We have talked all summer about the uncertainty that the Temple Owls face after winning their first American Athletic Conference championship. Matt Rhule left for Baylor, Phillip Walker will no longer be shredding the record books and Haason Reddick was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. The foundation of what has made the program reach double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history is gone.
Defense has been the calling card at Temple in their resurgence from perennial laughingstock of college football to a respected opponent. From Al Golden to Rhule, the name of the game has been to play tough, but disciplined football. That has led the Owls to its share of defensive players to make their mark at the next level in that span, headlined by Reddick becoming the highest defensive player to ever be drafted.
Enter Geoff Collins, a college assistant for 23 years and the defensive coordinator the last two seasons at Florida and Mississippi State prior. He has embraced his predecessors’ philosophy and is arguably the best assistant the program has brought on during that stretch. Collins has produced an impressive list of talents that have not only made their way to the NFL, but have shined as professionals.
So while there are questions of how the offense is going to fare this season, one of the best defensive coordinators is taking over one of the top defenses in the country. That’s why the hiring of Collins was a perfect match for the Owls.
To put into perspective how good his defense was last season, the Gators finished sixth in total defense. The Owls were right behind at number seven. Four yards behind the Gators to be exact. If there is anyone who can continue to keep Temple in the upper echelon of defensive units, it is Collins.
The Gators were so effective because of their ability to shut down the passing game. Two of his most recent draft picks, Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal, both were selected in the first round and have made solid impacts in their short careers.
Collins inherits a secondary that could be one of the best units in the country. You can make a serious argument over which of the safeties is the better player, and you cannot be wrong. Sean Chandler is garnering a lot of national attention, evident by his name on the Jim Thorpe, Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch lists. He put himself on the radar with his dominant performance in the Owls’ 34-10 win over Navy in the AAC title game with eight tackles and a forced fumble.
In the defensive backfield with Chandler is Delvon Randall, the underappreciated safety who was statistically Temple’s best player in the secondary. He finished tied for second on the team with 65 tackles and third in the AAC with six takeaways. It is possible both of these players hear their name called in next year’s draft.
Lined up on the outside will be two fifth-year corners in Artrel Foster and North Carolina Central transfer Mike Jones. Foster started 12 games last season for the Owls and saw a lot of passes thrown his away opposite of Nate Hairston, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Indianapolis Colts. Jones will be making the jump up to the FBS level and should make his mark in the return game as well. Throw Derrek Thomas and Cequan Jefferson into the mix and the Owls have a very talented group of corners to work with.
The secondary is just one part of the passing game, and where Temple has thrived is with its play on the defensive line. Reddick, Praise Martin-Oguike and Romond Deloatch combined for 22 sacks last season so Collins will have to figure out who the next line of defensive studs will be. He has several options at defensive end with Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin, receiver Keith Kirkwood and up to six freshmen to find a pass rush. The middle of the line will feature Michael Dogbe, Freddie Booth-Lloyd and former four-star recruit Karamo Dioubate.
The biggest hole to fill on defense will be replacing all three starting linebackers lost to graduation. Collins is hopeful that he can replace that veteran group with younger and more athletic players. Shaun Bradley is one linebacker that has stood out during training camp and could start at middle linebacker. Two other sophomores – Sam Franklin and William Kwenkeu - look to be ahead in the battle to man the outside positions. Jared Folks, who started five games at middle linebacker last season, and Chapelle Russell should also see reps for Collins and defensive coordinator Taver Johnson.
It is hard to imagine the Owls finishing in the top 10 in total defense once again with so much overhaul in the front seven. How the young linebackers pan out will go a long way in determining how the defense will fare in 2017. Even with all the change, Collins and Johnson should get Temple to finish as a top 25 defense.