WHATEVER IT TAKES: Harrison-Pilot's future might be at QB, but Temple sophomore shining at receiver
TALENTED YOUNGSTER: Mikal Harrison-Pilot won't turn 16 until Nov. 28, but the Temple sophomore already is a two-year starter. He was a second-team all-district free safety last year as a freshman, and this season at inside receiver he has 354 yards and four touchdowns on a team-high 28 catches. Harrison-Pilot, son of Wildcats linebackers coach Chris Pilot, projects as Temple's starting quarterback in 2021. The first-place Wildcats (7-1, 5-0) can clinch the outright District 12-6A championship by beating second-place Killeen Shoemaker (6-1, 4-1) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Mikal Harrison-Pilot has many impressive attributes and qualities. He's a dedicated student, a talented and versatile four-sport athlete and a good-mannered, respectful young man. And his dreadlock hairstyle is pretty cool, too.
One thing the Temple sophomore certainly has proven himself to be adept at is demonstrating the ability to move on from one situation to the next and make the best of the given circumstances, which sometimes has meant facing and adversity and overcoming it.
As an eighth-grade student-athlete at Travis Science Academy, Harrison-Pilot suffered a serious injury to his left wrist in his final football game, knocking him out of the entire basketball season and requiring months of rehabilitation.
As a 14-year-old freshman at Temple, he accepted the challenging task of being the varsity team's starting free safety and he stuck there for all 11 games, earning second-team all-district honors as the Wildcats shared the District 12-6A championship and grabbed their seventh consecutive playoff berth.
This year, it seemed likely in the months leading up to the COVID-19-delayed season that the mobile, strong-armed Harrison-Pilot would become Temple's starting quarterback as a sophomore. However, senior QB and first-year varsity player Humberto Arizmendi outplayed him in a preseason scrimmage to earn the starting position, and Arizmendi has validated head coach Scott Stewart's decision by passing for 1,450 yards and 20 touchdowns for the playoff-bound, district-leading Wildcats (7-1, 5-0).
By now, you can probably guess that Harrison-Pilot – one of Temple's team captains – didn't simply sulk and go stand on the sideline. That's just not really his style, and it wasn't his coach's plan, either.
No, instead Harrison-Pilot maturely and seamlessly made an immediate transition to a starting role at inside receiver, where the 6-foot, 184-pound sophomore has produced 354 yards and four touchdowns on a team-leading 28 receptions in the seven games Temple has played on the field.
“He got me,” Harrison-Pilot said of Arizmendi regarding their extremely close preseason quarterback competition. “But I knew I'd definitely play somewhere, and I'd be fine with it, too, and do it to the best of my ability. I just do whatever the coaches tell me to.
“When I first (moved to receiver), I was like, 'I'm an athlete, so I'll be good with anything I do.' And since I'm leading (the team) in catches now, I feel like I've been progressing. Some games I'll have one or two catches, but some other games I'll have six or seven. I think it's the QB connection we've got.”
Two weeks ago against Killeen Ellison, Harrison-Pilot's six catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns – highlighted by an electrifying 55-yard, catch-and-run score down the left sideline – sparked Temple to a 39-15 home victory. Last week the Wildcats picked up a win by forfeit when rival Belton, because of COVID-19 cases in its program, was unable to travel for Friday's scheduled showdown at Wildcat Stadium.
This week brings a huge opportunity for Harrison-Pilot and Temple to clinch the outright district championship when they return to Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium on Thursday to battle the second-place Killeen Shoemaker Grey Wolves (6-1, 4-1) at 7 p.m. The key game was shaping up as a clash of 12-6A unbeatens until Harker Heights rallied late and upset Shoemaker 51-50 in overtime last Friday.
Harrison-Pilot doesn't have quite as many yards and touchdowns as senior wide receiver AJ McDuffy (384 yards, seven TDs on 23 catches) does, but the sophomore's strong, reliable hands and big-play ability have provided a huge boost for a stellar receiving corps that also includes senior Luke Allen, junior Tr'Darius Taylor and do-it-all junior running back Samari Howard.
“You saw against Ellison that the kid can be electric with the ball in his hands. He's so athletic and his hand-eye coordination off the charts,” Stewart said of Harrison-Pilot, whose father, Chris Pilot, is Temple's linebackers coach. “He's a very smart kid, obviously – very intelligent, very savvy. He knows what his job is. He knows what to do. Now it's just the nuances of running the routes. He's spent a lot of time with (receivers coaches Robby) Case and (Titus) Dixon trying to get the route running and stuff like that.”
GET UP: Temple sophomore receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot (7) makes a jumping catch during the visiting Wildcats' 38-36 comeback win over Harker Heights on Oct. 29 at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. Harrison-Pilot had three receptions for 66 yards to help District 12-6A-leading Temple charge back from a 20-0 second-quarter deficit. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Harrison-Pilot said he didn't find out he'd be starting at inside receiver until three days before Temple opened its season Sept. 25 against perennial power Longview, whose Lobos dominated the visiting Wildcats 41-10 in a Class 6A Division II bi-district game one year ago.
But Arizmendi's first two passes were caught by Harrison-Pilot, who totaled five receptions for 26 yards on a night when Temple outscored Longview – then the state's No. 3-ranked team in 5A – 30-0 in the second half en route to recording a statement-making 40-13 victory at Arlington's AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“We flipped the score on them – 41-10 to 40-13. I was like, 'We gotta beat 'em. We gotta get revenge,'” Harrison-Pilot said. “I know we (surprised Longview), for sure. We shocked them. All week long we knew with our gameplan that we could beat them.”
In his varsity debut, Arizmendi passed for 213 yards and threw one touchdown each to Allen, Howard, McDuffy and Taylor along with his five completions to Harrison-Pilot, who played one first-half series at quarterback against Longview but did not attempt a pass.
“He's just trusting us. Once he trusted us during practice and especially after the Longview game, he knew that our chemistry was going to be 100 percent every game,” Harrison-Pilot said of Arizmendi, another team captain. “I knew we were going to be very hard to stop.”
Having passed for 1,523 yards and rushed for 1,275, Temple's offense averages 399.7 yards per game, and the Wildcats have scored 44 points per game in their four on-the-field wins in district play.
Although Harrison-Pilot understandably was disappointed not to win the QB competition heading into the season, Stewart was impressed – and not at all surprised – by how the skilled, team-first sophomore handled his new mission of becoming a go-to weapon at inside receiver.
“I think he did as good as anybody ever has,” said Stewart, whose decision to start Arizmendi at QB was made easier by the fact that Harrison-Pilot could immediately help Temple at another position. “The conversation was, 'Look, dude. I don't know that there's enough separation between you two to make a clear-cut decision.'
“Because what you get with Humberto, you get something else with Mikal. You get (more remaining seasons of) time with Mikal, but one of those guys (Harrison-Pilot) can play any position on the field. And I think a sophomore playing (the quarterback) position at a very high level, even though Humberto hadn't played a whole lot, there's still that maturity of being a senior and being a 17-year-old kid and not having to deal with as much mentally.”
Said Harrison-Pilot: “My head was like, 'If I don't win (the quarterback competition), I know I'll be somewhere else, definitely. Either offense or defense, I'll be somewhere.'”
Harrison-Pilot, by the way, will turn 16 on Nov. 28, one day after Temple's regular-season finale against Killeen next Friday at Wildcat Stadium. He's considering this season at inside receiver as something of a one-year detour, because he fully plans to be the Wildcats' starting quarterback during his junior and senior seasons. The last Temple player to enter his junior season as the starting QB was Chad President in 2013.
With Arizmendi succeeding as a first-year starter, Harrison-Pilot has gotten sporadic opportunities at quarterback. He's rushed 13 times for 51 yards, and his lone completion in eight pass attempts was a 73-yard touchdown strike to senior Jonah Walker in the final seconds of the Wildcats' only defeat, 43-25 at home Oct. 9 against Arlington Martin (6-1), now ranked No. 17 in the state in 6A.
“It helps me a lot, just knowing that next year I'll probably be the starting QB,” Harrison-Pilot said of his brief time at quarterback this season. “So seeing it now, I'll have that experience and it'll be better next year. Film, I'm always in the QB room. They won't let me go in the wide receivers room. I go with the 2s (at quarterback), so I still get a lot of reps.”
Stewart said all of the time Temple's players had to be away from school last spring and into the summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic – including the cancelation of four weeks of vital spring practice – probably slowed Harrison-Pilot's potential offseason development at quarterback.
Otherwise, he would have benefited from a full dose of what Stewart calls “Q School,” in which offensive coordinator Josh Sadler and offensive assistant coach Andrew Cameron immerse their quarterbacks in everything they need to learn and know to play the position well, particularly as the varsity starter.
“Here's what Mikal missed through COVID and all this stuff, and obviously it didn't help anybody: He missed going to 'Q School' every day,” said Stewart, who learned about the importance of “Q School” when he was Spring Westfield's defensive coordinator for head coach Corby Meekins. “(Meekins) said, 'That is the one position on the field that you can't afford to not get as much time as you can.' There's only one. I learned that watching those kids develop.”
Stewart witnessed more evidence of the importance of “Q School” as Temple's starting quarterbacks from 2016-19 – Reid Hesse, T.J. Rumfield, Jared Wiley and Vance Willis, respectively – were selected offensive player of the year in their districts as seniors. Only Hesse was a two-year starter at QB.
“In my opinion, that's the only way you can have four consecutive offensive players of the year,” Stewart said. “I think a lot of that is credited to the fact that we do 'Q School' and we train those guys year-round. Sadler and Cameron are a big part of that. One thing about quarterbacks is they've got to know what everybody does.”
As soon as football season ends – and Temple hopes it's not until January – Harrison-Pilot plans to go back to training full-time at quarterback. His arm strength is unquestioned, but Stewart believes that Harrison-Pilot will become a more consistently accurate passer by making improvements with his throwing mechanics.
“He long-arms it, so it's just cleaning up the mechanics a little bit, especially those intermediate throws. Some of that will help with his touch, too,” Stewart said of Harrison-Pilot. “I don't think anybody has a problem with his deep throws. He throws a curl as hard as anybody I've ever seen. Humberto spins the football and it's crisp and that ball gets there, but Mikal's (ball) gets there like a shot put. He has unbelievable arm talent.”
Harrison-Pilot also uses that strong right arm to his advantage as a center fielder and pitcher in baseball to go along with the hitting skill he displayed for Temple's summer league team. The major left wrist injury he had as a Travis eighth-grader bothered him some early in his freshman baseball season (he was promoted from junior varsity to varsity before the season was canceled), but the discomfort dissipated as he got more swings in.
“I know it's not 100 percent, but for my body it's 100 percent,” he said of his non-throwing wrist. “It never hurts, really.”
Said Stewart: “Mikal's such a tough kid. He did all the rehab. He stays on point with that stuff. It doesn't hurt having a dad as a coach, because he doesn't have anywhere else to go.”
Harrison-Pilot said he loves to run track, especially the 200-meter dash and as part of Temple's 4x200 and 4x400 relay teams. He's also a skilled basketball player but said he's undecided about whether he'll try to move over to hoops whenever Temple's football run ends.
One thing Harrison-Pilot is certain about is that he misses playing defense, although he did play a few snaps at cornerback in a goal-line situation against Harker Heights and could see increased action if the Wildcats need another secondary player for their nickel package.
“Yes, I miss it a lot. I love defense. I love just hitting people, making tackles, making interceptions, all of that,” said Harrison-Pilot, whose best friend since elementary school is sophomore middle linebacker Taurean York, Temple's leading tackler for the second straight season.
With Harrison-Pilot now almost exclusively on offense, he doesn't see his linebacker-coach dad nearly as much as he did last season, at least on the practice field. They still watch a lot of televised college football games together, especially Alabama, which Harrison-Pilot identified as his “dream school.”
“I hear less from him this year since we're on different sides. Film room, I never see him. At practice, I can see him from a distance and just imagine me over there, still on that side,” Harrison-Pilot said, adding that he wants to be recruited as an “athlete.”
Stewart offered some thoughts about Harrison-Pilot's position change this year as it relates to the father-son relationship.
“When Mikal played free safety, because obviously that's a lot closer to Chris' home professionally, (Chris) would say, 'I'm going to kill him. I'm going to kill him,'” Stewart said. “And I'm like, 'Dude, he's a freshman. Relax.' I think Mikal being on the other side of the ball has helped some.”
A strong student who strives to make academics his top priority, Harrison-Pilot discovered during the first two weeks this school year that remote learning, even though he was sitting in a Temple football office, wasn't for him.
“My grades got way better when I went back to face-to-face,” said Harrison-Pilot, whose mother, Brittany Harrison, lives in the Houston area and keeps up with her son's games. “I still take all advanced classes. Middle school, I never took advanced classes. Freshman year was my first year doing it and I did pretty good, so I did it this year and I'm doing good as well.”
Harrison-Pilot already had exhibited his speed in occasional bursts during this season's first six games, but he put it on full display against Ellison two weeks ago at Wildcat Stadium. With Temple leading 18-8 late in the third quarter, he caught Arizmendi's quick pass on the left side, cut inside and then back outside and turned on the jets to sprint past the final defender for a jaw-dropping 55-yard touchdown. He added an 8-yard scoring reception in the fourth.
“That was fun. I never ran so fast in my life. I felt electric right there,” Harrison-Pilot said afterward, when Stewart couldn't resist taking a good-natured dig at his linebackers coach, who played football at Lufkin and then the University of Houston.
“I went up to Coach Pilot and said, 'Dude, where did he get that speed?' And he goes, 'Well, I could run back in the day.' And I'm like, 'Not like that you couldn't!'" Stewart said, chuckling.
But for Temple's opponents, competing against Harrison-Pilot for the remainder of this season and the next two years will be no laughing matter – whether he's at free safety, receiver or, in time, quarterback.