’ So I don’t think it was heartbreak because we lost; a lot of it was heartbreak because it’s just over, especially the seniors. That’s a lot of investment.”
Temple undoubtedly will miss a skilled, battle-tested senior class that helped the Wildcats rack up 27 wins – 15 straight against 12-6A competition – during the past three seasons. That group is headlined by record-setting running back Samari Howard, the Air Force commitment who was this season’s 12-6A Offensive MVP.
It also includes first-team all-district performers in explosive wide receiver Devan Williams (11 touchdown catches), steady center Jose Faz, sure-tackling linebacker Faylin Lee, disruptive defensive tackle Tommy Torres, speedy kick returner Tr’Darius Taylor and accurate kicker Danis Bajric. Five graduating players earned second-team all-district honors: tight end KeAndre Smith, offensive tackle Colby Rice, defensive end Eric Shorter, safety Kaleb Hill and cornerback LeMichael Thompson.
The show must go on for Temple’s successful program, and it will, of course, but Stewart said it’s vitally important to recognize the senior players for what they’ve done to help drive the Wildcats forward.
“To me, there’s a fine line there. You’ve got to flush (this season) and move on, but you also can’t just treat those guys that just got done with their career like they don’t matter,” Stewart said. “So I’m meeting with our seniors to talk about what the next couple weeks look like and what next semester looks like, because I think it’s important to show them (they’re still important). I’ve worked for guys that stick them in a classroom as soon as it’s over and it’s, ‘Don’t even come over here anymore.’ I just can’t do that. Those kids matter to me.
“I’m going to stick my head in on those guys. I let (college) recruiters know that if they want to talk to our 2022 (graduating) guys, they’re here from 11 to 12. I still talk to (former Temple star defensive lineman and Atlanta Falcons rookie) Ta’Quon Graham probably once a week or once every other week. I don’t want them to think everything they did was for naught. Again, be who you say you are.”
As for the players who are expected to return next season, Temple has some very good ones to plan around.
Outstanding junior middle linebacker Taurean York was 12-6A’s Defensive MVP for the second consecutive season after making 141 tackles and leading the Wildcats in stops for the third straight year. He also caused four fumbles and recovered four. Another three-year starter is versatile star Mikal Harrison-Pilot, a big-play wide receiver (28 receptions, 472 yards, six touchdowns) who also can impact games at quarterback and safety. Aggressive sophomore tackle Ayden Brown was the 12-6A Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
MR. RELIABLE: Temple junior middle linebacker Taurean York (5) pursues Waxahachie quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. during the Wildcats' 28-14 victory over the Indians in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game Nov. 12 at Wildcat Stadium. York made a career-high 141 tackles as he led Temple in stops for the third consecutive season, and he was voted District 12-6A's Defensive MVP for the second straight year. York caused four fumbles and recovered four, returning one of them 76 yards for a game-sealing touchdown against Harker Heights. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Five other Temple players will be back next season after earning first-team all-district recognition: junior defensive end Jaylon Jackson (seven sacks), junior safety Naeten Mitchell (73 tackles, three interceptions), junior strong safety Zion Moore (54 tackles), sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield and sophomore offensive guard Endrei Sauls. Second-team all-league picks set to return on offense are junior tackle Jeremiah Mungia, junior guard Agustin Silva and junior fullback/H-back Landon Halvorson.
Stewart traditionally shuts off his phone and goes off the grid for several days after each Temple season ends, and he wasn’t monitoring Rockwall-Heath’s Region II semifinal against Tomball last Saturday night at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
When Stewart finally turned his phone back on, he saw a series of text messages from Dexter Knox, the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator. Knox watched the Tigers (10-3) – the fourth-place team from 15-6A – employ a punishing, ball-hogging, clock-burning rushing attack to surprisingly control the explosive Hawks to earn a 35-21 victory that snapped the 10-game winning streak of Rockwall-Heath (11-2), which is coached by former Temple head coach Mike Spradlin and was last year’s Region II runner-up.
“Knox kept texting me. Of course, I didn’t get all these texts until four days later, because my phone was off. But he’s saying, ‘They’re executing what we were trying to do – try to make (Rockwall-Heath) run the ball, then you run the ball,’” said Stewart, whose defense allowed 289 passing yards and 226 rushing yards against the potent, balanced Hawks. “Tomball did exactly what our gameplan was, and they executed it.
“Knox said Rockwall-Heath had five offensive possessions in the game and Tomball had the ball 40 of 48 minutes. Rockwall-Heath scored on two of three possessions in the first half and one of two in the second half. (As an offense) you’d take that percentage. They had 11 possessions against us; they had five vs. Tomball.”
Tomball essentially played keepaway from Indiana-committed quarterback Josh Hoover and Rockwall-Heath’s talented, physical offense, whose play-caller is Spradlin and whose quarterbacks coach is former Temple star QB Chad President.
Army-committed quarterback Cale Hellums accumulated 317 of Tomball's 428 ground yards, and the upstart Tigers passed only nine times while totaling 75 offensive plays to just 34 for the Hawks. By comparison, Rockwall-Heath had 78 offensive snaps against Temple to the Wildcats’ 54.
The combination of witnessing Temple’s second straight second-round loss to Rockwall-Heath – which scored a combined 101 points in those games – and then hearing about how Tomball eliminated the Hawks left Stewart adamant about one thing in particular: Strength will be the focus of the Wildcats’ offseason training program, which doesn’t figure to be for the faint of heart, body, mind or soul.
“Well, we’re about to get medieval. We’re going to get back to some old-school stuff. We do a lot of good stuff, and I just want to get back to basics. Strong kids are usually tougher, and we’re going to focus extremely hard from now to the middle of February on grinding in that weight room,” Stewart said. “We call it ‘The Factory,’ and if you’re going to call it ‘The Factory,’ treat it like it’s a factory. Factories don’t run two days a week and make a profit, so we’re going to open up the factory. It’s open for business. Assembly line. We’re going to get medieval.”
HUNGRY FOR MORE: Head coach Scott Stewart has guided Temple to six consecutive playoff berths, three straight District 12-6A championships and a 21-1 record in their last 22 district games, but the Wildcats have a 2-4 record in the Class 6A Division II state playoffs since 2018 and haven't won a postseason game away from Wildcat Stadium during that period. Stewart said upgrading players' strength in the weight room will be a major emphasis of the offseason training program after Temple's second straight area-round loss to Rockwall-Heath. "We're going to get medieval," he said. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
The fact that offensive linemen Mungia, Sauls and Silva and defensive linemen Brown and Jackson are projected returning starters is a positive starting point as Temple aims to upgrade its size, strength and physicality across the board. However, that’s only one part of the equation as Stewart and his coaching staff aim to augment their strong points and shore up their relative weaknesses.
Temple owns a staggering 21-1 record in district play during the last three seasons, but the Wildcats are 2-4 in the playoffs since they moved from 5A to 6A in 2018 and haven’t won a postseason game away from Wildcat Stadium, where they beat bi-district opponent Waxahachie 38-0 last year and 28-14 this season.
Temple has struggled on defense in its last four playoff defeats, allowing 46.8 points and 580.8 yards per game in first-round losses to Mesquite Horn and Longview and the pair of area-round matchups with Rockwall-Heath.
“No. 1 is you evaluate everything that you do. What did we do from last December until now? I’m going to go back to basics,” said Stewart, who in his first two seasons as head coach guided Temple to an 8-2 playoff record in 5A Division I, highlighted by a berth in the 2016 state championship game. “Like I said, the factory . . . both stacks are going to be burning. We are going to grind.
“Toughness and strength are going to be (vitally important), because I think it changes more than just your body. Until February, don’t worry about how cold it is outside. We ain’t going outside. Don’t worry about whether it’s 20 degrees outside and you need sweats. Jog your butt up to the weight room. It’s time to go to work.”
Stewart said he and Temple ISD director of strength and conditioning Ryan Boutwell are busy formulating a strategy to maximize the Wildcats’ mixture of raw strength, speed and agility as Temple shoots to advance beyond Round 2 in 6A after it competed in 20 playoff games in 5A D-I from 2014-17, including a trip to the 2014 state final when Stewart was in his first of two seasons as defensive coordinator for Spradlin.
“I just told the kids, ‘We played 16 games (in 2016) with a 193-pound center, Ryan McKenzie. Now, he squatted 450 pounds. You’re probably not going to play against 450-pound guys,’” Stewart said. “It’s not that we’ve gone away from that stuff, but we brought in (Boutwell) and we do a bunch of stuff. I think our durability is up there. What we have met on ad nauseam over the last month is finding that fine line.
“What has increased greatly is our team quickness. Speed is speed. I think you can get a little bit faster, but God gave you what He gave you. I think our team quickness and football speed is awesome. We’ve done a great job with that. And I don’t think we’ve done a poor job at strength levels; I just want to take the whole group and lay a foundational deal. We’re just going to work through this and see what it’s like and try to find that happy medium. That’s all I used to do, was just grind in the weight room year-round. We’d have kids who could squat the end of the building but weren’t as agile as they needed to be.
“It’s finding the fine line of the old-school way that you know produces a certain thing, and then doing things we’ve done that have produced really good results, too. It’s just evaluating and finding that balance. Obviously I want to keep doing the stuff that’s made us quicker, but I also know that it changes the DNA of a kid when you put 500 pounds on your back. We’re not doing ‘projected maxes.’”
It’s been tough sledding for Temple to advance past of the second round of the playoffs in always-rigorous 6A Region II, but some observers’ projections for the University Interscholastic League’s upcoming reclassification and realignment in February have the Wildcats moving south to Region IV.
Temple, Harker Heights and Copperas Cove are the area’s only current 12-6A members who are expected to remain in 6A for the next two seasons. The UIL might send those three schools south to form a district with the five Round Rock ISD schools, who are currently in 25-6A along with Leander Vandegrift, Cedar Park Vista Ridge and Hutto.
“If the numbers hold, it’ll be us, Cove and Heights. Now where are they going to send us?” Stewart said, adding that former 12-6A rival Waco Midway could get lumped in with Temple, Cove and Heights because Waco is projected to drop to 5A. “I would never put money on it, but (moving into Region IV) is as fair a guess as anything I’ve got. What I don’t know is the chain reaction if they take us three and send us to the five Round Rock schools.”
One widely held perception is that Region IV offers a less demanding road in the 6A playoffs than power-packed Region II does, as evidenced by the seemingly annual long postseason journeys of Austin-area powers Westlake and Lake Travis.
“If you can get to Round 3, you’re going to Round 5,” Stewart said about that common theory, chuckling.
Added Temple’s coach about how it’s been competing in the Region II playoffs the last four years: “I’d love for it to be easy. It’s just not. Nope.”
QUITE A RUN: Temple senior running back Samari Howard completed his three-season varsity career as the Wildcats' all-time leader in total touchdowns (57) and points (360). With 3,955 rushing yards, the Air Force commitment ranks third on Temple's career list behind Lache Seastrunk and Jeff Carr. "You don't replace Samari with one guy," Temple head coach Scott Stewart said about the District 12-6A Offensive MVP. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Stewart and offensive coordinator Josh Sadler aren’t exactly looking forward to coaching without the services of the well-rounded Howard at their disposal. In his three varsity seasons, the shifty, durable running back was voted 12-6A’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year, Co-Most Valuable Player and Offensive MVP, respectively.
As a senior Howard rushed for a career-high 1,728 yards and scored 22 touchdowns overall, and he overtook Lache Seastrunk to become Temple’s all-time leader in total TDs (57) and points (360). Howard ran for 166 yards and two TDs in the finale against Rockwall-Heath and completed his stellar career with 3,955 rushing yards, trailing only Seastrunk and Jeff Carr on the Wildcats’ all-time list.
“You don’t replace Samari with one guy. You (rarely get to) coach those guys in a career,” Stewart said about Howard, who also often played quarterback out of the Wildcat formation. “I’ll tell you, if I started a program, you’ve got to have a triggerman (at quarterback), but I didn’t see Hoover running down on kickoffs and holding on extra points, know what I mean? And I’m not taking anything away from what that kid was to that team.”
Effective reserve running backs Jalen Robinson and Tavaris Sullivan also were seniors, so Temple’s running back corps will have an entirely fresh look in 2022. Stewart said senior-to-be Jer’vonnie Williams rushed for “a gajillion yards on the JV team” and that sophomores-to-be LaTaylon Brown and Adrian Scott helped the Wildcats’ top freshman squad share the 12-6A championship. Incoming juniors Damarion Willis – who got some varsity playing time as a backup at safety and quarterback – are Raymond Johnson also are running back prospects.
“It’s not always what those (younger) guys want, but it is nice as a program when you have three seniors that are serviceable, and you can let those younger guys play (on JV). You get better by playing,” Stewart said. “I think Jer’vonnie Williams is going to be a touch hog. I’m real excited about (Brown and Scott).”
After moving to Temple in May and joining the Wildcats in the middle of spring practice, Rumfield won a competition for the starting quarterback job and delivered strong production in his debut season as Temple’s first sophomore starting QB since Zach Allen in 2010. A gifted thrower, Rumfield passed for 1,831 yards and 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions as he earned first-team all-district status.
However, Rumfield struggled to move the offense in some of Temple’s biggest games and missed most of the playoff opener against Waxahachie after suffering an injured throwing hand during the first half.
The Wildcats trailed Harker Heights 21-0 before Harrison-Pilot shifted from receiver to quarterback and sparked them to a 44-34 victory, and Temple trailed Rockwall-Heath 14-0 with 8 minutes gone before Harrison-Pilot – a powerful, elusive runner – took over at QB and threw two touchdown passes to cut the Hawks’ lead to two points twice in the third quarter.
Stewart said he and his staff remain very confident in Rumfield’s abilities to lead the offense next season, with the caveat that sometimes Harrison-Pilot’s rare skill set presents more of a threat depending on how the defense chooses to deploy.
“I don’t think there’s any carryover (for the future). I think you go with what you feel like gives you the best chance to be successful. Those are very pressure-packed situations and (Harrison-Pilot) has handled those before,” said Stewart, who’s had a different primary starting quarterback in each of his six seasons as head coach. “Mikal has practiced quarterback every day of his life, so it’s like, ‘OK, here’s the deal if they’re going to take something away.’
“A lot of teams decided they were going to take away our RPO (run/pass option) game and try to make us run the ball. Well, what gives us a better chance, a running quarterback or a guy (who isn’t as effective as a runner)? So it’s not necessarily anything that Reese did or didn’t do. It’s matchups and game situations, and I think those are things that he will get better at and we’ll open up the playbook to exploit some things.”
Stewart commended Rumfield for maintaining a team-above-self attitude in the moments that the coaching staff decided to go with Harrison-Pilot, a four-star national recruit, at QB.
“I think Reese understands. The conversation was like, ‘Hey man, we’re going to take a look at this and see if we can get something going.’ And he was like, ‘Gotcha, Coach.’ He’s not shying away from it,” Stewart said, adding that the hand injury might still have affected Rumfield's throwing ability against Rockwall-Heath. “It’s not like he was ecstatic, but he’s also not going to sit over there and moan. He’s a mature kid.”
As good as Rumfield was for most of his sophomore campaign, Stewart made it clear that Temple’s quarterback position will continue to be open for competition – one that includes Rumfield, Harrison-Pilot and 6-foot-6 sophomore Luke Law, a skilled pocket passer. Also, Willis is appealing as a running QB and Kade Stewart, son of the head coach, quarterbacked the Wildcats' top freshman team that won a district championship.
“It’s not only good to have a guy coming back that you’re going to build with, but there’s going to be a pretty healthy competition in the quarterback room,” Scott Stewart said. “Luke Law won nine games and we did some stuff (offensively) on JV Blue that we hadn’t done in several years. That is going to be a competition, and we’ll let those guys fight it out. Production is going to rule the day when it comes to that.”
Stewart and Temple already are planning for a future they hope will feature longer playoff runs than what they’ve been able to muster during the last four seasons in 6A Region II. But at the same time, the coach made sure to recognize and praise the ample skill and desire to win that the 2021 Wildcats brought to the proverbial table.
“The M.O. for this club seemed to be, ‘Take their best shot and then react.’ I don’t think that’s a schematic issue. Harker Heights jumped up (21-0) and we came back. You look up and it’s 14-0 Rockwall-Heath and I’m like, ‘We’ve got to get out of this personality,’” Stewart said. “I think there’s probably more (guts and will on this team) than talent.
“That’s not taking away anything from them, because we do have some talented kids, I think our skill kids especially. I don’t see a bunch of 6-foot-5, 285-pound linemen out there, and I think our heaviest defensive lineman was 240. This group was such a scrappy group, and they didn’t shy away from anything."
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