THICK-SKINNED WILDCATS: Temple's cohesive offensive line gets after opponents – and each other, too
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL: Despite having only one returning starter and two new coaches, Temple's offensive line of senior left tackle Alex Rodriguez (left), senior left guard Allen Camacho, senior center Matthew Frye, senior right guard Kai Lynn and junior right tackle Colby Rice has built itself into being a productive group. Under the tutelage of first-year Temple assistants Mike Bickham and Justin Bell, the line's blocking has paved the way for the Wildcats to average 410 yards (215.8 rushing, 194.2 passing). District 12-6A champion Temple (10-1) battles Rockwall-Heath (8-2) in a Class 6A Division II area-round playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
To play on the offensive line for the Temple Wildcats this season, a player doesn't necessarily need to be tall or particularly heavy or have a lot of previous varsity experience or be getting recruited by major colleges.
However, there are some clear-cut requirements. One of them is playing physical, tough-minded football and rising to the challenge in difficult situations. The fact that Temple is 10-1 and its offense is averaging 410 yards per game – almost evenly split between rushing and passing – demonstrates that its linemen are getting the job done in that department.
The other requirement? Having a good enough sense of humor to joke around with teammates – and a thick enough skin to absorb the sharp but good-natured barbs that are sure to come.
Senior right guard Kai Lynn probably summed it up best: “We just like to have fun and we like mauling people. We just get after it.”
Of course, that means sometimes – quite often, actually – getting after each other. Junior right tackle Colby Rice, the only non-senior on the starting offensive line, suffered a high ankle sprain during Temple's 44-7 homecoming win over Bryan on Oct. 23 at Wildcat Stadium.
“I didn't see the guy coming and he came from the side and took my leg out,” Rice explained.
As the injured Rice was being helped off of Bob McQueen Field, his mates on the line couldn't resist getting in his ear.
“He doesn't like wearing high-top cleats,” senior center Matthew Frye said about the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Rice, who's abnormally light for a Class 6A offensive tackle after dropping 35 pounds since last year. “We wanted to make sure he was good, though. But we ripped his butt.”
Vocal senior left tackle Alex Rodriguez, the line's only returning starter this season, also chimed in about Rice.
“I gave him a hard time early in the season because he wanted to look like a little skill (position) guy. I always told him, 'Dude, you're going to hurt your ankle,'” Rodriguez said. “And when he was getting carted off the field, I said, 'It's the shoes!'”
It wasn't exactly a laughing matter, because the injury forced Rice to miss 1½ games in District 12-6A play, during which Lynn moved to Rice's right tackle spot while senior backup Edward Torres filled in at right guard. Nonetheless, Rice simply had to endure the playful verbal abuse, conceding that he'll “never live that down.”
But when the 6-4, 270-pound Rodriguez incited laughter among the group by saying Rice looks more like a tight end than a tackle, Rice was quick to come right back and defend himself.
“Ain't nothing too hard. No obstacle's too big to get over,” said Rice, who started at tackle in last year's playoff game at Longview as Rodriguez switched to tight end. “There's been a lot (of tough matchups), but nothing I couldn't handle.”
Even though 12-6A champion Temple walloped Waxahachie 38-0 at home last Friday in a 6A Division II bi-district playoff game, nobody on the line was exempt from trash talk.
“Especially when Allen gets laid out,” Rodriguez chirped about the guy who plays next to him, senior left guard Allen Camacho, who apparently was on the wrong end of a punishing hit. That's when the 5-7, 230-pound Frye quickly came to the aid of the 5-11, 280-pound Camacho, saying, “But he did get roaches after that.”
That's a reference to Temple first-year offensive line coaches Mike Bickham and Justin Bell awarding the Wildcat blockers what they call “roaches,” achieved by knocking opposing defenders on their backs.
Camacho took Rodriguez's barb in stride, saying, “I had to put it behind me and just start going back at it.”
The next opportunity for the Wildcats' linemen to get after it – and each other – comes at 7 p.m. Friday when Temple takes on the Rockwall-Heath Hawks (8-2) in a 6A Division II area-round showdown at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco. The victor will advance to a Region II semifinal next week to play the winner of Thursday night's game between seventh-ranked Cypress Bridgeland (11-0) and Spring Dekaney (6-3).
Temple churned out 297 rushing yards and produced 406 total yards against Waxahachie as the Wildcats – making their eighth straight playoff trip – romped to their first postseason win since 2017 following consecutive bi-district defeats against Mesquite Horn and Longview.
“It feels great,” Rice said. “I'm glad we could be the group to come in and change that and break that after (two straight) years of not making it out of the first round."
Said Rodriguez: “It feels good, because all the hard work we put into it, it obviously pays off. It's just fun with this group, very fun.”
Bickham is in his 29th season in coaching but his first at Temple, and perhaps he encourages the offensive line's tough-love sense of humor. When his linemen were sitting down for a group interview Tuesday afternoon, Bickham told them with a deadpan delivery: “Y'all need to give some credit to your teammates, not just me."
Bickham, a Bartlett graduate, was holding an old-fashioned wooden paddle, as if to indicate that it was used as a source of motivation for his linemen. He was kidding, of course.
“I had to teach them what that was. They had no idea what I was talking about. I was like, 'For real?'” Bickham said, doing his best to keep a straight face as his linemen chuckled. “I told them, 'This is my 29th year and this is the first school I've ever been at where we didn't swing the board.'”
A few minutes later, Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler poked his head in the door and, trying to sound serious, offered a simple statement: “Don't believe a word they say.”
But all jokes, digs and back-handed compliments aside, the Wildcats' O-line is seriously good. Its blocking has paved the way for Temple to rush for 215.8 yards per game and pass for 194.2.
Senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi has passed for 1,842 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first varsity season (he's also rushed for 570 yards), and junior running back Samari Howard has become a full-fledged star while rushing for 1,127 yards and 15 touchdowns and adding six TD receptions.
“As an offensive line coach you always want to instill not just pride in us being able to run the football on people but pride in our running back and quarterback. Well, these guys already have that. They love Samari and they love Humberto,” Bickham said. “So when I started bringing that up and talking about it, these guys took the ball and ran with it. They take a lot of pride in those guys being well taken care of and being successful.”
Said Lynn: “We like to know the rushing (statistics). We like to go for at least 300 per game. We protect our running back and our quarterback.”
Arizmendi earned instant respect when he threw four touchdown passes to help Temple seize a season-opening 40-13 win over state-ranked Longview on Sept. 25 at Arlington's AT&T Stadium, avenging the Wildcats' 41-10 loss to the host Lobos in a 6A D-II first-round playoff game last year.
“He did surprise me in the Longview game,” Rice said of Arizmendi, who played middle school football with Lynn at Bonham. “I didn't think he was going to throw for four touchdowns.”
Said Frye about the runaway win over Longview that set the tone for Temple's stellar season: “The first play I was nervous, but then after that we were like, 'All right, we got it.' It was an awesome experience. When the score started running up, we just had fun.”
Added Rodriguez: “Man, we got after them and started smacking them.”
Howard, the versatile running back and 12-6A MVP contender, earns respect among his linemen by taking pride in executing his own blocking assignments.
“Samari loves to block. He tells me all the time that he loves coming up to the front and doing what we do,” Rice said. “He tries to protect us as well when we need the help.”
Added Lynn: “He tries to get roaches like we do.”
During the last offseason, Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart had to hire two offensive line coaches after the departures of veteran coaches Donnie Leach and Robert Hagey, who oversaw a battle-tested Wildcats line that featured three-year starters in center Markel Carter and left guard Dakari White plus senior left tackle Dayton Lewis, senior right guard Daniel Lopez and then-junior right tackle Rodriguez.
Stewart brought in Henderson assistant Bickham, a longtime East Texas coach who compiled a 76-49 head coaching record with three seasons of 10-plus wins in 11 years at Tenaha, Brookshire-Royal, Carthage, Jasper and Beckville. Stewart also hired Bell away from Corpus Christi King.
Although Temple has had five total offensive line coaches in his three varsity seasons (longtime and highly respected line coach Mark Johnson retired after 2018), Rodriguez said the players have bought into what Bickham and Bell have been selling.
“It's definitely different coaching styles, but you've just got to trust what they're telling you to do and what they're teaching you, no matter who it is,” Rodriguez said. “I think it helped, me being able to tell (the other linemen), 'Hey, we can trust these dudes. They know what they're talking about.' We all put it in our heads that they're some smart coaches and know what they're doing. That's really helped, and they've got the same enthusiasm as we do as far as wanting to win. They're like two little kids, too. You see Coach Bickham jumping up on the sideline.”
True to form, the linemen broke into laughter when someone mentioned that Bickham hurt his knee from jumping too much.
Meanwhile, Temple's linemen embrace Bell's coaching style because he's similar to them – that is, he likes to have fun but definitely knows when to be serious about getting work done.
“He coaches you like a regular dude,” Frye said of Bell. “He doesn't treat you like you're below him or anything.”
Added Rice: “He knows when to turn that switch on and off. He can go from playful to being a serious coach and talking football.”
Although Rodriguez, Lynn and Camacho are receiving some interest from college recruiters, Temple's line certainly doesn't include any blue-chip, can't-miss prospects. It's a group that must execute assignments and function well as an overall unit to generate success. And with two new coaches and four first-year starters involved, it's been an ongoing process.
“We went through a lot together this summer, a lot of hours together. That gelled into a camaraderie,” Bickham said. “Maybe they learned, 'Individually, I may not be the best dude in the world, but together the five of us are pretty dang good.' They took that and kind of ran with it. We have a lot of fun together as a group, and that probably has a whole lot to do with (the success). They're good when it comes to coaching each other and getting on each other, but at the same time loving on each other. They're good with all that, and I think that's helped them gel.”
Rodriguez caught a touchdown pass in Temple's 58-55, triple-overtime win against rival Belton in 2018 and was slated to play tight end again as a junior, but he had to move to right tackle – at 230 pounds – after then-senior starter Blake Perez suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason scrimmage.
“I learned from last year when I had to move over. I was smaller, so I learned from the older guys. They told me, 'You don't have to be the biggest. You've just got to have the best technique,'” said Rodriguez, who's being recruited by Incarnate Word, where Lewis now plays, and Texas-Permian Basin, where Carter and White now play. “I tell these guys all the time, 'You can be as strong as you want; you're not going to have better technique than me.' I hold that on the field like no other.”
With Carter entrenched at center from 2017-19, Frye had to wait his turn and keep grinding and developing, which he did. His size isn't overwhelming, but a feisty streak – “I've got that dog mentality,” he said – and the skills he brings from competing for Temple's wrestling team have made him into a reliable performer.
“I was on JV and (Carter) was on varsity, so I wasn't with him a lot. But in practice, I was always watching him and his technique,” said Frye, who's planning to join the Marines after graduation. “He was a lot bigger and we're a lot different as players. He was able to outmuscle them. I have to try to break it down and make it simpler for me.”
Like Frye, Camacho is making the most of his single season as a starter.
“It's been fun. Last year I got to learn a lot, and this year I got to actually do it,” said Camacho, who's received an offer from Iowa Wesleyan and is interested in studying law. “With this group of people, especially with Alex being on my side, he's more experienced so he kind of helped me along the way. It's been a fun ride.”
Temple's linemen proved their mettle in a pair of comeback wins on the road in 12-6A action. The Wildcats rallied from a 20-0 second-quarter deficit to edge Harker Heights 38-36, then put together a late touchdown drive to overtake Killeen Shoemaker for a dramatic 27-24 victory that clinched Temple's first outright district championship since 2015 and its first outright league title as a 6A program.
“We had to come back and drive the ball. The Shoemaker game was on our backs,” Frye said. “Everybody had the same mentality on the winning drive.”
Said Lynn: “We had to go score. It's a good feeling that everybody on the team has your back.”
The linemen agree that communication is their biggest key, and that means having the maturity to admit to making mistakes and accepting constructive criticism to fix them.
“I've always been like, 'Don't be scared to say if you messed up.' If you do mess up, just learn from it and let's get it fixed. We can help you,” Rodriguez said. "Like if Berto gets hit, I always look back and I'm like, 'What happened?' And they'll be like, 'It was my side.' And I'm like, 'All right, let's fix it.'”
Said Lynn: “We have a next-play mentality. Whenever we mess up, we just keep going and make sure we get the next play and make it.”
Added Frye: “I feel like we've all had our own individual games where someone struggled a little bit more but then someone else had more of a highlight game.”
When the Wildcat linemen get some free time inside the Temple Athletic Complex, expect to find them playing spirited games of ping pong in their designated meeting room, in which one wall features a fitting label painted in large capital letters: THE WALL.
They agreed in unison that the long-armed Rodriguez is the O-line's best table tennis player but pointed out that imposing junior defensive end Tommy Torres and assistant coaches Bell and Ryan Graves also are keen to seek out competition whenever possible.
“I literally had to bring ping pong balls up here because they broke the last three we had,” Rodriguez said, smiling. “They're really good, and it's fun. It's like the coaches are kids, too, and the chemistry with the coaches really helps out.”
Stewart believes it's that esprit de corps that helps Temple's offensive linemen form a cohesive unit, something that clearly shows up once the games begin.
“They enjoy being around each other. When you can give somebody hard time and they just soak it up like a sponge . . . it's a cool chemistry group,” Stewart said. “That may be some of their strength – everybody walked in with (something to prove) and it's like, 'Let's do this together.' That's been the coolest part of that group. It's the definition of synergy.”
The Wildcats' linemen never miss an opportunity to add humor to any situation. When asked how disappointed they were that Belton forfeited the teams' scheduled Nov. 13 game at Wildcat Stadium because of COVID-19-related factors within the Tigers' program, Frye had a predictably straightforward reply.
“I was angry,” he said, “because I never got to play them on the varsity level.”
That, of course, set up Rodriguez to deliver the punch line.
“If we're being honest,” he said, “we would've blown them out."
Laughter immediately broke out around the table, but this time none of the linemen had been put on blast. As much as the five guys enjoy giving each other grief, it was something they all could agree on.