WORKING OT: Maturing Peoples makes big plays in new safety spot as Temple gets revenge on Longview
WILDCATS' BALL HAWK: Temple junior free safety O'Tarian Peoples forced a second-quarter fumble and returned a fourth-quarter fumble 28 yards for a touchdown to help the Wildcats defeat then-No. 3-ranked Longview 40-13 in last Friday's season opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Peoples helped Temple outscore Longview – which beat the visiting Wildcats 41-10 in a bi-district playoff game last November – 30-0 in the second half. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
What a difference 10½ months can make.
Temple safety O'Tarian “OT” Peoples admitted that he had a difficult time handling playoff pressure when he played as a 170-pound sophomore last November against undefeated, reigning state champion Longview in a Class 6A Division II bi-district game that turned into a 41-10 romp for the host Lobos over the overmatched Wildcats.
“My first playoff game, it was just a whole bunch of nerves and I didn't focus too well,” Peoples recalled of the night when Temple's youthful defense allowed 534 total yards while putting five sophomores and two freshmen on the field against Longview's senior-laden squad.
Given an opportunity to make amends against Longview to begin his junior season, a more mature Peoples took full advantage of his second shot at the Lobos last Friday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Temple's 190-pound starting free safety forced a second-quarter fumble that teammate Faylin Lee recovered, then with 3 minutes remaining in the game Peoples picked up a fumble caused by Dion Saunders and ran it back 28 yards for the final touchdown to punctuate the Wildcats' thorough 40-13 victory over Longview, which entered as the state's No. 3-ranked team in 5A Division I.
Even playing at the Dallas Cowboys' spacious stadium and in front of a regional television audience, Peoples didn't experience the worries that hindered him less than a year earlier.
“I wasn't really nervous. I went out there and knew I had to handle business. That's what was needed,” said the 5-foot-11 Peoples, who also made five tackles and broke up a pass for Temple, which outscored Longview 30-0 after halftime. “We don't have a lot of seniors this year, so we knew we had to step up and we knew it was time to be a leader. We came ready to lead and keep everybody under control.”
Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox definitely notices a difference in the older version of Peoples, who's called “OT” by his teammates and coaches.
“I think (Peoples is) showing that's he's matured significantly from his sophomore year to his junior year. I'd say it's more mentally,” said Knox, whose defense recovered three Longview fumbles, forced a safety and got an interception from junior outside linebacker/strong safety Marshall Grays. “Playing varsity football is not all about running fast and being big. It's more of a mental game, being where you need to be and making sure you're doing the right things to be successful.
“OT's understanding that, 'Hey, I need to take this seriously.' At free safety, he's the guy who runs our back end and gets guys lined up.”
Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart – the Wildcats' defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015 – compares Peoples favorably with former standout free safety Ben Norman, whose strong play in 2016 helped the Wildcats reach their second 5A Division I state championship game in three years.
“OT reminds me a lot of Ben Norman when it comes to physical attributes,” Stewart said. “He's not exceptionally fast, but he's a strong kid and not afraid to tackle. He's a really smart kid. You've got to be in the right spot and understand leverage and angles.”
Peoples was with Temple's varsity team throughout his sophomore season and got significant playing time, although those snaps were at the outside linebacker/strong safety position. He suffered a shoulder injury in the Wildcats' lone District 12-6A loss at Waco Midway and missed the regular-season finale against Copperas Cove before rejoining the lineup for the playoff game in Longview.
With sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot moving from free safety to the offensive side this season after starting all 11 games and earning second-team all-district honors as a freshman in 2019, Temple's coaching staff knew there would be a transition period as Peoples shifted to the vital free safety post.
“The time OT did get last year was all from underneath coverage concepts, so there's been some transition with him going to the roof (free safety) and trying to shore that up,” Stewart said. “We've got to work a lot on his coverage concepts, because he's backed up to the roof.”
In his previous position, Peoples said he had trouble preventing Longview's tight ends from getting open for downfield passes in the playoff matchup. Now patrolling the back end as essentially the quarterback of Temple's secondary, the junior believes he's in his more natural element.
“At free safety, I just feel . . . free back there,” the good-natured Peoples said, aware of his play on words. “I get to control my triangle and know what I'm doing and feel more comfortable. I get the cornerback and Marshall (Grays) lined up.”
As far as Peoples becoming a ball hawk by getting in on two turnovers in the season opener against Longview, the free safety said stripping the ball away from Lobos star senior running back Kaden Meredith – who ran through Temple's defense for 248 yards last November – early in the second quarter certainly did not happen by accident.
“Actually, that week of practice we did a drill where we (worked on) stripping the ball,” Peoples said. “(The coaches) said, 'If somebody else has the tackle, just go for it and punch at the ball.' And I punched at it and it came out.”
The fumble recovery by junior linebacker Lee at Longview's 34-yard line led to senior Aaron Wagaman's 26-yard field goal for a 10-6 Wildcats lead.
With Temple controlling mistake-plagued Longview in the second half and leading 33-13 with 3½ minutes remaining, Peoples provided the exclamation point when he grabbed a fumble caused by junior backup end Saunders at the Lobos 28 and dashed inside the right pylon for the final touchdown.
“I was on the back side, so I had to be slow in case anything popped out. And then when I saw the ball, it was just scoop and score. You gotta go,” Peoples explained, adding about his teammates' reaction to his TD return: “It was just love, everything. In that moment it was big-time.”
It was the first defensive touchdown for Peoples since his interception return against Killeen Shoemaker for Temple's top freshman team in 2018.
Given his proclivity for being around the football and taking it away from opposing offenses, it's fitting that one of Peoples' favorite players to watch is safety Tyrann Mathieu of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. While playing for Louisiana State, the undersized Mathieu earned the nickname “Honey Badger” for his aggressive, instinctive style that produced a slew of turnovers and game-changing highlights that Peoples enjoys viewing on YouTube.
“Some kids just have that knack (for producing takeaways),” Stewart said. “(Wildcats junior defensive end Eric) Shorter's kind of the same way. They're always around something.”
Temple missed a big chunk of its offseason program and all of spring football practice because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Peoples put that strange time period to good use by putting on 20 pounds of size and strength thanks to rigorous workouts alongside sophomore linebacker Taurean York, who also gained 20 pounds to reach his current 210. York led the Wildcats with 13 tackles in the win over Longview.
Peoples doesn't just work out; he also works. On Saturdays and Sundays he can be found making pizzas at the Domino's location near Temple High School, but he's never far from football, whether that means watching video for the Wildcat purposes or checking out college and NFL game action.
Peoples also plays an important role in helping his mother with the development of his 14-year-old brother, O'Ryan Peoples, a Lamar Middle School eighth-grader who plays football, basketball and baseball and runs track.
“O'Ryan, he does a little bit of everything. I think they're going to keep him on the offensive side of the ball,” O'Tarian said. “He plays a little quarterback, receiver and running back. He's going to be better than me. He's kind of lazy, so I try to make sure he comes up here for workouts and stays in shape.”
Many students might have liked their long break from attending in-person classes because of COVID-19, but not Peoples. He's all about being in the environment provided by Temple's school and sports.
“I actually like school. I like my teachers because they're all understanding. I like being up here with my friends and interacting. I love to talk,” said Peoples, whose favorite classes have included history, culinary and theater.
“He's the jokester and a funny kid,” Knox said. “Sometimes you have to redirect him, because he's happy-go-lucky and likes to have fun. But his grades are really good, he has a great mom and he's a super kid.”
And as Temple's swarming and increasingly mature defense demonstrated in the statement-making revenge victory over Longview, Peoples believes his Wildcats have the makings of a stingy group.
“We're going to be all right if we all stay focused on our gameplan,” Peoples said. “Coach Knox is a great coach. As long as we (execute) his gameplan, we're going to be all right.”