Temple’s defense lost 10 of 11 starters and 17 of its top 22 contributors after going 8-3 last year, so the Wildcats knew they’d be young and inexperienced on that side entering this season.

Their defense just became even younger than originally projected.

Fourth-year head coach Scott Stewart said Tuesday that two freshmen — free safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot and weakside linebacker Taurean York — have earned starting defensive positions for Temple’s season-opening game Friday night at Round Rock Cedar Ridge at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Harrison-Pilot and the 5-10, 190-pound York practiced with the varsity during preseason camp and played well enough in last Friday’s scrimmage at College Station for Stewart to have confidence that the talented tandem is ready to experience Class 6A competition.

“They’re in there. It’s time to throw them into the fire. We’ve got two freshmen starting. I’ve never even heard of that,” Stewart said, adding that in more than two decades in coaching he’s never begun a season with a freshman defender in a major role.

“All things being equal, I’m going to take youth, because they’ve got the one thing that the (older) ones don’t have, which is time. So now you’re investing in the future. If I have a sophomore who’s just as productive if not more productive than a senior, I’m going with the sophomore. Over time that’s always going to end up with more production.”

Temple’s starting defense also includes sophomore Eric Shorter in a hybrid linebacker/end role.

Harrison-Pilot and York starred together at Travis Science Academy. Harrison-Pilot, son of Temple assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Pilot, is viewed as a potential future starting quarterback for the Wildcats. York, son of mid-1990s Temple football standout Robert York, also is a running back. For now, the two freshmen will focus on playing solid defense and keeping up with the size and speed of varsity competition.

“Mikal screwed a couple of things up royally (in the scrimmage), but what you see is he looked like a different kid at the end than he did at the beginning,” Stewart said. “Same way with Taurean. He did some things great and some things awful.”

Stewart prefers to keep all the Wildcats’ ninth-grade players together on the freshman team, but the combination of Temple’s pressing defensive needs and the unique skills and maturity of Harrison-Pilot and York led to the rare decision to name them varsity starters immediately.

“I have a lot of confidence in them as young men. There’s only one way to get experience and that’s by playing,” Stewart said. “I’m going to assume that comes with some mental errors, but the video evidence I have off that scrimmage is that once they make a mistake, they usually don’t make the same one twice. So if that can stay consistent, I don’t really care what number is next to their name in the grade book.”

Temple scrambling at right tackle

after knee injury of senior Perez

Temple had planned to feature an all-senior offensive line of left tackle Dayton Lewis, left guard Dakari White, center Markel Carter, right guard Daniel Lopez and right tackle Blake Perez. However, those plans changed when Perez — a first-time varsity starter — suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last Friday during a College Station interception return.

“It hurt real bad, just knowing that (Perez) had something to prove,” said Carter, entering his third season as the Wildcats’ starting center. “We’re checking on him to make sure he’s all right. We lost him on the field, but we haven’t lost him as far as the position he holds on this team.”

After Perez’s season-ending injury, Temple’s had three players practicing at right tackle: juniors Kai Lynn and Alex Rodriguez and sophomore Colby Rice. The 230-pound Rodriguez played on varsity as a tight end last season and was projected to play there this year along with senior Tyson Magana. Stewart said practices this week would determine the starting right tackle at Cedar Ridge.

Wildcats expect challenging opener

vs. elusive RB Vaughn, Cedar Ridge

Temple has won seven consecutive season openers, including 45-25 over Cedar Ridge last year at Wildcat Stadium. To extend that streak, the Wildcats must defeat a well-constructed Raiders program that Stewart said reminds him of College Station, another successful purple-and-black squad that Temple’s regularly run into.

“Cedar Ridge is very well-coached and doesn’t make many mistakes,” Stewart said of third-year coach Sam Robinson’s Raiders. “We’re a year behind them, because last year they were really young on defense but really salty on offense.”

Cedar Ridge finished 9-3 last season, winning nine of its next 10 games after the Temple defeat and reaching the 6A Division I area round before falling 53-50 to The Woodlands on a 55-yard field goal as time expired.

Then-5A Temple lost to Cedar Ridge 28-14 at home in 2016 and 21-14 at Reeves in ’17 before the new-to-6A Wildcats finally solved the Raiders last year behind four touchdown receptions totaling 210 yards from Quentin Johnston, now a Texas-committed senior.

Last year, Temple had trouble containing elusive running back Chris “Deuce” Vaughn, who caught Jalen Brown’s 30-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage and rushed for 168 yards on 28 carries. Stewart knows his young, inexperienced defense must be fast and smart to limit the 5-7, 175-pound Vaughn, a Kansas State commitment who rushed for 1,926 yards and 20 TDs in 2018.

“Having him back is huge,” Robinson, who coached Cedar Ridge to the 6A D-I state semifinals in 2017, told the Austin American-Statesman. “When he’s on the field, the defense has to pay attention to him. His leadership and work ethic, not only is he our best player, but he’s our hardest worker.”

Brown returns after passing for 2,054 yards and 20 TDs, with senior QB/athlete Jack Turner also in the plans. MarkAnthony Walker and DJ Rountree pace the receivers and 6-7, 265-pound lineman Marcus Bryant is a Southern Methodist pledge.

Cedar Ridge’s defense, coordinated by former Temple assistant Rawley Farrell, should be stronger with an extra year of seasoning. Its key cogs include linebackers Devin Taylor and Brett Hartgrove and secondary members Gavin Dunn, Ciondre Sterling and Nick Garner.

Carter, Temple’s center, said an opening win against a stellar opponent would provide a big boost before next Friday’s home opener under Wildcat Stadium’s new lights against Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (Mexico).

“We need it, especially for the young guys,” said Carter, who’ll snap to senior Vance Willis, Temple’s new starting quarterback. “When we win, their energy level goes up and it’ll make them want to play harder.”