WILDCATS GLAD TO BE BACK: Temple brings energy and enthusiasm to first practice after long time away
AIRING IT OUT: Temple sophomore quarterback Mikal Harrison-Pilot (right) throws a pass during the Wildcats' first practice of the fall season Monday morning on Bob McQueen Field at Wildcat Stadium. Harrison-Pilot, who started all 11 games at free safety as a freshman, is competing for Temple's starting QB position with senior Humberto Arizmendi. Coach Scott Stewart's Wildcats host College Station in a scrimmage next Thursday evening. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
YOUNG LEADER: Temple sophomore linebacker Taurean York started all 11 games last year as a freshman and led the 8-3 Wildcats with 80 tackles en route to sharing District 12-6A's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award. "I feel like this defense can be very dangerous if we're all on the same page and clicking on all cylinders," York said after Temple's first practice Monday. "I'm 100 percent confident we can hold anyone under 17 points." (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
In a normal year, the Temple Wildcats would wrap up four weeks of spring football practices in late May, remain active with on-campus strength and conditioning workouts and 7-on-7 play during June and July and then reconvene for the start of fall camp in early August.
It's quite an understatement to say 2020 hasn't been a normal year, with the COVID-19 pandemic not only curtailing the in-person 2019-20 school year but also canceling spring football workouts and delaying the start of practice and the regular season a full month for Class 6A and 5A programs.
So when Temple's players finally were able to run around on Bob McQueen Field at Wildcat Stadium on a sunny, muggy Monday morning in their first practice for the upcoming season, the atmosphere was energetic and prevailing emotion was genuine excitement.
“It feels pretty good. It's been six months that we were out. It's been a long time. First day coming back, everybody had a lot of energy. We're ready to play football,” said Temple sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot, who's competing with senior Humberto Arizmendi for the starting quarterback position after starting all 11 games at free safety as a freshman for last year's 8-3 Wildcats.
Added sophomore linebacker Taurean York, Temple's leading tackler as a freshman and the District 12-6A Co-Defensive Newcomer of the Year: “I'm ready. It's good to be back.”
Because COVID-19-related factors continue to threaten to shorten or even cancel this football season, Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart said his players are attacking their current opportunity with the desired amount of enthusiasm after being away from football for an extended period of time.
“I was really fired up about the energy. The kids were bopping around. It was a long practice and it was humid. I'm proud of those guys,” Stewart said after 135 to 140 seniors, juniors and sophomores completed the Wildcats' opening practice. “I hope the mantra for everyone is to appreciate what you have while you have it, because it could be taken away even if you haven't exhausted your eligibility or exhausted your time.
“So we've talked all spring and especially since we've had them this summer since June 8 (for strength and conditioning and skill work) that if we've got to go out there and coach enthusiasm – the kids call it 'juice' – then you really don't appreciate what you have and you don't appreciate the opportunities the good Lord has given you.”
Because they didn't have spring practice, the Wildcats hadn't worn helmets in an organized team setting since last Nov. 15 – almost 10 months ago – when they lost 41-10 at Longview in a 6A Division II bi-district playoff game. Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that the process of getting accustomed to wearing helmets again gave Temple's players some problems Monday.
“When we had the helmets off, we were doing great. Then when we put the helmets on, (the level of execution) went down just a little bit,” said Harrison-Pilot, a second-team all-district selection last year who aims to help lead Temple to its second straight district championship and eighth consecutive playoff appearance.
“The helmets were a big addition. You could tell the focus was off a little bit,” York said. “We just have to work on coming back to earth.”
It's an understandable and expected part of getting back into the swing of gridiron things.
“I heard both coordinators getting fussy and I had a little debrief with them and said, 'Guys, we knew this was coming,'” Stewart said of Josh Sadler on offense and Dexter Knox on defense. “So it truly tells you that that piece of equipment (the helmet) has a lot more impact on the kids.
“We talked to them beforehand that, 'Your perception center and your body is going to be your eyeballs, and what you see is going to look the same whether you have pads on or not. So we need to be very conscious of the fact that we're not banging yet. I don't need any contact. You'll get a chance to prove how tough you are. You'll get a chance to prove if you'll bite a biscuit or not. What I want to see if who knows what to do, who knows how to do it and who can do it as fast as humanly possible. That is the goal for the first two days.'”
On Tuesday – the first day of in-person school since early March – the Wildcats will work out again in helmets, practice jerseys and shorts. On Wednesday they'll add shoulder pads to their wardrobe, followed by full pads and full contact starting Saturday. Temple's only scrimmage is against familiar opponent College Station next Thursday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium.
The Wildcats get another crack at Longview when they battle the Lobos – No. 3 in Texas Football magazine's preseason 5A Division I state rankings – in the season opener Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
When last seen last November at Longview, Temple allowed 312 rushing yards and 222 passing yards in the Wildcats' lopsided playoff loss, their second straight first-round postseason exit. That was a very youthful defense the Wildcats put on the field, including two freshmen and five sophomores.
With Temple's defense now armed with that hard-earned experience, York believes the Wildcats are ready to break through and become a more resistant product this season.
“I feel like this defense can be very dangerous when we're all on the same page and clicking on all cylinders,” said the 5-foot-11, 210-pound York, who's added 20 pounds since last season thanks to a rigorous offseason training regimen. “I'm 100 percent confident we can hold anyone under 17 points.”
York mentioned junior linebackers Marshall Grays and Faylin Lee and junior safety Jaden Jackson as players to watch on Temple's defense, which returns senior linemen Jayven Taylor and Cody Little.
Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 180-pound Harrison-Pilot has moved to the other side of the ball, and the dual-threat weapon has the potential to become a rare three-year starting quarterback. In fact, Temple hasn't had a three-year starting QB since Zach Allen (2010-12), brother of current Wildcats senior receiver Luke Allen.
Stewart is pleased with Harrison-Pilot's progression and knows the sophomore has all the physical tools to be a standout quarterback. However, the coach said Arizmendi, who quarterbacked Temple's top junior varsity squad last year, is firmly in contention for the starting job based on his passing ability.
“With Mikal, the windows are getting bigger for him. You can see him starting to see the picture. He's got to get more consistent with the deep ball, but he's electric on his feet and you won't see that until we put the pads on,” Stewart said. “And then I've just been really proud of Humberto. He's a senior, he's actually played that position (in high school) and there's probably a little bit more comfortability right now. But I've been real impressed with both of them.
“To watch Mikal progress in seeing the pictures and seeing the reads and holes and windows . . . what we're working on with him now is just timing. No matter if you see it right or not, if you're late, you're wrong. Bad things happen when you're late.”
Temple will have its fifth starting quarterback in Stewart's five years as head coach, and that QB will benefit from the presence and production of dynamic junior running back Samari Howard, 12-6A's Offensive Newcomer of the Year in 2019.
As for eventually choosing a starter between Harrison-Pilot and Arizmendi after the College Station scrimmage, Stewart said, “I hope there's a clear decision. I would like to have a designated starter. We'll do what's best for the Temple Wildcats.”
Just like York on defense, Harrison-Pilot saids he's embracing his role as a vocal team leader, which includes holding teammates accountable for mistakes but also encouraging a receiver who drops a pass or a lineman who misses a block. And the talented sophomore sees his competition with Arizmendi as a totally positive situation.
“It's a friendly competition. One of us is going to (win the job) at the end of the day, but we're still going to work hard,” Harrison-Pilot said. “Whoever gets it, gets it, and we'll still be there to support each other."
SWITCHING SIDES: After starting all 11 games at free safety and earning second-team all-district honors as a freshman for Temple, sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot is contending for the starting quarterback position with senior Humberto Arizmendi. If he wins the job, Harrison-Pilot could become the Wildcats' first three-year starting QB since Zach Allen from 2010-12. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Temple defensive players go through a drill during their first practice of the season Monday morning at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)