Former running back Ryquell Armstead accounted for 54.1 percent of Temple’s total rushing during the 2018 season. His 1,098 rushing yards paced the Owls and his blend of violent downhill running and vision will be missed, as Armstead was a fifth-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. New Owls head coach Rod Carey will look to fill the void at tailback. Redshirt senior Jager Gardner and redshirt freshman Kyle Dobbins appear to lead their peers for Temple’s starting and backup running back slots.
When asked about Temple’s running back battle, Uremovich told reporters that Jager Gardner and redshirt-freshman Kyle Dobbins have separated themselves early in preseason camp. The Owls completed their fourth fall camp practice session at Geasey Field earlier this morning. pic.twitter.com/ZGrNN6bCSC— Matt Vender (@Matt_Vender) August 6, 2019
Gardner spelled Armstead last season as a versatile offensive halfback who could double as a receiver out of the backfield. Gardner carried the ball 65 times for 253 yards (3.9 average) while splitting time with former fullback Rob “Nitro” Ritrovato behind Armstead.
A committee approach is probably Carey’s formula at the running back position, unless Gardner or Dobbins establishes themself as a reliable starting running back. Gardner provides vision and can bounce off of tackles, but he didn’t stand out last year and project as a feature back. Ritrovato, arguably, impressed more in Armstead’s place.
Carey regularly designed ways to have his quarterback involved with the running game at Northern Illinois. Redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Russo didn’t tuck it and scoot that often, but he’s mobile enough to gain respectable yardage.
However, Russo’s value resides in his soft touch he illustrates on each fade pass and not in his legs. According to Temple assistant athletic director/football communications Rich Burg, Carey said that Russo will start in Saturday’s opener against Bucknell.
Temple’s play distribution was 494 rushing attempts and 443 passes last season. However, expect Carey to optimize the junior quarterback and call more passes in Armstead’s absence. Aerial offense needs to increase this season, so anticipate an uptick in production from wide receivers Branden Mack and Isaiah Wright.
The Wright Weapon
Mack (44 receptions, 601 receiving yards, five TDs) is Temple’s most natural wideout who can reliably move the chains and challenge corners. However, Wright (33 receptions, 368 receiving yards, three TDs) might be the Owls’ best weapon to damage defenses this season. The 6’2″, 220-pound senior from West Hartford, Conn. brings an array of moves when toting the football in space. This kick return against Navy paints an accurate picture of Wright’s skills with the ball.
Wright eludes the first line of carnage with a side step, then churns upfield to keep his acceleration. He bounces off an arm tackle, keeps his balance off the second broken tackle, then sets up Navy’s kicker for a filthy spin move. Wright is blindsided and fumbles with the ball dangling in his left arm, but Temple recovers.
Swiss Army Knife
Wright is a walking beacon who needs monitoring every time he steps onto the field. In Temple’s offense last season, he saw action in a bevy of different roles. Here’s a list of positions Wright played for Temple last season: wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner, wildcat QB, and running back. Wright tallied three total touchdowns between kick returning and punt returning while earning the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year award.
Wright’s home-run potential has to be etched somewhere in opposing special teams coordinators’ conscience. Wright averaged 13.1 yards per punt return last season, per owlsports.com, and his 73-yard touchdown against USF spotlighted his vision.
After making his initial north-south cut, Wright makes the correct read by running through the hole and not bouncing it farther outside. Instead of angling his route towards the outside, once through the hole, he instead plants inward, then bounces. A block develops and Wright is able to outrun the defender’s pursuit towards the end zone for a momentum-shifting touchdown.
Just Get Him the Ball
Designing plays for Wright in Temple’s spread offense that’ll allow Wright to tap into his toolbox of moves and agility would behoove Carey and Temple’s coaches to utilize Wright frequently. Co-offensive coordinator Mike Uremovich mentioned how many touches he’d like Wright to receive, per Owlscoop.com’s Matt Vender.
Temple co-offensive coordinator Mike Uremovich, on newly-named single digit Isaiah Wright: “I’d be dumb not to give him the ball 10 or 12 times per game.” pic.twitter.com/3cp1XzNMec— Matt Vender (@Matt_Vender) August 6, 2019
Uremovich alluded to the jet sweep among Wright’s roles in Temple’s offense. Last season in a nonconference matchup against Boston College, Wright recorded a first down running a sweep off read option.
Wright also scored last season while motioning to the backfield for an option against UConn. Todd Centeio sets up Wright in space with a pitch en route to an Owls touchdown. If Wright receives double-digit touches per game, sweeps and runs in space seem conducive towards Wright threatening defenses.
Wright totaled just 84 yards on the ground last season on 19 rushing attempts, but he should eclipse that mark. Temple returns four of their five starting offensive linemen from last season, spearheaded by graduate student center Matt Hennessy. Even if Wright isn’t running straight downhill out of the backfield, although he could in spot duty if needed, generating push from the O-line on the runs in space is important.
Threat Out Wide
Wright should churn out more than 19 carries and 33 receptions this year, as Armstead and receiver Ventell Bryant have moved on. While Wright brings unique versatility as a running threat, he’s also capable of being a dynamic option in the passing game.
Against Navy, Wright motions and appears to run a wheel route towards the outside. Instead, he cuts inwards and Russo connects with him. The takeaway here is how Navy’s defender constantly needs to mirror Wright and Temple capitalizes on placing Wright in motion.
Bubble and tunnel screens are another method to get the ball into Wright’s hands quickly. Between Wright, Mack, and senior Randle Jones, Wright appears to be the most viable option for gadget play routes. An underrated component of Wright’s game is his vision, and leveraging that skill on offense will increase Temple’s firepower. Another aspect Wright can offer Russo is high-pointing the ball on deep routes.
On this corner route against Villanova, Wright anticipates the throw, jumps off his right foot, and snares the ball over his head. Wright perfectly times this catch.
Wright earned a single-digit number this offseason, No. 2, representing one of nine players coach Carey has deemed “#SingleDigitTuff”.
The Owls’ senior wideout is forecasted to be an integral part of Temple’s offense. Temple would opt to run the ball more with Centeio in. Russo is the key to further unlock Wright’s game, and his touch on deep balls complements Wright’s athleticism.
Wright serves as a multidimensional talent, and he’s arguably the most dangerous skill player on Temple’s roster when possessing the ball. It’ll be interesting to explore how many different ways Temple’s coaches deploy Wright. Wright will be an offensive talent who compensates for Armstead’s absence while emerging as an efficient high-usage skill player.
*Videos courtesy of ESPN, CBS Sports Network, and American Athletic Conference.*