If he could, Temple football head coach Scott Stewart would love to be on the field right now.
For one, he misses his Wildcats and he’s been separated from people he considers extended family members since March. Second, he knows what he and his players are missing out on with spring practice nixed because of the coronavirus.
But Stewart understands the gravity and fluidity of the situation and, like all Class 6A and 5A coaches who normally utilize this time of year to take advantage of the 18 practices allowed by the University Interscholastic League, has adjusted Temple’s spring offseason regimen to fit the 2020 normal while everyone anxiously awaits the opportunity to reconvene in person.
When that is remains unclear. The UIL has taken steps toward possible rules leniencies, which could allow coaches and players more hours together when sports do resume. Nothing is set in stone there. So at the moment, helmets and pads won’t do any good. Hash marks are replaced by workout hashtags on Twitter. Keyboards and computer screens are the most important pieces of equipment.
“I’ve always chosen spring ball because it’s 18 (practices) versus six in the fall,” Stewart said, referring to the other option usually provided to teams that don’t hold formal spring training — an extra week of practice and an additional scrimmage tune-up in August. “But it is also full pads and full, real football evaluation. Right now, we only have one choice. We’re virtual with this stuff. Spring ball mentally, if you will.”
The Wildcats should be midway through their spring practice schedule and just two weeks from the mid-May staple that is the annual Blue-White game, an anticipated exhibition that provides eager fans a glimpse into the upcoming season and coaches one more look at their team before the summer break. This year’s sneak peak was slated for May 21.
“We can splice up stuff from Hudl and show PowerPoint to some of these kids. But until they do it, they don’t really grasp it. So, there’s going to be a premium put on time when we do get back. But we’ll have a plan in place and we’ll be as ready as anybody, I can tell you that,” Stewart said.
Temple, which is coming off a shared District 12-6A title and seventh consecutive playoff appearance during a season in which it finished 8-3, will have its fifth starting quarterback in as many years.
A likely three-player battle for the spot between incoming seniors Luke Allen and Humberto Arizmendi and soon-to-be sophomore Mikal Harrison-Pilot won’t gain much traction until the all-clear is given and those players can showcase their skills on the field. Stewart said the competition presumably could last into the regular season because the reality is that if sports don’t return until the first week of August, three weeks of practices and two scrimmages leading to the season opener Aug. 28 at AT&T Stadium against Longview might not be enough time to settle such a vital aspect.
“When we can, we’re going to take a look at what we’ve got. We’re hoping one of those guys can take the reins,” Stewart said of the signal-callers. “We are going to evaluate practice a little differently and fine-tooth comb film and be more succinct and more precise in those decisions.”
Other decisions waiting in the wings will include filling spots along the offensive line, replacing three graduated wide receivers — including vertical threat Quentin Johnston — and restocking the defensive backfield. AJ McDuffy enters the new season as the Wildcats top pass catcher after 22 receptions for 364 yards and six touchdowns last year.
Temple’s defense should return plenty of experience from last season when the Wildcats received significant contributions from at least seven underclassmen on that side of the ball — including linebacker Taurean York, who was 12-6A’s co-defensive newcomer of the year as a freshman, and then-sophomore linebacker/end Eric Shorter. Temple also should have back defensive linemen Jayven Taylor, Cody Little and Isaiah Fach, who started until an injury last October.
Stewart’s also looking forward to what incoming junior running back Samari Howard has in store for opponents. Howard rushed for 254 yards in his varsity debut a year ago and finished with 966 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning 12-6A’s offensive newcomer of the year award while also serving as Temple’s backup quarterback.
“He’s special. He’s electric. He starts and stops as fast as anybody I’ve coached and he’s got that work ethic,” Stewart said. “It’s fun to watch the kids that work hard and have the athleticism. That’s what I’ve always defined good culture as. When your best athletes are your hardest workers, you have a chance to have a pretty decent culture because you can’t help but follow that.”
And while everyone waits for the next step, Stewart said his main message to the 2020 Temple Wildcats is, in short: be ready.
“At some point, we are going to get this gift back. Playing sports is a gift, it’s a privilege. And I hope when we get the privilege back, guys take advantage of it,” Stewart said. “To me, it should take on a different vibe. The weight room, the practice atmosphere should take on a different vibe if it means something to you. You’ve heard coaches and adults your whole life say that. Don’t take anything for granted because it can be gone one day. Usually that’s because of injury or graduation. Well, we’ve all learned now we can have something taken away and can’t do anything about it.”