As the Temple Wildcats prepared for Friday’s District 12-6A opener against Harker Heights at 7:30 p.m. at Killeen’s Leo Buckley Stadium, a Tuesday afternoon visit to their refurbished meeting space just south of Wildcat Stadium revealed that fourth-year head coach Scott Stewart had decided to take a more active, hands-on role in instructing defensive ends.
“I miss coaching football, I’ll promise you that,” Stewart, previously Temple’s defensive coordinator from 2014-15, said after emerging from a high-volume personnel meeting with those ends.
Although Temple (1-1) ranks second among 12-6A’s nine teams in total defense at 340.5 yards per game, the Wildcats have allowed at least 150 yards both rushing and passing in each of their first two outings: a 35-29 loss at Round Rock Cedar Ridge and last Friday’s 51-29 home victory over Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (Mexico).
Temple’s defense has permitted eight touchdowns with an average distance of 25.8 yards, along with allowing seven rushes of 15 yards or longer and six passes of 15-plus yards.
With the defense returning only one starter this season (senior cornerback Roman Jackson) and inserting sophomore linebacker/end Eric Shorter and two freshmen (linebacker Taurean York, free safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot) into the starting lineup, some early struggles were to be expected.
However, Stewart is adamant that Temple’s defense must improve its discipline, execution and cohesion immediately as the eight-game 12-6A schedule kicks off against talented Harker Heights (0-2) and its offense that averages 455.5 yards, second in district to the Wildcats’ 461.5.
It’s primarily about getting all three levels of the defense — line, linebackers and secondary — to decrease mistakes and maximize their performance in order to build a stronger overall unit.
“It’s just very inconsistent. We’re not holding our gaps at the first level and we’re inconsistent with the speed of our fits at the second and third levels,” Stewart said. “We’re very inconsistent with our D-line play across the board. That does not usually bode well. Again, it’s just attention to detail and techniques. This system has to work together.”
Last year, Temple showcased an aggressive, all-senior defensive line that won most of its up-front battles, allowing linebackers to roam freely for tackles and backs to make plays downfield. With juniors such as ends Isaiah Fach and Cody Little and tackle Jayven Taylor becoming starters this season, it continues to be a work in progress as far as playing fast but smart, executing assignments and fitting into the overall puzzle.
“When you win it head up (at the line of scrimmage), now it’s fun and easy when you get to play games,” Stewart said. “I’ve always been of the mindset, ‘Stunt and blitz when you want to, not because you have to.’ I’m going to dance with the girl that brung me. If we’re not going to be effective in our base (defense), I’m not going to do anything fancy. If you want to see the wheels fall off, be not very good and then try cute stuff. It’ll turn into a sieve.”
Little and Taylor each recorded a sack against UANL, Fach tied York (two sacks) with a team-high six tackles and Little, Harrison-Pilot and Shorter made five stops apiece. With Temple leading 27-23 just after halftime, York forced a fumble that senior safety DaMarco Williams recovered for a momentum-grabbing touchdown.
Senior quarterback Vance Willis paced the Wildcats’ offensive charge against UANL’s Tigres, bouncing back from an interception-plagued season opener to throw for 306 yards and four touchdowns. He and Texas-committed senior receiver Quentin Johnston connected seven times for 220 yards, highlighted by scores of 76, 45 and 28 yards.
For the second consecutive game, the Wildcats responded favorably to a fiery halftime speech by Stewart. It’s something he’d rather avoid.
“I felt like we played better in the second half. I told our assistant superintendent we need to adjust the budget because I’m running out of grease boards and chalkboards (to break) at halftime,” Stewart said. “At some point that has to go away. I’m not doing it for show and pomp. I just think it’s ridiculous. We’re adjusting our practice schedule to put more emphasis on the first 24 minutes.”
Harker Heights off to 0-2 start, but skilled
offensive trio makes Knights dangerous
Harker Heights is 1-11 in its last 12 games, hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002 and lost last year’s district opener 45-0 at Temple — the Wildcats led 35-0 by halftime — as the Knights recorded only 130 yards and six first downs in extremely rainy conditions. Meanwhile, Temple has won its last seven district openers by an average score of 57-13.
However, the Wildcats are leery of the Knights’ potential entering this important matchup. After a youthful Heights squad scored only 12.5 points per game last season, the Knights are averaging 31 points and 455.5 yards per game behind the skilled trio of sophomore quarterback Terrance Carter, senior running back Andre Gebhardt and senior receiver Mikelle Mason.
“They’ve got a bunch of guys and bodies back on offense. They’re going to play hard and they’re not a bad football team, at all,” Stewart said. “(A year ago) I think they were having a quarterback issue, and (the heavy rain) didn’t help. That played to our strength.
“Harker Heights is going to have a big game. It’s coming. They’re just too talented.”
The Knights are 21-42 with seventh-year coach Jerry Edwards, whose lone playoff berth came in 2016. Heights began this season by losing 42-34 at Round Rock and 52-28 to Round Rock Stony Point, but offensive production hasn’t been the problem.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound Gebhardt racked up 205 yards and three touchdowns at Round Rock and has a district-leading 323 yards plus six TDs. Mason (6-1, 165) is Carter’s top target, making 13 receptions for 268 yards and a touchdown.
The 6-2, 204-pound Carter was promoted to varsity midway through his freshman season and gained five games of starting experience. He’s emerged as a dual-threat weapon as a sophomore, completing 19 of 39 passes for 298 yards and rushing 29 times for 213 yards and two TDs.
“He’s an unbelievable quarterback. He’s a big joker for a sophomore,” Stewart said. “They showcase (Mason) and move him around, put him in motion and run jet sweeps. Their O-line is big and plays hard.”
Stewart said Temple’s coaches were highly impressed by Carter’s talent at the freshman level a year ago.
“I’d walk into the fieldhouse (before the freshman game) and our coaches said, ‘You’ve got to come see this kid throwing the ball around,’” Stewart said. “(Watching him) it was like, ‘What?!’ He’s the real deal.”
Harker Heights must improve defensively to be a factor in the 12-6A playoff race. The Knights’ leading defenders are senior ends Malachi Robinson and Idris Haith, senior linebacker Reece Vazquez, senior cornerback Ronald Gurley (6-2, 190) and junior safety Savonte Sanford-Page (6-3, 180), last season’s 12-6A Defensive Newcomer of the Year.