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August 3, 2012

Training camp preview

Eight years after it was asked to leave, Temple's football team is returning to the Big East Conference in 2012, marking a very important step in the development and resurgence of a program that has 26 wins, two bowl appearances and a bowl win over the last three seasons.

Second-year head coach Steve Addazio's team kicks off its preseason camp Saturday, 28 days before the Owls' season opener against Villanova at Lincoln Financial Field (7 p.m., ESPN3) in the fourth annual Mayor's Cup.

With just nine starters returning from last year's team that went 9-4 and beat Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl, there are plenty of starting spots up for grabs and several new faces that could and should make an immediate impact, and OwlScoop.com will be at Chodoff Field Saturday for the team's first full-squad workout.

Until then, here are five key questions as Saturday approaches:

1. Who will line up as the team's starting tailback in the season opener?

It's a question we didn't think we'd be pondering heading into the season, that is until former Boston College running back Montel Harris transferred to Temple and became immediately eligible for the 2012 season.

Matt Brown, a 5-foot-5, 170-pound senior who rushed for 2,306 yards and 18 touchdowns while complementing and stepping in for the oft-injured Bernard Pierce during his first three seasons, was the clear-cut starter after spring practice and will likely remain atop the depth chart as August moves along, but Addazio obviously didn't bring in Harris, the FBS' active career leading rusher as well as Boston College's all-time leading rusher with 3,735 yards, to sit on the bench.

Harris suffered a knee injury last season, was granted a medical redshirt, reinjured the knee in spring practice and was then inexplicably dismissed from the program by Eagles coach Frank Spaziani for "repeated violation of team rules."

We don't know Harris' side of the story, at least for now, because Temple has elected to keep incoming freshmen and newcomers like Harris off limits to the media. What we do know is Harris is healthy, ready to go and should make a huge impact in the Big East this season if he stays healthy.

It's a safe bet Brown will be in for the first snap against Villanova, but it's also a safe bet that Addazio and new offensive coordinator Ryan Day will split the carries between the short and speedy Brown and the 5-10, 207-pound Harris. It will keep both backs fresh and perhaps allow Brown some extra burst when it comes time for him to handle his kickoff and punt return duties.

Either way, it's a pleasant problem for the Owls to have.

2. Speaking of newcomers, how much can we expect to see former Penn State quarterback and incoming transfer Kevin Newsome?

It was around this time last year that Newsome, once ranked as a 4-star recruit and the No. 4 quarterback in the 2009 class by Rivals, left Penn State and returned home to attend classes at Virginia's Tidewater Community College. By January, former Owls offensive coordinator Matt Rhule (now an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants) and Addazio convinced Newsome to visit Temple, and by National Signing Day, the program announced Newsome as part of its incoming 2012 class, albeit as a future transfer.

The 6-3, 240-pound Newsome was placed on Temple's official roster on the athletic department's website Friday afternoon, should be with the Owls Saturday when practice starts and is expected to wear No. 1. He wore No. 12 at Penn State, where he completed 14 of 24 passes for 144 yards and rushed for 154 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons of backup duty.

Redshirt junior Chris Coyer, who took over the starting job last season, led the Mid-American Conference in passing efficiency and won offensive Most Valuable Player honors of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, is firmly entrenched as the starter and offers Temple a dual-threat quarterback who knows the offense well and is just as capable of teaching it to his peers. Junior Clinton "Juice" Granger will go into camp as Coyer's backup, but don't be surprised if Newsome surpasses him on the depth chart at some point.

Newsome is a smart guy - he's a gifted musician - but it's unrealistic to expect him to learn Temple's offense in four weeks. It is possible and likely that Addazio and Day will develop some packages to get Newsome on the field, be it as a Wildcat quarterback, an H-back or some variation thereof. And it certainly helps to have an elite athlete like Newsome on hand to provide some depth at a position where the Owls need it.

3. How concerned should Temple fans be with having four new starters on the offensive line?

It depends.

You could say this about any team, of course, but if the starting front five - senior right tackle Martin Wallace (6-6, 300 lbs.), sophomore right guard Jaimen Newman (6-4, 290), senior center Sean Boyle (6-5, 300), junior left guard Jeff Whittingham (6-2, 305) and redshirt freshman left tackle Zach Hooks (6-6, 280) - stays healthy, offensive line coach Justin Frye's group should be fine and this will not be as big an issue as some think it will.

On the plus side, the line's best player, Wallace, is protecting the blind side of Coyer, who's a left-handed quarterback. And if Boyle, who has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries, returns healthy, the Owls will have a good and nasty player under center, one who was playing well before those injuries derailed him.

On the other side, Whittingham and Newman are former defensive linemen - Whittingham came into the program as an offensive lineman, moved to the defensive line in 2010 and then returned to the offensive line in 2011 - who will be making their first career starts against Villanova, as will Hooks, a very talented tackle who was likely ticketed for a number of BCS offers out of western Pennsylvania's Aliquippa High School before he was derailed by academic issues. All three, especially Hooks, could turn out to be very good players, but they're short on experience as of now and will have to learn in a hurry against a schedule that gets tough with games against Maryland, Penn State and South Florida after the season opener.

Beyond that, the line's depth took a big hit when Darryl Pringle, who could have pushed Hooks for the starting left tackle spot, was dismissed from the team. So who are those sixth, seventh and eighth guys that can provide that depth? Players like sophomore left guard Adam Metz, who was redshirted as a true freshman and missed last season with an injury, and junior left tackle Evan Regas will have to make strides this month to make Addazio and Frye feel a little bit better about their situation up front.

4. Who are the playmakers on defense now that a few pretty good ones like Muhammad Wilkerson (New York Jets) and Adrian Robinson (Pittsburgh Steelers) have moved on to the NFL over the past two seasons?

Senior defensive end John Youboty who transferred to Temple last season from Marshall and was immediately eligible after a back injury almost ended his career, now has a full season under his belt and has to become that edge pass rusher who's capable of compiling a double-digit sack total. Last season, the 6-4, 250-pound Youboty compiled 18 tackles, including two for a loss, and a sack and seven starts at defensive tackle. Now that he's moving outside, he could get some favorable matchups that could allow him to increase his sack total and provide some much-needed pressure along the edge.

Youboty can be that much better if his backup, senior Kadeem Custis, and junior defensive tackle Shahid Paulhill, play well and prove that they have learned and matured after both were held out of the New Mexico Bowl for violating team rules. And if junior nose tackle Levi Brown (6-2, 300) continues to get better, he could create some push up the middle and make things easier for everyone. Brown, who played in all 13 games, started 12 and tallied 23 tackles last season, garnered second-team all-Big East honors from Phil Steel's College Football magazine.

Along the linebacking corps, he's young, but redshirt freshman Nate D. Smith, the younger brother of former Eagles tight end L.J. Smith looked like he wanted to tackle everything during spring practice, and that's never a bad thing. The 6-foot-, 230-pound Mike linebacker is penciled in as the starter in the middle and has the ability to chase down the ball and deliver hits. He just needs to continue to work on his technique and pursuit. If that continues to come, Smith could be good this year and very good down the line.

In the defensive backfield, the somewhat reserved but very steady Justin Gildea now has to be the leader of that group. The 5-11, 190-pound strong safety has learned from guys like Dominique Harris, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Kevin Kroboth before him and was fifth on the team in total tackles last season with 51 and also chipped in three sacks and a team-leading three interceptions. And sophomore boundary cornerback Anthony Robey could be Temple's most physical and capable cover corner if he stays healthy. He played in nine games and started five last season.

5. Which players have to kick things up a notch this season, and which ones could surprise or emerge during these next four weeks of camp?

Let's start at tight end, where juniors Cody Booth and Alex Jackson have to show more this season. Otherwise, Temple will experience a pretty big drop-off at this position after Evan Rodriguez moved on to the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears.

Booth, a former walk-on, played in all 13 games and started four last season, but he caught just two passes while Rodriguez did more out of the H-back position. Jackson has a lot of athletic ability and showed flashes of with eight catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns as a redshirt freshman before struggling last year during a sophomore season in which he didn't catch a single pass.

Beyond Booth and Jackson, sophomore slot receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick, a former Big 33 selection at quarterback out of Harrisburg High School, could be an intriguing option on offense. In addition to lining up in the slot, he could also line up on occasion in the backfield and has some of that make-you-miss ability.

And if incoming freshman safety Nate L. Smith - the middle initials will help differentiate between the two Nate Smiths moving forward - has indeed been cleared to play by the NCAA Clearinghouse, he could eventually push senior Vaughn Carraway for the starting free safety spot, depending on how quickly he picks things up. Smith, rated by Rivals as a 3-star recruit and the 12th-best player in the state from the 2012 class, initially issued a verbal commitment to West Virginia before changing his mind and signing with Temple.

OwlScoop.com Editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com.


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