WRITTEN BY: TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
PHILADELPHIA — In 2003, Geoff Collins took part in a marathon. The starting line was located at the former College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana — just a few miles south of the 50-yard line at Notre Dame Stadium, where the finish line happened to be stationed.
It has been almost 14 years since Collins set foot in one of college football’s most iconic sports venues, but on Saturday afternoon, the 46-year-old Temple football coach will return to that hallowed ground to embark on another long-distance journey.
Temple, the two-time defending American Athletic Conference (AAC) East Division champions — who are under new direction and management with Collins at the helm — will open the 2017 regular season on the road this weekend against the Fighting Irish, just as they did back in 2013. Coincidentally, the Owls’ last visit to Notre Dame also marked the head coaching debut of Matt Rhule, who served on Temple’s sideline until last December when he departed Philadelphia for the head coaching position at Baylor University.
This time around, the Collins-era will take a similar path. But if the Owls want to add more hardware to their well-dusted trophy cases, they will have to defy the sports pundits’ projections along the way.
According to the conference’s preseason media poll, Temple is ranked third in the East (sixth overall in AAC), with only six returning starters on offense and four on defense. While the poll may seem unfair — considering the Owls have won 10 games in back-to-back seasons — the program has yet to announce who will succeed Phillip Walker at the quarterback position, which has raised some question marks.
On Monday, Temple released its “Above The Line” depth chart, which interestingly listed all four quarterbacks — Frank Nutile, Logan Marchi, Todd Centeio and Anthony Russo — as potential starters in South Bend. Just last week, Collins said that three of the four guys could see playing time during the opener, and that he and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude have prepared offensive schemes for any scenario.
With kickoff just two days away, it seems strange that this information has been kept classified. But on Tuesday, Collins hinted that he knows which quarterback will appear behind center for Temple’s opening drive. The only problem is, he didn’t say who. He just smiled and nodded when the question was asked.
“I think it’s a testament to all four quarterbacks. They’ve done a great job,” Collins said of the quarterback competition at Temple’s practice facility. “I’ve said it the whole time throughout the spring and preaseason. Every day, one of them’s been on, or put a couple of days together. And you never see any bickering or hoping the other guy doesn’t do well. All four of them have wanted to push each other. They’ve all tried to out-perform each other. But they’ve not wanted the other one to have a bad day. They want the best man to get the most reps, and I’ve just been really impressed with how they’ve handled that.”
Based on who has practiced the most with the first-team offense, it appears Nutile may be the favorite to win the job. But the redshirt junior has no inside information to offer. Nutile’s still in the dark, just like everyone else, and if playing time is split up between two or three quarterbacks, he’ll be ready to play regardless.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in the quarterback room. It’s been a real close competition,” said Nutile, who made only two pass attempts in 2016. “All summer, we’ve been splitting reps with each other, going in and out, rotating. So we’ve kind of gotten into that groove. And I don’t think we’re too worried about it if that’s the case.
“The expectations are extremely high. We’re a Top-25 program. It’s a standard we set the last few years. It’s a standard we want to keep. And we truly believe that. Obviously, [Notre Dame] is a great program, a great team. But we’re really excited to compete against them and play Saturday.”
As for Temple’s defense — the program’s bread and butter — the goal is to maintain its reputation as a nationally-ranked defensive powerhouse. Last season, the Owls allowed just 19.5 points per game (best in AAC), and tallied 41 sacks (best in AAC) and 12 interceptions (third in AAC) in 14 games. On several occasions in 2016, the defense managed to bail out the offense during their times of struggle, and if that occurs again (due to expected growing pains at the quaterback position), the unit seems prepared to pick up the slack from the get go.
“Whoever [the coaches] choose to be the starting quarterback come Week 1 or Week 4 doesn’t matter to me. Just know whoever they choose, I’ll be by their side regardless,” senior defensive lineman Jacob Martin said. “We’re playing some new guys on defense as well. We’re relying on the seniors up front on the D-Line and the seniors in the back in the secondary, just like the offense is relying on the running backs, the receivers, and O-Line.
“I think this is one of our teams with the most depth. Not necessarily depth of guys that have played a lot of football, but depth as in guys that I wouldn’t be afraid to have in a game, that I wouldn’t have to worry about them doing their job. And like I said, guys who’ve accepted those roles and are ready to dominate in those roles.”
The Owls’ special teams unit also has a close competition of its own. Kickers Austin Jones and Aaron Boumerhi are above the line on this week’s chart, and Collins may use both players for kickoff and field goal opportunties on Saturday and beyond.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Boumerhi, who took over as team kicker when Jones suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Memphis last October. “We’re both great kickers and we both have a little different style. Coaches know best. They just want to put our team in the best situation to win the game. Whatever they say, I’m not going to disagree with them. I trust what they’re doing.”
The last time Temple faced Notre Dame (2015), both teams were nationally-ranked squads, and that game did not disappoint, as the Fighting Irish escaped Lincoln Financial Field with a dramatic 24-20 win on Halloween night. This Saturday, neither team is ranked, although Notre Dame may not be far away from having a number next to its name.
However, that means very little to Temple. As always, the Owls are solely focused on themselves and the task at hand. It is the program’s way of business, and the new faces on and off the field have embraced the mantras, and are eager for a new beginning. Take Collins, for example, who has turned the page on Temple football’s history book, prepared to write a brand new chapter.
“I’m just excited about this opportunity to be [at Notre Dame] again with these guys,” Collins said. “I’m excited to take the field with them. That’s going to be a big thing for us.”
- Temple wide receiver Ventell Bryant, who didn’t practice on Tuesday due to a lingering hamstring injury, is expected to play on Saturday. The 6-foot-4 junior led the Owls in receiving yards (895) last season.
- Freshman tight end Kenny Yeboah, who’s dealt with an ankle injury, says he’s 100-percent.
- Ryquell Armstead will serve as Temple’s bell cow. As a sophomore in 2016, Armstead rushed for 919 yards on 156 attempts, and scored a team-high 14 rushing touchdowns. He is succeeding Jahad Thomas, who scored 38 career touchdowns for the Owls from 2013 to 2016.
- Of the Owls’ 41 sacks last season, 18 came from Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike, who are no longer with the program. Jacob Martin and reshirt senior Sharif Finch are expected to play as this year’s defensive ends.
- Notre Dame will start 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior Brandon Wimbrush at quarterback. It will be his first collegiate start as well.
- At running back for the Fighting Irish is Josh Adams, who scored six total touchdowns last season. The junior rushed for 933 yards on 158 attempts, and tallied 193 receiving yards on 21 receptions. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly plans to play all of his running backs on Saturday.
- Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame’s leading receiving from 2016, is entering his junior season. He scored nine touchdowns in 2016, and totalled 961 yards on 58 receptions. The Fighting Irish’s next target will be sophomore Kevin Stepherson (462 YDS, 25 REC, 5 TD), followed by senior Durham Smythe at tight end (112 YDS, 9 REC, 4 TD).
- The Owls and Fighting Irish will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept . 2. WHIP Radio coverage is scheduled to begin at 3:15.
If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.