When the Temple Wildcats began fall practice a year ago, their defense had an abundance of experienced, talented players to rely upon for leadership. In fact, 10 starting defenders were seniors, as were 17 of the top 22 contributors on that side’s depth chart.
This year? Not so much. As Temple prepares to begin fall practice at 6 p.m. Monday, incoming senior cornerback Roman Jackson is the lone returning starter, and he missed the Wildcats’ first-round playoff loss to Mesquite Horn because of an injury. Senior safety Damarco Williams played a significant role last season, including a start against Horn, but he’ll be a first-year starter.
In addition, fourth-year head coach Scott Stewart said the Wildcats “who are fixing to be juniors are probably the smallest class we’ve had.” Because of those factors, the opportunity certainly exists for a large group of sophomores to earn prime playing time.
Although Stewart is happy for Temple’s offense to welcome back a slew of dangerous skill-position players — spearheaded by wide receiver Quentin Johnston and running back Anthony Jackson — and workhorse linemen, he knows the fresh-faced defense must do a lot of maturing and improving before the Wildcats’ season opener Aug. 30 at Round Rock Cedar Ridge.
“Last year was the exact opposite. That’s the part that gets you,” said Stewart, who’s coached Temple to a 30-11 record and three of its six straight playoff appearances. “What’s weird is I’ll flip around and say we’re as experienced as we’ve been here on offense.”
Stewart, whose squad will have its first full-pads workout Saturday, makes it clear that the Wildcats’ youth and relative inexperience — particularly on defense — should not be confused with an absence of ability, potential and confidence.
“This is a group that it’s hard to get a barometer, because we’re dealing with so many new faces. We won’t know if that’s a bad thing until afterward,” said Stewart, whose team has an Aug. 23 scrimmage at former district rival College Station. “I’ve never thought youth was a bad thing. There’s just a lot of question marks. The question marks will be answered when we put on the pads under the big lights.
“But I will tell you we’ve got kids who work their tails off. There’s a lot of growth we have done and still need to do. I saw a lot of maturation through spring practice and into the spring game. What’s funny about young kids is they’re like sponges. You see them grow in different ways.”
Along with Roman Jackson and Williams, the most experienced returning defensive players include senior linebacker Quincy Marshall, senior Coryell Fillmore in the secondary and junior lineman Isaiah Fach. Safety Robert Flores is a senior but a first-year varsity player.
And then there are those sophomores: linebackers Eric Shorter and Kani Bowers, safeties Faylin Lee, Marshall Grays and O’Tarian Peoples and cornerback Devan Williams, who’s competing with two older players for the starting job opposite Roman Jackson.
“There’s going to be a ton of sophomores. Our linebacking crew, probably four of the top six are sophomores,” Stewart said, adding that the sophomores are a mixed bag in terms of their readiness for Class 6A varsity competition.
For example, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Shorter already possesses the physical tools but must resist the urge to freelance instead of sticking to the script. Other sophomores, meanwhile, have the desired mental approach to the game. The unknown is whether they’re physically advanced enough to handle its rigors.
“He’s going to be fun to coach. He’s an electric kid and savvy beyond his years,” Stewart said of Shorter. “He’s depended on street smarts to get through (on the field). (But) a lot of stuff that’s worked for him isn’t going to work anymore.”
Throwing talented sophomores into the proverbial fire doesn’t bother Stewart, who’s seen it pay big dividends both immediately and long-term since he arrived in Temple in 2014 as defensive coordinator. And there’s plenty of older standouts present to help the younger Wildcats adapt.
“I’m hoping the chemistry is where it needs to be, because we do have enough senior pieces in place to build around,” Stewart said. “It’s not like we’re marching a bunch of guys with milk on their chin out there, but we are younger than most people will be.”
Returning to anchor Temple’s offensive line are third-year starters in center Markel Carter and guard Dakari White along with fellow senior Dayton Lewis at tackle.
Johnston, a highly recruited senior and Texas Football magazine’s preseason pick for District 12-6A offensive MVP, is primed for another dominant season after the 6-4 playmaker caught 45 passes for 923 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be complemented by fellow senior receiver Montavian Carlysle. Senior speedster Anthony Jackson is a play-maker at running back (936 yards rushing, 13 TDs) and on kickoff returns.
The Wildcats will have a new starting quarterback for the third consecutive season. Senior Vance Willis, an explosive runner, has the most experience and is likely to earn the job but must beat out junior Luke Allen and elusive sophomore Samari Howard, the rushing star of Temple’s Blue-White spring game. Stewart said Allen and Howard will play other positions if not at quarterback.