Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Temple
After 125 years of playing football, it's somewhat rare for Notre Dame to face an opponent that it has never previously met. It will occur, however, in this season's opening week, as the Temple Owls visit Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.
The game will be the first for the Owls under new head coach Matt Rhule, a former assistant with the New York Giants. Steve Addazio left for Boston College after two years in Philadelphia.
Temple finished 4-7 in 2012 in its first season back in the Big East, but it did not beat any teams that went to a bowl.
Are the Owls a threat to spoil Notre Dame's home opener, much like another Big East foe, South Florida, did in 2011? Let's take an early look at Temple, which began spring practice on March 22.
Date: Aug. 31
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: No prior meetings
Record: 4-7 (2-5 Big East)
Leading Passer: Chris Coyer (Jr.): 84-of-164, 946 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs
Leading Rusher: Montel Harris (Sr.): 186 carries, 1,054 yards, 12 TDs
Leading Receiver: Jalen Fitzpatrick (So.): 30 receptions, 363 yards, 2 TDs
This will be the third offensive system in four seasons for senior Chris Coyer, who took over as the starter in the middle of the 2011 season. The dual-threat quarterback finished his first full season as a starter in 2012 with just 946 yards passing and eight touchdowns before being benched for the final two games.
Despite the benching, Coyer remains the slight favorite to regain the starting role, as Rhule recruited Coyer during his time as an Owls assistant. Clinton "Juice" Granger, who started the final two games of 2012, is also in the mix, but Coyer’s experience in big games should help make him Rhule’s ultimate choice to face the Irish to begin 2013.
Penn State transfer Kevin Newsome is part of the spring competition, but he is likely to switch positions if he can't upstage either Coyer or Granger. Given his lack of success with the Nittany Lions, Newsome being anything more than the third quarterback seems unlikely.
Montel Harris, a name Notre Dame fans should be familiar with, fell into Temple's lap last summer when he was dismissed from Boston College. The ACC's second all-time leading rusher had a 1,000-yard season with the Owls but now departs.
Temple also loses Matt Brown, who closed his career with over 2,600 yards on the ground. Filling the void will be two players who combined for just 33 carries last season—sophomore Jamie Gilmore and junior Kenny Harper.
Fortunately for Rhule, freshmen often can make more of an impact at running back than at other positions. Two backs arrive in the summer—Jahad Thomas and Zaire Williams—who could see significant carries in their first year, just as Harris (at Boston College) and Brown did.
While Jalen Fitzpatrick's 30 catches may not seem like a ton of production, no other Owl had more than 17 last season. The rising junior has excellent ball skills, a necessity in an offense that doesn't have a typically accurate passer at quarterback.
Complementing the 5'11" Fitzpatrick is 6'5" senior Deon Miller. With his size, Miller can be effective in the red zone, but he has battled injuries throughout his Owls career. He had just seven catches last season after a strong sophomore campaign.
Temple is in fairly good shape at tight end with senior Cody Booth, who had four touchdown receptions last season. The passing game should be expanded under Rhule, giving Booth the opportunity to have a breakout season.
With only one upperclassman, this unit will be a fairly young one. If there's a good time for that, it might be this year, while the offense adjusts to more of a pro-style attack.
While young, there are three starters returning, highlighted by senior right guard Scott Roorda. The biggest loss is at right tackle, where All-Big East second team member Martin Wallace must be replaced.
This group simply does not have the size to hold up against elite defensive lines. Roorda and center Kyle Friend are the only starters above 300 pounds, with left tackle Zach Hooks is currently just 280 pounds. Even 100 yards on the ground against Notre Dame would be an accomplishment for what should be an overmatched unit in the trenches.
Temple will run a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Phil Snow. The 2012 Owls were able to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, finishing third in the Big East in sacks. But they were dead last against the run.
The star of the unit is senior end Sean Daniels, the team's best pass-rusher. He's been a bit inconsistent at times, and now must take his game to a new level in a conference which will see quite a bit more passing this year with the additions of Houston and SMU, among others.
Senior Levi Brown is the key piece of the interior defensive line. He's the biggest of the bunch, and size will again be an issue for Temple, as it's still just two years removed from playing in the MAC. The Owls get junior end Jaimen Newman back after injuries cost him the 2012 season.
This should be the strength of the Temple defense. The Owls still start a pair of seniors and the 2012 Big East Freshman of the Year, Tyler Matakevich, at the three linebacker positions.
One caveat is that one of the two seniors, middle linebacker Wyatt Benson, was a fullback last season. Benson did make a start at linebacker in 2010. Sophomore Nate D. Smith started in the middle last season but will have to re-earn his starting spot with a strong spring.
Matakevich led the team with 101 tackles last season, 26 more than any other Owl. Returning on the strong side is senior Blaze Caponegro, a two-year starter.
If Benson's transition back to defense is smooth, this should be one of the Big East's best linebacking corps.
Turnovers were a major problem for Temple in 2012—not so much its own, but its inability to force them. Much of the blame for that falls on the secondary. The Owls finished the season with just four interceptions, none coming in the final five games.
The good news is that both starting cornerbacks return from last season in senior Zamel Johnson and junior Anthony Robey. Of course, neither player recorded an interception last season, and Temple allowed almost nine yards per passing attempt, one of the worst averages in the country.
Both safeties will be new this season, but there is some experience at the back end of the defense. Senior Abdul Smith and junior Chris Hutton both saw significant snaps last season, with Hutton recording a game-clinching interception against USF in the team's first Big East game since being booted from the league in 2004.
The All-Big East teams were not exactly full of Owls last season, but placekicker Brandon McManus was one of the few Temple players to receive all-conference honors. McManus converted 14 of 17 field-goal attempts and led the Big East in punting, but he now must be replaced.
Senior Paul Layton backed up McManus at both positions last season, so Temple may again use a jack-of-all-trades on special teams.
Brown was the team's primary returner for the past two seasons, whose departure further hampers the Owls' special teams heading into the 2013 season. Fitzpatrick and Harper should battle it out this spring and summer to see who ultimately replaces Brown.
Temple was one of the MAC's premier teams when Al Golden left for Miami (FL) following the 2010 season, and Addazio built on Golden's remarkable rebuilding job with a bowl win in 2011.
The step up in competition in the Big East has shown that this program still has a ways to go. A third coach in four seasons won't help matters. The realigned Big East could allow for the Owls to get to six wins and a bowl game, but it will take at least one upset somewhere.
2013 looks to be a rebuilding year for Temple as Rhule attempts to adapt the program to his philosophies.
While the Owls should be more competitive in 2014 when the Irish travel to Philadelphia, Notre Dame reaching the 50-point mark in its season opener for the second consecutive year is well within reach.