Every season has ups and downs, moments of triumph mixed with times of difficulty.
Temple’s offense has been productive all season with one constant source of strength — its offensive line of senior center Markel Carter, senior left guard Dakari White, senior right guard Daniel Lopez, senior left tackle Dayton Lewis and junior right tackle Alex Rodriguez.
Their cohesive play has paved the way for the Wildcats to average 489 yards per game: 313 rushing and 176 passing. Temple compiled at least 410 total yards in every regular-season game and 512-plus yards four times. The Wildcats rushed for 278 yards or more eight times, highlighted by an average of 372 in their final five games to share the District 12-6A championship.
“In the trenches is where it all starts. We’re a grinding group, and we have to be,” Temple offensive line coach Donnie Leach said. “These guys grind and get after it. They’ve embraced all the challenges. Their work ethic is impeccable.”
Temple fourth-year head coach Scott Stewart is a defensive guy by trade but insists that the Wildcats’ proverbial bread is buttered on the offensive front.
“I couldn’t be more proud of those guys. They’ve gelled as a unit,” Stewart said. “I’ve always said that any team — I don’t care who you are and how good you are at other positions — is going to go as the offensive line goes. If you can run the ball and pass protect, you’re going to go as that group goes.”
Temple’s O-line faces its next test when the Wildcats (8-2) travel to battle defending state champion Longview (10-0) in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Lobo Stadium. Longview has won 26 straight games, and its defense permits only 8.5 points per game.
Boosted by the experience and confidence they’ve absorbed as three-year starters, White and Carter welcome the challenge of competing against the Lobos.
“They look pretty good. I’m just ready for the fight. That’s how it is,” the 6-foot, 295-pound White said. “It’s not really too much for me, because I’ve been there.”
Carter echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“They’ve got size. They’re not oversized, really. But it’s stuff we’ve got that you really can’t measure. That’s just fight,” the 6-1, 295-pound Carter said. “My thing is to keep everybody level-headed. Dakari and I have been in positions where you know it’s not over until it’s really over. Our team’s really young and some people haven’t been in that position to know what’s going on, so I’m going to try to keep everybody level-headed and focused on plays and drives.”
Last year, Leach spent his first season as a Temple assistant coach working alongside Mark Johnson, the Wildcats’ highly respected offensive line mentor who retired last December after 35 years in coaching. Leach succeeded Johnson in overseeing Temple’s O-line, and he’s benefited from the addition of veteran line coach Robert Hagey. Leach coaches the centers and guards, Hagey takes the tackles, and Ryan Graves instructs the tight ends.
“We got lucky with Coach Hagey. He brings a different perspective,” Leach said. “He’s coached Division I players and was at Harker Heights when they really had a heck of a program.”
The bushy-bearded Leach has a fiery personality — using motivational phrases such as “Trench Mob” and “Power Hour” — that drives the Wildcats’ linemen to reach their potential.
“He’s very passionate,” Lewis said.
Hagey’s presence also has made a positive impact on the linemen, who regularly make postgame trips to Bill’s Grill to consume Master Burgers.
“When I came from tight end and moved to right tackle, Coach Hagey talked to me about going to summer camps to get looked at,” Rodriguez said. “He likes to try to help us out all he can.”
Carter and White have been vitally important 35-game starters, and the 6-foot, 275-pound Lewis emerged as Temple’s starting left tackle in the 2018 season’s second half.
“Yes, this is Markel and Dakari’s third year to start, but those two came back with an I-want-to-get-better mindset,” Leach said. “Dayton started I think seven games last year, but there was no special treatment (entering this season). He had to go earn it.”
Lewis, who has endured ankle sprains, knows he’ll need to play his best to handle the edge rushers on Longview’s 3-4 defense.
“You’re on an island when you play tackle, especially against an (odd-numbered) front,” Lewis said. “You’ve got to have good technique, because if you take one bad step, they’ll go inside or outside you. It was good having that experience (last year). I’ve been here and know what to do and expect.”
Leach said Lopez probably was good enough to start at right guard last year, but then-senior Sammy Rodriguez was a second-team all-district player there. Lopez played plenty in backup duty, and the 6-1, 287-pound senior has been rock-solid this season.
“It’s been quite an experience with these guys,” Lopez said. “I’ve been playing with Markel and Dakari since middle school. They’ve helped me with things I need. It’s been a real good experience.”
Rodriguez was a sophomore tight end on varsity last season, catching a 5-yard touchdown pass in Temple’s triple-overtime win over Belton. He expected to play tight end again this year along with senior Tyson Magana, but senior right tackle Blake Perez suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason scrimmage. That necessitated Rodriguez’s immediate move to right tackle, and the 6-4, 255-pounder has handled his transition with aplomb.
“I knew it was going to be OK, because Dakari and Markel helped me a lot and pushed me to get better,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a little easier than tight end, because you’re not moving around the whole field. You see your guy head-on. I knew my size would be a disadvantage against D-linemen, so I’ve really focused on technique and getting better at footwork and hand placement.”
When Magana suffered a serious ankle injury two weeks ago, Rodriguez returned to tight end and sophomore Colby Rice filled in at right tackle. Temple repeated that arrangement last week and likely will again at Longview, although Magana might attempt to play.
Stewart joked that his brief stint as the Wildcats’ “surrogate offensive line coach” early in the 2017 season was “probably the darkest week and a half of my career. I thought everyone was going to quit.”
But there was a method to Stewart’s madness, because the defensive-oriented coach definitely understands the importance of Temple’s stellar offensive line.
“I make fun of offensive linemen all the time, just because I have to. But I’m also smart enough to know that any program goes as the O-line goes,” Stewart said. “Until we moved into this building (this year), they were the only position group with their own designated meeting area. That was on purpose.”