WINNING WILDCATS: Stewart, Temple stick to successful strategy, shoot to push program to next level
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
SENIORS' LAST RIDE: Linebacker/running back Taurean York (left) and receiver/quarterback/safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot are ready for their fourth season as varsity starters for the Temple Wildcats, who begin the season at McKinney at noon Saturday at McKinney ISD Stadium. Temple is 21-1 in District 12-6A games in the last three years but hasn't advanced past the second round of the playoffs in four seasons as a Class 6A program. The Wildcats of seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart seek their fourth straight 12-6A championship and Temple's 10th consecutive playoff berth, something the program last accomplished from 1976-85. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Temple High School’s football program has done a lot of winning during the last decade.
The Wildcats have earned nine consecutive playoff berths with head coaches Mike Spradlin and Scott Stewart. In those nine seasons, their record is 89-27 overall (.767 winning percentage), 55-6 in district competition (.902) and 18-9 in postseason play (.667), highlighted by two state championship game appearances. That span includes four outright district titles and two shared league crowns.
However, the ironic thing about all that success is that, well, Temple doesn’t really talk much about winning.
The way Stewart and the Wildcats look at it, recording victories on the field has simply been the byproduct of a competitive, dedicated group of players and coaches consistently giving maximum effort and doing things the right way.
“We don’t talk about winning. We talk about competing. We talk about being the best version of yourself today and tomorrow, and if you stack enough of those in a row, then we’ll let the winning take care of itself,” said Stewart, who’s guided Temple to a 57-19 record (.750) and at least a share of the last three District 12-6A championships in six seasons as the Wildcats’ head coach.
“I think first and foremost these kids love playing the game. A lot of them hang out with each other away from here. We try to focus on the man more than the mission sometimes. Our mission is to go be as successful as we can be, but it’s funny how if you do things right, the winning tends to come, or at least that’s been my experience and what I believe in.”
To be sure, Temple’s 2022 team – a mixture of experience-rich seniors and talented players aiming to break through – is determined to advance past the second round of the 6A playoffs after the Wildcats were eliminated by Spradlin’s explosive Rockwall-Heath squads in Division II area-round showdowns the last two seasons.
Senior cornerback/safety/slot receiver Naeten Mitchell didn’t hesitate to talk about Temple’s ultimate goal.
“Our goal is a state championship. A district championship is fun and going to the playoffs is fun, but if we don’t go all the way and get to Jerry’s World (AT&T Stadium in Arlington), it’s not (complete),” said Mitchell, a first-team all-district pick at safety last season who’s verbally committed to New Mexico State.
But Mitchell did confirm that for the Wildcats, the route to a potential state title game involves less talk and a lot more action – in other words, an everyday commitment to getting the most production out of their current roster.
“That’s very true. Our main focus and main goal is, ‘Win the day,’” Mitchell said. “We go day by day. We’re a very strong family.”
Temple’s first test is its season opener against McKinney at noon Saturday at McKinney ISD Stadium. The Wildcats’ home opener is against Willis at 7:30 p.m. next Friday on the newly installed artificial turf of Bob McQueen Field at Wildcat Stadium. The four-game non-district schedule includes a Sept. 9 duel at College Station and a Sept. 16 home clash with Arlington Martin.
Led by battle-tested performers such as Mitchell and fourth-year varsity starters in highly recruited wide receiver/quarterback/safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Baylor-committed linebacker Taurean York, Temple begins the quest for its fourth straight 12-6A championship on Sept. 23 at Bryan. The Wildcats’ first district home game is Sept. 30 against first-time opponent Pflugerville Weiss.
Temple’s six-game slate in 12-6A also includes road matchups with Waco Midway (Oct. 7) and 2021 league runner-up Harker Heights (Oct. 21) and home contests against Hutto (Oct. 14) and Copperas Cove (Nov. 4). The Wildcats, who overcame three-touchdown deficits to defeat Heights in back-to-back seasons, will play nine straight weeks before getting an open date.
STEADY PRESENCE: Troy graduate Scott Stewart has steered Temple to a 57-19 record and six playoff berths in six seasons as head coach, highlighted by a trip to the Class 5A Division I state championship game in 2016 and the last three District 12-6A titles. This season, the Wildcats will strive to advance past the second round following back-to-back area-round losses to Rockwall-Heath in the Division II bracket. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
In late August, Stewart – whose program is 21-1 in district play in the last three seasons – isn’t preoccupied with winning a fourth straight league championship.
“Especially with this district, and I think this district just got tougher. Weiss was a playoff team a year ago, we saw that Hutto’s extremely talented, and Midway’s Midway,” he said. “Do these kids want to do it again? My deal is, can we better tomorrow than we were today? I’m trying to fight complacency.”
Temple has competed in the Division II playoff bracket in its first four trips as a 6A program, compiling a 2-4 record. But with the fourth-largest enrollment in new-look 12-6A, the Wildcats are a swing team in terms of postseason brackets.
If Midway, Hutto and Bryan account for at least two of 12-6A’s four playoff berths, Temple will compete in Division II again if it qualifies. But if Weiss and Harker Heights – the league’s smallest schools – earn playoff spots, the Wildcats would have to go into the Division I bracket.
That could mean a bi-district matchup with 11-6A behemoths Duncanville – ranked No. 4 by Texas Football magazine – or Dallas Skyline, or perhaps a third consecutive first-round clash with Waxahachie, 11-6A’s third-largest school. No. 8 DeSoto owns 11-6A’s fourth-largest enrollment.
Temple hasn’t gone beyond the area round of the playoffs since 2017, the final season of its four-year tour de force in 5A Division I. The final two seasons of Spradlin’s program-changing tenure and the first two seasons of Stewart’s stellar run propelled the Wildcats to a staggering 20 playoff games and 16 postseason wins, featuring memorable marches to the 2014 and ’16 state championship games, highly competitive losses to Aledo and Dallas Highland Park.
Temple hasn’t approached that level of dominance since it rose to 6A in 2018, at least not come playoff time. Potent, talent-laden opponents such as Longview and Rockwall-Heath have prevented the Wildcats from making deeper runs.
Time will tell how far this Temple team will go, but Stewart likes its makeup.
“It’s going to be fun. This is a good group, they work their tails off and there’s never been a lot of that prima donna stuff here. There’s just not,” he said. “As far as how talented we’ll be compared to years past, I guess we’ll see. I think there’s plenty out there, but I do like their mentality and their mindset and their blue-collar, yeoman’s approach. Grab your hard hat and go.”
Temple embarks on its new quest without one of the most productive players in program history, Samari Howard. The versatile, workhorse running back shared 12-6A’s Most Valuable Player award in 2020 and was voted Offensive MVP last season along with earning third-team all-state recognition as a senior.
Now attending and playing for Army West Point, Howard finished his three-year varsity career as Temple’s all-time leader in total touchdowns (57) and points scored (360) and ranks third on the Wildcats’ career list with 3,955 rushing yards.
The Wildcats don’t plan to replace Howard's production with one player – not even close, actually. Rugged senior Deshaun Brundage, York’s cousin, moved to Temple after the 2021 football season and will have an opportunity to do damage at running back along with juniors Jervonnie Williams and Rymond Johnson and sophomore Adrian Scott.
“Deshaun Brundage has stepped up. He worked really hard over the summer almost every day, just like Taurean. They have that same work mentality,” Mitchell said. “He’s showed us in practice and also in the (Killeen) scrimmage that he can be that guy this year. It’s going to be hard to fill Samari’s shoes, but I think Deshaun is going to step up and have a big year.”
Motivated by back-to-back second-round playoff defeats, two-time reigning 12-6A Defensive MVP York devoted extra time to physical training this summer – arriving at school at 4:30 p.m. to run sprints – because the first-team all-state middle linebacker also plans to play running back for the first time since junior high.
“If I played in the range of 60 to 80 plays (per game) last year, I expect to play 120 to 140 plays this year,” said the 6-foot, 215-pound York, who plans to graduate in December and enroll early at Baylor, whom he committed to in February. “That’s why Coach Stewart talks about those wind sprints at 4:30 in the morning. It’s because I need to have the endurance to play all three phases. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
York’s longtime friend and teammate Harrison-Pilot returns for his fourth season as one of Temple’s best and most versatile players. The 6-foot, 196-pound playmaker was a first-team all-district selection last year after making 28 receptions for 472 yards and six touchdowns as an appealing target for then-sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield. Harrison-Pilot also played QB in crucial situations and rushed for 172 yards and eight TDs.
Stewart has great expectations this season for Harrison-Pilot, a four-star recruit who was a third-team all-state selection as a utility player in 2021. The son of Temple assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Pilot is mulling scholarship offers from Texas, Texas Christian, Houston, Oklahoma and California.
“You’re going to see Mikal Harrison-Pilot line up all over the football field,” Stewart said in early August. “We were talking about special formations and it’s like, ‘We’re going to put him here, here, here and here and see if we can find those matchups. When Mikal lines up at tight end, don’t be surprised.”
AIRING IT OUT: Junior Reese Rumfield returns as Temple's starting quarterback after earning first-team all-district recognition in 12-6A last year, his first with the Wildcats. Rumfield passed for 1,831 yards and 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions while starting every game for 9-3 Temple, which captured its third straight district title. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Rumfield returns for his second season as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback after passing for 1,831 yards and 24 touchdowns last year and earning first-team all-district honors despite not transferring to Temple until after spring practice had begun. Harrison-Pilot and junior starting safety Damarion Willis are the backup QBs to Rumfield.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Rumfield made significant weight and strength gains during the offseason program and looked sharp in Temple’s scrimmage at Killeen last Friday, connecting with Harrison-Pilot on two touchdown passes.
“Reese is way more comfortable. He feels more confident in what he does and his throws are way smoother and way better than last year,” Harrison-Pilot said about Rumfield, whose cousin TJ Rumfield quarterbacked Temple’s 2017 team to a regional final. “I can’t wait to see it. We’re all going to be good.”
The Wildcats’ offense figures to offer some new elements and wrinkles this season. Veteran offensive coordinator Josh Sadler accepted the Killeen head coaching job on June 9, after which Stewart promoted special teams coordinator Robby Case – who has a wealth of coaching experience in NCAA Division II – to offensive coordinator.
Case wanted to work with a strong quarterbacks coach, and Stewart hired well-regarded coach Brad Stanfield, who has trained a long list of successful college and NFL QBs.
“Stanfield personally trains the best QBs on the planet, so I’m really looking forward to it,” Stewart said. “He comes in with that attacking (strategy of), ‘Read the defense and take what they give you.’ It’s just a very attacking philosophy. His philosophy is no dead plays.”
Along with Harrison-Pilot, Temple’s group of receivers includes seniors Pharrell Hemphill – who caught 24 passes for 596 yards and 12 touchdowns at Cameron Yoe last year – and the versatile Mitchell, juniors Jaquon Butler and Jeremiah Lennon and athletic sophomore Christian Tutson.
That crew needs to play well to offset the loss of productive receiver Devan Williams (Tulsa), who paced the 2021 Wildcats with 37 catches for 777 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Temple is excited about the skill and experience of its offensive line, which is led by three returning starters in senior right guard Agustin Silva, senior right tackle Jeremiah Mungia and 6-2, 292-pound junior center Endrei Sauls, who was a unanimous first-team all-district pick at left guard.
“Endrei’s not going to be that 6-6 kid, so I think moving him to center was as much (to benefit his college recruitment) as it was what we needed him to do,” Stewart said. “Mentally, he can do that. He’s a very intelligent kid.”
Seniors Armando Gonzales and Koran Lumpkins are in an ongoing competition at left tackle, and junior Seth Martinez is the new left guard.
“They’re smart and big, physical kids who don’t mind getting their face dirty,” Stewart said.
Bruising senior Landon Halvorson is the top option at tight end/fullback/H-back.
Allowing 45 points and 515 total yards to prolific Rockwall-Heath in the playoff defeat left a sour taste in the mouth of Temple’s defense, but coordinator Dexter Knox’s crew still was an effective unit last season. The Wildcats’ 4-2-5 defense permitted 339.9 yards per game, split almost evenly between rushing and passing.
With 141 tackles (17 for loss) last year and 315 career stops in three seasons, York is the proven, undisputed leader. If he doesn’t win 12-6A’s Defensive MVP award for the third consecutive season, it might be because he earns the league’s overall MVP honor.
Stewart praised York’s steady work ethic, commitment and attention to detail.
“That’s why he’ll be successful. Taurean will play as far as his physical talent will let him, and usually that’s not the case,” Stewart said. “You look at most careers, it’s like, ‘OK, well, he was a great athlete, but commitment, memory, lifestyle choices, whatever it is, there’s various and sundry reasons (for an athlete not reaching his potential).’ Taurean will play as along as his body will allow him to play.”
INTENSE COMPETITOR: Temple's Naeten Mitchell celebrates after making an interception against Magnolia West early last season at Wildcat Stadium. He was a first-team all-district performer at free safety after making 73 tackles (47 solo) and a team-high three interceptions. The 5-foot-10, 167-pound New Mexico State commitment is slated to start at cornerback this season and also expects to get playing time on offense as a slot receiver. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Mitchell returned to Temple after spending his freshman year at Waco and his sophomore season at Manor. The 5-10, 167-pound player made an instant impact on the Wildcats’ defense last year. Playing most at safety but also getting time at cornerback, Mitchell earned first-team all-district status at safety after making 73 tackles (47 solo) and a team-high three interceptions.
The aggressive, hard-hitting Mitchell, who plans to join former Temple cornerback BJ Sculark at New Mexico State next year, plays much bigger than his slender frame suggests.
“I really grew up around football with my dad coaching at Texas State and Manor and other high schools,” said Mitchell, whose father, Jeremy Mitchell, is now a Temple assistant coach. “I really picked up my game at Manor when he was the DC there. Watching that growing up showed me to be fearless.
I know that I’m not going to be the biggest defensive back on the field, but I know that I have the biggest heart on the field. I’m not really scared of anything. I know me and what I can do. I stick my head in there anytime I can.”
Stewart said Tuesday that Temple’s needs entering the season will have Mitchell at cornerback, but the coach who was the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator from 2014-15 has added that he has “zero hesitations moving him to safety.”
The other projected starting cornerback is skilled senior Steve Jackson, who was a two-way standout at Troy last season before transferring back to Temple. His sophomore brother Lezlie Jackson is another varsity defensive back for the Wildcats.
Temple is excited about the ability and potential of its starting safeties, Willis and sophomore O’Ryan Peoples. Harrison-Pilot also is a candidate to play safety when needed, and emerging sophomore De'avonte Carr and senior Josh Donoso also are candidates to help the Wildcat secondary.
Senior and first-team all-district player Zion Moore (54 tackles, two interceptions) was slated to be Temple’s starting weakside linebacker, but he suffered a broken ankle in practice last week and is expected to miss six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery.
A first-team all-league defensive end last season, active senior Jaylon Jackson likely will slide to weakside linebacker until Moore returns, with seniors Eric Zavala and Teryon Williams-Echols also vying for playing time.
DEFENSIVE PLAYMAKER: Temple end Jaylon Jackson tackles Waxahachie quarterback Roderick Hartsfield Jr. during the Wildcats' 28-14 bi-district victory over the Indians last November at Wildcat Stadium. Jackson was a first-team all-district selection in 2021. Early this season he'll slide to weakside linebacker while filling in for all-district senior Zion Moore, who's expected to miss six to eight weeks after surgery on a broken ankle. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Strong, agile junior nose tackle Ayden Brown is back after earning 12-6A’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year award thanks to 30 solo tackles among his 49 total stops. He’s been limited by a knee ailment during recent practices but is expected to play in the season opener.
The other tackle is senior Ka’Morion Carter, a first-year starter who played well last season in backup duty. With Jaylon Jackson sliding to linebacker until Moore returns, seniors Julian White and Kevin Stockton are the ends. Senior lineman Aiden Malsbary also is contending for playing time.
Developing a reliable kicker is a top priority for Temple after the graduation of first-team all-district player Danis Bajric, whose 87 points (nine field goals, 60 extra points) last season ranked second on the team behind Howard’s 140. Stewart said junior Marcos Garcia likely will kick PATs and field goals, while senior Mateo Lopez handles kickoffs and punts.
Mitchell, Peoples and Butler are among the Wildcats’ top options to return punts and kickoffs.
Temple seeks its 10th straight playoff appearance, something the guys in the distinctive blue-front, white-back pants haven’t achieved since coaching legend Bob McQueen directed the Wildcats to the postseason from 1976-85, highlighted by the first of the program’s two state championships in 1979.
Stewart simply wants this Temple squad to work hard enough and play well enough to earn the right to be in a favorable position yet again.
“That’s a tribute to the coaches we hire. I also think it’s the community and the support from our administration and the campus,” Stewart said. “That’s what I’ve always said. I’ve coached in a regional final game at a different school and I looked up and there’d be 600, 700, 800 people in the stands. Or you go 2-8 and there’s 500 in the stands.
“Whatever the capacity is here (at Wildcat Stadium), most times they’ll be out there. Most of them may think I’m the biggest idiot in Temple, but I’ll take misguided passion over apathy any day of the week, because they do care.”
And because Temple's head coach and his staff primarily care about their players as young men, the concept of having to winning isn’t discussed inside Temple’s fieldhouse and locker room nearly as much as some might think.
“We don’t talk about winning. We talk about competing. If I put that kind of pressure on a kid to win, when we don’t win I just devalued them. They already deal with enough pressure out there in society and stuff like that,” Stewart said. “I want them to have fun and go bust their tail and be the best version of themselves.
“I don’t want these kids to think it’s the end of the world because we don’t score enough points. So we’re going to try to put our best foot forward and be better tomorrow than we were today, and if you do that enough days in a row, you might be in some of those conversations.”
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