Temple football

Taurean York (left) and Mikal Harrison-Pilot, friends since fourth grade, have been steady contributors on defense as freshmen for Temple.

Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Taurean York seem to be a packaged deal. Close friends since meeting as fourth-grade students at Kennedy-Powell, they have spent a large amount of time together, including as successful teammates in various sports at Travis Science Academy.

Normally, the two talented Temple ninth-graders would be playing football together for the freshman team. But this has not been a normal season for the Wildcats because of their youth and inexperience on defense, so Harrison-Pilot and York aren’t playing in front of sparse crowds on Thursday nights.

In a striking departure from anything Temple head coach Scott Stewart had done in his career, he’s had two 14-year-old freshmen in the starting lineup every game this season: the rangy Harrison-Pilot at free safety and the sure-tackling York at middle linebacker.

York has a team-leading 69 tackles and Harrison-Pilot is tied for fourth with 36 stops, and their maturity and ability to handle the varsity level’s rigors is a big reason why playoff-bound Temple (7-2, 6-1) can clinch at least a share of the District 12-6A championship when it takes on Copperas Cove (3-6, 2-5) in tonight’s regular-season finale at Wildcat Stadium.

“At first I was nervous about everything. But once you start playing more, you get more comfortable with it. It’s just like playing another game,” said the 6-foot, 175-pound Harrison-Pilot, who has two sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception. “Everybody is more experienced, so it’s not as easy as middle school.”

Harrison-Pilot’s father is Temple co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Pilot. York’s father is Robert York, a Wildcats defensive standout in the mid-1990s.

Both freshmen have made some mistakes this season, including in last week’s 52-28 loss at Hewitt Midway, but they’ve acquitted themselves quite well overall and done nothing to make Stewart regret his bold decision to make them varsity starters right away.

“The hardest part was the first week or two weeks, adjusting to varsity speed,” said the 5-11, 190-pound York, who has six tackles for loss and forced a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown. “The College Station scrimmage was the hardest part for me, having my eyes on the key. It’s definitely gotten easier.”

Although Stewart was keenly aware of Harrison-Pilot and York’s skill and athleticism, he said it never was a foregone conclusion that either or both would play varsity as freshmen. A defensive coach by trade, Stewart said he’d previously played only one other freshman defender on varsity in two decades, and that was an injury-caused midseason promotion.

But as Temple’s defense entered preseason camp with only one returning starter (senior cornerback Roman Jackson) and numerous question marks, Stewart pondered giving Harrison-Pilot and York an opportunity to join the varsity group and prove whether they merited staying there. And it certainly was possible that one of them would and the other wouldn’t.

“It’s always been each to his own. Not to take anything away from them, but it wasn’t necessarily about who they are. It’s about who wasn’t here. It’s about depth and everything that we lost,” Stewart said. “My deal was, they’re either going to start on Thursday nights or they’re going to start on Friday nights. I will never bring up a freshman to play as a backup.”

When Harrison-Pilot and York demonstrated during August practices that they were at least as proficient as the older options at their positions, Stewart said his decision came down to personal philosophy.

“Our whole evaluation process during camp was, ‘Is he good enough to be a starter?’ When you’ve got two guys who give you the same production, I believe you always go with youth because they’ve got what the other one doesn’t, which is time,” Stewart said. “The older ones don’t want to hear that, but in two years if there’s a freshman as good as Taurean York, then that freshman’s going to play.”

York made an impactful play in Temple’s home opener against Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (Mexico). With Temple leading 27-23 starting the second half, York stripped the ball from a Tigres runner, and senior DaMarco Williams recovered it for a touchdown in a 51-29 Wildcats victory.

“Taurean is the most down-to-business, work-ethic kid I remember coaching. He’s not the goofball. I go, ‘Dude, will you please smile?’” said Stewart, who believes York potentially can become one of the best linebackers to play for Temple. “He’s about work 100 percent of the time and gets better every week.”

York comes from an athletic family. His father played college football at Ranger and Mary Hardin-Baylor, and his brother Deion Hardy — a Temple graduate — was a successful runner at Incarnate Word. His two sisters who graduated from Belton are college athletes: senior volleyball player Breyanna York at Texas Southern and freshman basketball player Presleigh York at Huston-Tillotson.

Whereas Harrison-Pilot’s 15th birthday coincides with Thanksgiving, York is very young for a freshman, having turned 14 in June. However, he doesn’t consider that a disadvantage.

“I’m always up to the challenge. Maybe it was difficult for other people, saying, ‘He just turned 14, so why is he on varsity?’ I think Mikal and I have proven that we belong on varsity,” said the bespectacled York, who plays basketball, runs track and is considering reviving his baseball career.

York dealt with adversity last Friday. Temple trailed Midway 17-0 in the second quarter when he intercepted Jared Moore’s pass at the Temple 5-yard line. He returned it toward the right sideline but was tackled from his blind side and fumbled. The Panthers recovered at the Wildcats 21 for one of Temple’s six turnovers, and Moore’s ensuing touchdown run made it 24-0.

“My dad’s harder on me than the coaches are, but I’m the hardest person on myself. Watching the film, I should’ve hit the left sideline. I tried to put our offense in the best position, but it didn’t work out,” York said. “Coach Stewart told me, ‘Stay calm.’ I just had to move on. It was difficult, but you have to live and learn.”

Chris Pilot praised York’s emotional maturity.

“Mikal and Taurean are best friends, but Taurean’s more of the mature one,” Pilot said. “He’s going to study game tape and do everything you ask of him. He cares a lot.”

Harrison-Pilot had his difficult moment in the first quarter at Midway. Shaded toward the left side of the offensive formation, he kept his eyes in the backfield too long and took a bad angle attempting to cover Xavier Harris, who caught Moore’s pass, sidestepped the diving freshman safety and cruised to a 50-yard touchdown.

“Mikal has every tool it takes to be successful. He’s an athlete and has phenomenal hands,” Stewart said. “What he struggles with is eye progression. Because he’s been bigger, faster and better than everybody, he’s been allowed to get away with instincts and floating around. He wants to depend on instincts that aren’t good enough anymore.

“(Mistakes) could happen to anybody, but those things tend to happen more often to young guys. They’ve got to learn from that.”

Also a talented performer in basketball, baseball and track, Harrison-Pilot could be in his only season on defense. He’s also a mobile, strong-armed quarterback who might play his final three seasons at QB, Stewart said. The dreadlocked Harrison-Pilot said he loves defense but wants to play whatever position benefits the Wildcats the most.

Since fifth grade, Harrison-Pilot has signed a contract drawn up by his father that offers monetary rewards for academic and athletic success and promises stiff penalties if he doesn’t meet standards.

“Grades are first and foremost,” Chris Pilot said. “Both Mikal and Taurean are in advanced classes, making all A’s and B’s. They’re great kids.”

In his final Travis football game last year, Harrison-Pilot landed awkwardly and suffered a severe injury to his left, non-throwing wrist. He missed basketball season and wasn’t fully cleared to resume football activities until May 31.

“It was fractured, dislocated, ligaments were torn off the bone,” Chris Pilot said. “As a parent, it was nerve-racking. I hated it for the kid, but Mikal attacked the rehab.”

York supported his friend throughout the whole recovery process. Their ritual pregame meeting with Chris Pilot only strengthens that bond.

“We always have a little moment right before the game, around 7:19,” York said. “He talks to us and reminds us he loves us and to trust our keys.”

So young, but so far, so good.