The 2015 college football season is underway, and local fans have no shortage of nearby teams to root for. We recently caught up with the head coaches of four of the top teams in the area to provide some insight into the 2015 season.
It would be understandable for a football team to lose faith in a quarterback who threw more interceptions than touchdowns over the course of a season, but the Temple Owls are standing behind junior quarterback P.J. Walker in 2015.
“I expect him to really have a great year, to take a major step forward,” said Temple head coach Matt Rhule. “He’s had a lot of great moments, a lot of mistakes, and I think now he’s really going to be a mature player as we move into the season coming up.”
It’s tough to quantify those mistakes, but the number was at least 15 during his sophomore season in 2014, as Walker was picked off 15 times—a statistic that eclipsed the 13 touchdown passes he threw. Despite the criticism Walker received for the apparent drop in his play after a strong freshman season, Rhule sees a young quarterback ready to make the transition to a veteran presence.
“I’m excited for P.J.,” Rhule said. “People sometimes talk about he took a step backwards last year, but I just really think we put a lot on him without enough help around him.”
Walker was still able to lead the Owls to a bowl-eligible 6-6 record in 2014, and even though the team was disappointed not to be invited to a bowl game, it was easy to see the positives after Temple went just 2-10 the previous year.
“I thought the players took a major step forward as a team,” Rhule said. “To beat an SEC team for the first time in 70-some years [Temple upset Vanderbilt 37-7 on Aug. 28, 2014], to beat a top 25 team [Temple defeated No. 21 East Carolina on Nov. 1, 2014], those were major accomplishments for our team, and to do it with I think the fewest amount of seniors of any team in the country really showed the determination and the moxie of our young guys, so we’re hoping to build off that now as we head into 2015.”
While the Owls are all set at quarterback with Walker at the helm, the players Walker will be throwing to are a bit up in the air after top 2014 receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick graduated. Rhule has been working on stockpiling receivers in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough.
“There’s probably not a deeper group on our team right now, just because we’ve really tried to accumulate some receivers,” Rhule said. “A lot of them haven’t played a lot, but we probably have 14 or 15 guys that can go in the game for us, so now it’s going to come down to who goes out and wins the job. We need to have a marquee breakout wide receiver for us to be a good offense. Who exactly that is right now, we don’t know.”
In addition to needing some standout receivers, Temple is also in search of a go-to running back. Walker was the team’s second-leading rusher in 2014, and Temple didn’t have any players run for over 400 yards, so the running game is something Rhule is hoping to see the team improve on this season.
“We would love to have one or two feature backs,” he said. “It’s really difficult to say right now who it’s gonna be. We have three highly acclaimed freshmen coming in and we have a bunch of guys that have played a lot of football for us returning, so I think it’s going to be a great competition. Either way, no matter who’s carrying the football, we have to be significantly better running the ball if we want to have a chance to win. That’s really one of our major focuses as we head into the fall.”
With so many question marks at running back and receiver, Rhule is happy to see the team’s entire defense return, and he believes Temple will benefit from the stability an experienced defense corps can provide.
“I expect our biggest strength to be our defense,” he said. “If we want to win games, we have to control the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback.”
Rhule praised defensive veterans Matt Ioannidis, Hershey Walton, Praise Martin, Tyler Matakevich and Tavon Young in particular.
“Those are some of our more marquee guys,” he said.
Coming off a year in which the team posted a .500 record, the 2015 season could go either way, but Rhule is holding out hope for a bowl appearance.
“We want to have a team that goes out and competes the same way each week, trying to win every game, every play of the game, and if we do that, then hopefully we’ll win more than we lose and we’ll have a chance to go represent our school in a bowl game,” he said. “We’ve been bowl eligible four out of the last six years, which is quite an accomplishment, and we want to make that five.”
RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS
Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood is big on first impressions, and even though college football has been a staple at Rutgers since 1869, all eyes were on the Scarlet Knights in 2014 as they ventured into the Big Ten Conference of the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision—the highest level of college football competition—for the first time.
“It was an important year for our program,” Flood remarked. “I’ve said many times that first impressions in life matter, and I thought we made a really good first impression. To end the season winning three out of four, to win a bowl game convincingly over a good football team like North Carolina, I think we made a good first impression and now we gotta follow it up.”
After finishing their first Big Ten season with an 8-5 record, the Scarlet Knights know they can’t ride on the coattails of the positive first impression they made. They need to maintain focus to ensure another successful season in college football’s most competitive division.
“Each team is uniquely different year to year, and each season is so delicate that the focus that’s demanded on a day-to-day basis is a great challenge,” Flood said. “We look forward to it and we’ve got players in our program that look forward to it. That’s exciting for me.”
The first challenge on Flood’s plate this fall will be selecting a starting quarterback after the graduation of 2014 starter Gary Nova. Redshirt sophomores Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig will battle for that job.
“I’m very confident in both of those players,” Flood said, noting that Laviano came out of the spring slightly ahead of Rettig. “It’s really just a matter of ultimately which one emerges in training camp and wins the job, and which one wins the team. That position, they have to win the team as much as they have to win the job so that the team is behind them and the team believes in them.”
Providing the offensive attack with Laviano or Rettig will be top returning receiver Leonte Carroo alongside a plethora of running backs, a group that Flood deems to be the team’s greatest strength. Paul James, the team’s best rusher in 2014 before a torn ACL sidelined him for the remainder of the season, is healthy and ready to pick up where he left off.
“Paul James is back and healthy and 100 percent and that’s exciting news, because he’s been one of the top rushers in the country each of the last two years at the point in which he got hurt,” Flood said.
In addition to James, Flood is expecting strong showings from Josh Hicks, Robert Martin, Justin Goodwin, and Desmon Peoples.
“I’m really counting on them as a group,” Flood said. “All five of those guys have helped us win football games and they’ve all proved they can be difference makers and I think they’re all gonna have a role.”
While Rutgers has a lot of returning players to choose from at running back, the offensive line lost three key starters in Kaleb Johnson, Betim Bujari, and Taj Alexander. Even so, Flood doesn’t think the situation is as dire as some may think thanks to a mix of experienced players and young additions.
“We’re fortunate to have a guy like J.J. Denman, who technically is not a returning starter, but played a lot of football for us last year and had an excellent spring,” he said. “It’s also nice to have a left tackle in Keith Lumpkin, who’s coming back for his third year as a starter, has been through the Big Ten, and he’s had to challenge himself against the better pass rushers in the league. Then we’ve got a group of young guys that I’m really excited about. Guys like Dorian Miller, Tariq Cole, Marcus Applefield and Jacquis Webb. I really like these guys as football players, they just haven’t had a chance to play on game day yet.”
On the other side of the ball, Flood is expecting good things from his defensive line.
“We’re going to play eight to ten defensive linemen throughout the game. That’s exciting to me, especially with the nature of offensive football in college these days,” he said. “We’re a pro-style team, but not many teams we play are. To have the ability to rotate through a lot of those defensive linemen is going to make us better. They’re all talented. They’re all good players.”
Even though the Scarlet Knights are still the new kids on the Big Ten block, they have many key pieces in place, and the team is setting lofty goals.
“When you look at last season, we’re excited about a lot of the things we did, but there are a lot of things out there left for us to do as a program, and that’s really our challenge this year,” Flood said. “We’ve been to nine bowl games in 10 years. We have quite a few of our alumni playing in the NFL right now, so we’ve done those things. Now, the players have told me, ‘Our goal now is New Year’s Day bowl games, Big Ten championship games, Final Four appearances.’ That’s where we really want to elevate our program.
“Those things, as goals, are great to think about in the offseason, but when we get to training camp, our focus better be on being 1-0 each day to get to where we want to be.”
In 2014, The Sports Network ranked the Villanova Wildcats as the No. 12 team in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision. As the season went on, the Wildcats proved they were even better than anticipated, climbing the rankings to finish the year at No. 5 and advancing to the FCS Playoffs Quarterfinals before being knocked out by Sam Houston State.
After such a successful season, that would have likely gone even further were it not for a playoff injury to star quarterback John Robertson, Villanova will be held in high regard in 2015. In fact, preseason polls have the Wildcats ranked No. 4 in the FCS. However, head coach Andy Talley knows it’s going to take a lot to live up to those lofty expectations.
“A lot of people have picked us very high in the preseason polls, and I think that’s because we have Donny Cherry, our All-American linebacker coming back on defense, and then you have John Robertson, who was the Walter Payton Award winner [for most outstanding offensive player in the FCS],” Talley explained. “When you have two All-Americans returning on both sides of the ball and they’re elite name players, I think people automatically think you’re just gonna be a top ranked team.”
While Cherry and Robertson are true game-changers, the 2015 Wildcats will be missing both their top rusher and their top receiver from 2014. Kevin Monangai, who ran for over 1,000 yards last season, graduated and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Poppy Livers, the team’s top receiver, also graduated and worked out for the San Francisco 49ers. With those losses in mind, it’s clear the Wildcats have some holes to patch if they hope to warrant the high preseason rankings that have been bestowed upon them.
“I think we’re a top 15 team,” Talley revealed, even as he discussed his team’s potential shortcomings. “If we can stay healthy, I think we can make a run at it, but we’re thin.”
Replacing a player like Monangai isn’t easy, but Talley is optimistic about the talent in the pipeline at running back.
“Gary Underwood will be a premier back in our league, and then we have two young guys, Matt Gudzak and Javon White, and I think those two, if they step up and play well for us, we’ll have a pretty good one-two punch between those two and Gary Underwood, so we should be okay.”
At receiver, Talley likes the raw talent at his disposal, but he’s hoping to see a few young players take things to the next level.
“We have a young guy named Alex Padovani who needs to step up and play well immediately,” Talley said. “We have another player by the name of Lincoln Collins, who I like. If Lincoln decides he really wants to be a player, I think we’ll have a top notch receiver. And then Kevin Gulyas, who is our leading returning receiver, he’s coming back. That’s going to be very helpful. We do have some weapons at wideout.”
While the team’s offense has the potential to be great, particularly with Robertson returning for his senior season at quarterback, Talley believes the biggest strength of the 2015 team is its defense.
“We have a lot of guys coming back on defense, and I think we have a veteran group over there,” he said. “What we have to do is develop some depth in the defensive line, but we have good depth at linebacker, we have good depth in the secondary, so if we can stay healthy up front, I think our defense will be as good as we’ve had in a long time.”
Talley coached Villanova to a national championship in 2009, so he knows a good team when he sees one.
“The 2009 team was more balanced,” Talley said, weighing his current team against that championship squad. “We had a really good offense and a really good defense. We were a little better at wide receiver than we are right now, and we had an established kicker.”
After pausing to give the comparison some more thought, Talley had a slight change of heart, ultimately coming to a conclusion a bit more in line with the preseason hype.
“Now that I think about it, there really isn’t much difference,” he said.
UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE FIGHTIN’ BLUE HENS
The University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens are mired in the longest postseason drought in team history. On the bright side, that drought is only four seasons long, but aside from losses in the 2007 and 2010 FCS Championship Games under former coach K.C. Keeler, the Blue Hens haven’t been the perennial playoff team their fans are accustomed to in quite some time.
Current head coach Dave Brock, who took over the team in 2013, is hoping to break that playoff drought this season.
“Anytime you’re in a rebuilding situation, you want to make sure you set clear objectives,” Brock said. “We feel that Delaware should be a playoff team every year.”
In Brock’s first two seasons as head coach, Delaware posted records of 7-5 and 6-6, falling just short of extending their season both times.
“We’re a work in progress,” Brock acknowledged. “If you look back at last year, we had a number of games that we had an opportunity to win and didn’t. Usually eight wins is the magic number in terms of being a playoff team. If we find a way to win one more game my first year or two more games last year, then it’s a little bit different.”
Before the Blue Hens can even think about making the playoffs, though, they need to settle on a quarterback for 2015. Junior Blake Rankin and redshirt freshman Joe Walker will battle for the starting job left open by 2014 senior Trent Hurley.
“For the program’s sake, you really want those guys to battle it out,” Brock said, insisting that neither player has a leg up coming into training camp. “You want it to be as close as it possibly can be, you want it to be as hard-fought as it possibly can be. It should go right down to the wire. We’d like to have a starting quarterback two weeks out from the first game, but we’ll wait and see. I’m really excited about it.”
Michael Johnson, Delaware’s top receiver in 2014, graduated along with Hurley, meaning the Blue Hens will have fresh faces in a number of offensive positions. Brock isn’t too concerned, thanks to a mix of returning players and new recruits ready to step up.
“We have a lot of talented young guys coming back at receiver,” he said. “Jerel Harrison will take on a lead role in his senior year, and Diante Cherry, who really came on in the second half of last year, will be back.”
In addition to the team’s returning receivers, Brock is optimistic about redshirt freshman receivers Tre Brown and Troy Gallant.
“We’re looking for great things from them,” he said. “We’re excited about the skilled players.”
At running back, the Blue Hens still boast both of their top rushers from 2014 in Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph.
“Obviously Wes and Jalen are terrific players,” Brock said. “Probably as important as that, we have four of the five offensive linemen returning. I’m really looking forward to what we’re going to be able to do in terms of being a physical line of scrimmage running team.”
Brock believes Delaware’s rebuild will benefit from the abundance of young players on the roster.
“We’re going to have a team that ultimately will really look very similar for the next three years,” he explained. “We’re going to have anywhere from 53 to 55 of these players that are on scholarship who are going be here in ‘15, ‘16, and ‘17.”
Brock is excited to develop his young players, and even though there are only a handful of seniors on the 2015 team, a playoff appearance is still a possibility.
“We’re going to have a very young team this year, and we’re going to have to find a way to win close games,” Brock said. “Realistically, that’s our mission. When we get into training camp, we’re going to start to gel and develop, and find out what this team’s personality is going to be, and then play to our strengths and go out and try to win enough games to be a playoff team.”
“We want to be a playoff team,” Brock reiterated. “We want to win the CAA Championship, which we think is the best FCS conference in America, and we want to compete for national championships. It obviously starts with being an FCS playoff participant.”