VERSATILE AND VALUABLE: Temple's well-rounded Howard, Harrison-Pilot form talented, dangerous tandem
TWO FOR THE SHOW: The Temple Wildcats will rely heavily this season on the multiple talents of senior Samari Howard (left) and junior Mikal Harrison-Pilot. Howard shared last year's District 12-6A Most Valuable Player award after rushing for 1,261 yards and scoring 22 touchdowns. The highly recruited Harrison-Pilot was a first-team all-district wide receiver in 2020 after making 38 catches for 502 yards and seven TDs, and this season he's also expected to get more playing time on defense. Temple begins its season at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium, battling Class 6A No. 1-ranked and reigning Division I champion Austin Westlake. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
“Versatility keeps you on the field” is a well-used saying in sports, and it certainly applies to a pair of Temple Wildcats football players who do many things and do them very well: senior Samari Howard and junior Mikal Harrison-Pilot.
Howard is the starting running back and was Co-Most Valuable Player of District 12-6A last season after rushing for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns and scoring a staggering 142 points overall, but he’s seemingly just as comfortable when he’s playing slot receiver, quarterback and on special teams.
Harrison-Pilot earned first-team all-district honors at receiver in 2020, one year after his play as a freshman safety garnered second-team all-league status. And although the fast, strong-armed Harrison-Pilot might never start at quarterback, Temple doesn’t hesitate to move him to QB in special situations. And one more thing about the four-star recruit: this season he’s expected to play plenty at safety.
As Howard and Harrison-Pilot stood on Wildcat Stadium’s Bob McQueen Field on a sunny Saturday morning, it was a mutual admiration society as they commended each other’s versatility and how their well-rounded games help Temple succeed.
Said Harrison-Pilot about the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Howard, who could become the Wildcats’ all-time leading scorer this season: “It’s just him being explosive and being versatile. You can put Samari at slot, quarterback or running back. He’s one of the key guys, because you never know what he’s going to do. He’s explosive and can run routes and catch the ball well. There’s a lot of things he can do.”
Said Howard about the 6-foot, 190-pound Harrison-Pilot, who has 30-plus major college scholarship offers and doesn’t turn 17 until late November: “When we were down 20-0 to Harker Heights (on the road last year), Mikal had to come in and play defense (in Temple’s 38-36 comeback win). I think if you can be that versatile and play both offense and defense, that’s good. (And) he’d be fine at quarterback. He knows this offense like the back of his hand.”
So as Temple prepares for its season-opening showdown against Class 6A No. 1-ranked Austin Westlake at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium, why isn’t Harrison-Pilot now the Wildcats’ starting quarterback if he has all the necessary ingredients to succeed in that role?
That seemingly has less to do with Harrison-Pilot and more to do with the steady emergence of sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield, a skilled passer who transferred to Temple in May and performed well enough through spring football, summer 7-on-7 action and training camp to earn the starting QB position against Westlake, the reigning Class 6A Division I state champion.
But even in early August, Temple head coach Scott Stewart was confident that the Wildcats’ offense this season would pack its greatest potential by featuring Harrison-Pilot as an outside wide receiver rather than starting him at QB.
“We feel like we've got what we need at quarterback, and I just think it changes the dynamic when you put an athlete like Mikal out wide,” Stewart said on Aug. 4. “We'll probably have some packages for him (at quarterback), because he is a good enough athlete. I mean, a year ago he was fighting for the starting (QB) spot. He's probably the best athlete in Temple, or at least one of them. He's in the top five, no questions asked. I have zero qualms that Mikal can come in and run this offense efficiently. (And) he will play some defense for us.”
BIG-PLAY PERFORMER: Temple receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot makes a 22-yard touchdown catch during the Wildcats' 27-24 win at Killeen Shoemaker late last November. Then a sophomore, Harrison-Pilot delivered the go-ahead 8-yard touchdown run from the quarterback position with less than 2 minutes remaining, helping Temple secure the outright District 12-6A championship. Harrison-Pilot, son of Wildcats co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Pilot, has 30-plus college scholarship offers, including programs such as Texas, Notre Dame, Southern California and Florida State. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
In last Thursday’s scrimmage at College Station, both Harrison-Pilot and Howard caught long touchdown passes from Rumfield: Harrison-Pilot a 42-yarder down the left sideline and Howard a 71-yard catch-and-run strike straight through the middle.
On those plays they showcased the high-end speed that made them members of Temple’s 4x100-meter relay team that placed sixth at May's 6A state meet in Austin. Current senior receiver Tr’Darius Taylor and graduated senior Carlton Mack were the other members of that fleet-footed foursome.
Harrison-Pilot competed at the state meet despite a stress fracture in his foot that kept him out of the closing stretch of Temple’s baseball season and also the Wildcats’ Blue-White spring football game. He said that injury has healed.
Harrison-Pilot holds scholarship offers from in-state schools such as Texas, Baylor, Texas Christian and Houston and a slew of out-of-state programs, including Notre Dame, Southern California, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Utah, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Wisconsin and Michigan State.
In the recruiting world he’s labeled as an “athlete,” because some colleges envision him as a wide receiver at the next level while others want him to play safety.
“It really doesn’t matter what position. I just want to be on the field and play. I just want to ball out wherever I go,” said Harrison-Pilot, who experienced a busy summer schedule of college camps and visits in various parts of the country.
He definitely sees the benefits of playing some snaps at Temple’s “boom” safety position this season – both to help the Wildcats and to absorb more experience in the event that the college he eventually signs with him to play defensive back.
“I’ll for sure be playing defense (this season),” Harrison-Pilot said. “Depending on where I go to college, I might have to play defense, so I still have to work on my craft and all that.”
After previously unheralded senior Humberto Arizmendi edged Harrison-Pilot last year in the preseason competition for Temple’s starting quarterback position, Harrison-Pilot simply shifted to inside receiver and immediately became one of Arizmendi’s top targets. He paced the 10-2 Wildcats with 38 receptions and 502 yards and tied senior AJ McDuffy for the team lead with seven touchdown catches.
However, perhaps Harrison-Pilot’s biggest highlight of the season came when Temple trailed Killeen Shoemaker 24-20 with less than 2 minutes remaining at Leo Buckley Stadium.
With the Wildcats knowing a win would make them the outright 12-6A champions, offensive coordinator Josh Sadler inserted Harrison-Pilot at quarterback on first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Displaying a blend of speed, power and instincts, Harrison-Pilot rushed off the right edge, went airborne and crashed through multiple Grey Wolves defenders to score the go-ahead touchdown in Temple’s dramatic 27-24 victory.
A longtime teammate and close friend of Harrison-Pilot’s, Wildcats junior middle linebacker Taurean York said one element especially stands out about Temple’s top returning receiver.
“I think raw athletic ability is what it is with Mikal. Around sixth grade, he just grew into a monster athlete,” said reigning 12-6A Defensive MVP York, who joined safety Harrison-Pilot to give Temple’s 2019 defense two 14-year-old freshman starters.
Harrison-Pilot caught a 57-yard touchdown pass from Arizmendi in the Wildcats’ final game, a 56-28 loss to Rockwall-Heath in a 6A Division II area-round playoff game.
“That guy right there, he came in as a freshman and took on a big role. He’s already been in big games and big situations,” Howard said about Harrison-Pilot, whose father is Chris Pilot, Temple’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. “As a young guy who’s taken that in, he’s going to pass that down to our younger guys and it’s going to reflect.”
Said Stewart about Harrison-Pilot, who overcame a serious wrist injury he suffered as an eighth-grade quarterback at Travis: “Mikal is different, being a coach’s son. He doesn’t get rattled, and he’s always been a grinder. He’s a tough joker, too.”
A team-first player, Harrison-Pilot said there is one personal milestone on his mind this season.
“I’d say 1,000 receiving yards is the No. 1 stat goal I want to get,” he said. “And I just want to become a better leader, be a better role model and be inspiring.”
CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN: Temple running back Samari Howard races past Bryan defenders during the Wildcats' 44-7 home win last year. A varsity standout ever since he rushed for 254 yards in his first game as a sophomore, the reigning District 12-6A Co-MVP enters his senior season with 2,227 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns. With 220 career points, the elusive Howard needs 93 more points to break Lache Seastrunk's all-time Temple record of 312 points from 2007-09. Howard made six touchdown catches in 2020. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
As for Howard, he burst onto the varsity scene in the first game of his sophomore season in 2019. With star senior running back Anthony Jackson sidelined by an injury, Howard carried 25 times for 254 yards and a touchdown in a 35-29 loss at Round Rock Cedar Ridge.
A few weeks later Howard rushed for four TDs as Temple came from behind for a 38-28 home win over Shoemaker. One week after he ran for three touchdowns against Killeen Ellison, Howard filled in at quarterback for injured senior standout Vance Willis against Waco and rushed for 163 yards and three TDs to spark the Wildcats’ 57-13 victory.
Howard finished his breakthrough sophomore season with 966 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns and was selected as 12-6A’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year after Temple’s 8-3 team shared the league crown with Waco Midway.
That was only an appetizer for what the quick-shifting, durable Howard accomplished as a junior. Along with rushing for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns in 11 games on the field (Temple picked up a win because rival Belton forfeited), he demonstrated impressive versatility by making 24 receptions for 347 yards and six TDs.
In the second-round loss to Rockwall-Heath, Howard rushed for 134 yards with a 16-yard touchdown and stretched out fully to partially block a Hawks punt.
Also proficient at running from the quarterback spot after taking shotgun snaps, Howard rushed for five 2-point conversions and completed the season with 142 points en route to sharing 12-6A’s MVP award with Shoemaker senior Monaray Baldwin.
“It’s his ability to make a move on people, for sure,” York said about what makes Howard special. “He’s worked on that a lot, and it’s showed. There’s times (in practice) when he’s shaking our guys out of their shoes. He’s pretty elusive and he gets after it as well.”
Having scored 220 career points, Howard needs 93 points as a senior to surpass Lache Seastrunk’s Temple program record of 312 points from 2007-09. And with 35 career touchdowns, Howard needs 18 more TDs to overtake Seastrunk’s career record of 52.
“I mean, it would be crazy. That’s actually one of my goals this year, but I’m not going to let that (distract me),” Howard said about potentially breaking those records. “But I’d say my main goal . . . I wouldn’t say state, because that’s everybody’s goal. That’s obviously one, but I’d say mainly it’s just to come out healthy this season.”
Throughout the last few seasons, Harrison-Pilot has observed that Howard, who plays the game with an intense, edgy style, has high standards and can be tough on himself.
“Samari does have high expectations. I mean, we don’t want to mess up, but everyone makes mistakes,” Harrison-Pilot said. “It’s been better as the years have gone on, from freshman year to being a senior now. He’s leading the team way more because he’s an upperclassman. He has a bigger role and bigger expectations now. He’s developed each year, just becoming that guy.
“This is his last year and his last time playing in the blue-front, white-back pants and being a Wildcat, so something’s going to be special this year. I already know it’s coming.”
RIGHT ON TIME: Temple's Samari Howard stretches out and blocks a punt by Grady Brewer of Rockwall-Heath during the Wildcats' 56-28 loss to the Hawks in a Class 6A Division II area-round playoff game last December at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco. Howard also rushed for 134 yards with a 16-yard touchdown that night as District 12-6A champion Temple finished its 2020 season with a 10-2 record. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Both Stewart and Sadler said the Wildcats plan to take full advantage of Howard’s various talents in his final high school season.
“We're going to use him in every way we possibly can,” Stewart said. “There's not much that kid hasn't done on a football field. He's played quarterback, he's played running back, he can play slot receiver. There's nothing that kid can't do and there's not a lot that kid hasn't seen.”
Also a strong student, Howard enters the season with college offers from Army, Navy, Air Force and Columbia as well as one to compete in football and track and field from Wisconsin's NCAA Division III St. Norbert College.
“When I was getting recruited by Army first, they were like, ‘If any other academies try to tell you something, just know we recruited you first.’ We hit it off pretty much,” Howard said, adding that the Black Knights like him as an option quarterback.
Much like Harrison-Pilot, Howard’s summer featured numerous college camps and visits.
“I had a great summer. It’s been a lot of traveling, a lot of learning,” he said. “I’m definitely going to take some things I learned at camps back here.”
Howard said he’d like to earn some more scholarship offers and make his college commitment by midseason. Temple’s season opener against the sturdy defense of two-time reigning 6A state champion Westlake will give him a high-profile platform on which to display his abilities.
“I’m not worried about any other game but Westlake right now. It’s going to get crazy,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a good recruiting opportunity and is going to get my name out there even more.”
Stewart said more college recruiters should be lining up to bring Howard to their campuses.
“Samari’s best qualities aren’t on the football field. He’ll do anything you ask and he’s got great work ethic,” he said. “I was talking to a recruiter from Lamar (in Beaumont), and I told him, ‘If you want to build your program around someone, it’s Samari Howard because he’s the consummate leader.’”
As Howard wrapped up an on-field interview, he made sure that offensive coordinator Sadler was within earshot when he said, “We’re definitely going to light up the scoreboard. Coach Sadler knows what he’s doing. Been around him four years now. He picks the defense apart.”
The same thing certainly can be said of Temple’s talented, productive tandem of Howard and Harrison-Pilot, two Wildcats who epitomize versatility.