The 2015 season was a season for the ages that saw the Temple Owls blow the predictions of nearly every national pundit out of the water. Not only did they make a turn from one of the worst teams in all of college football just a few years ago to winning the AAC East Division and participating in the Boca Raton Bowl, they made Temple football relevant once again.
All of that is even more amazing considering the fact that the Owls did a majority of their damage on offense behind the running of one single back.
Rising senior Jahad Thomas had one of the best single seasons in Temple history last fall. The 5-10 back rushed for 1,262 yards and 17 touchdowns on 276 carries. He blew his previous high of 80/384/0TD out of the water. Thomas added 22 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown after catching 14 passes in 2015. For his work, he was named to the First Team All-AAC squad.
Thomas was excellent in carrying the ball 20 or more times on eight occasions. Of the 20+ carry games, seven took place before November. In the final six games of the season, Thomas carried the ball over 20 times only one, a 27-3 win over Connecticut. During that stretch, Temple went from a 7-1 team ranked in the top 25 nationally to a team that went 3-3 down the stretch.
As the season progress, Thomas struggled with small injuries and saw many of his holes disappear as teams focused on taking him away from the Owls offense. Though they tried multiple candidates, the offense was unable to find a suitable candidate to spell Thomas that could produce at a high level.
How did the rushing totals of backs not named Jahad Thomas look in 2015?
Jager Gardner carried the ball 32 times for 184 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback P.J. Walker carried 68 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns. David Hood had 45 carries for 180 yards and a touchdown. Ryquell Armsteadrushed 51 times for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
The Owls gave the very young trio of Gardner, Hood, and Armstead an opportunity to build a stable of running backs to spell Thomas. The plan was to make the three interchangeable, tossing whichever looked the best into action.
In theory, that was a great plan. The three were able to add 555 yards on 128 carries for a 4.3 yards per carry average. That sounds solid until you take out one single run. A 94-yard scamper by Gardner versus SMU skews the entire statistical look. Removing that oddity, the trio's yards per carry average drops to 3.6 yards per carry at 127 carries for 461 yards.
What the statistics clearly bear out is the need for a second running back behind Thomas to take the reins by himself. What is the best option? Should head coach Matt Rhule and company pick a single back and give him the chance to win or lose the job on the field. Or should they continue to give all three back a chance to make an impact behind Thomas?
Let's look at the returning options.
- David Hood: The redshirt sophomore finished fourth on the team with 170 yards on the ground. He did not make his season debut until the Charlotte game. In that game, he carried the ball two times for 16 yards. Hood only carried the ball more than five times versus Tulane (16/47/0TD) and Memphis (14/61/1TD). Hood brings an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, hauling in nine passes in 2015.
- Ryquell Armstead: The rising sophomore looked to be the main backup to Thomas early in the season. He played his best versus inferior opponents, rushing for 128 of his 191 yards versus 2015 bowl teams. His yards per carry average versus bowl teams was 2.9 yards per carry.
- Jager Gardner: The rising sophomore has the size at 6-2, 210 pounds to be an excellent running back in the Temple offense. He struggled a bit to find his groove during his freshman season, only hitting double digit carries in the win over Memphis. Removing the 94 yard carry versus SMU, Gardner's yards per carry drops to a lowly 2.9.
Don't forget the fact that T.J. Simmons, the highest rated recruit in school history, left for the JUCO ranks after being redshirted during the 2015 season. It is a disappointment that the Florida native never got to make his impact on the program before transferring.
Added to the list is incoming freshman running back Tyliek Raynor. The 5-10 running back is a hometown product that flipped from Arizona to Temple in the final weeks of recruiting. Raynor was highly sought out in the recruiting period as 18 schools fought for his services.
Raynor turned down offers from 11 power five conference programs to stay home and play for the Owls. A player like that does not stay home to sit on the bench. The question remains whether the coaching staff would like to redshirt Raynor to put some separation between the running backs as all three currently on the roster not named Thomas will be sophomores.
After finishing the 2015 season #95 in nation in rushing, Temple has a bit of time for a backup to emerge. The first two weeks of the season include games versus Army and FCS program Stony Brook. Week three is when the depth will be tested as an angry Penn State squad is waiting at Beaver Stadium to get revenge for a 27-10 loss last fall.
Do you go with the steady but unremarkable play of Armstead, the all or nothing dynamic of Gardner, the solid play of Hood, or do you throw a highly touted freshman into the fire? The problem remains that Temple is hanging on by the play of Thomas and will never be able to take the next step as a program until some depth at running back is settled.