Uncertainty pervades Rhule’s new regime
Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, August 28, 2013
In 126 years of Notre Dame football, the Irish have never taken the field against Temple. But that’s only one aspect of why Irish coach Brian Kelly and his team are flying blind into their season opener.
The Owls enter the 2013 season as a great unknown to their opponents – as well as themselves. First-year head coach Matt Rhule was hired in the offseason after spending 2012 as an assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants in 2012. Prior to his work in the NFL, Rhule was an assistant at Temple for six seasons under Al Golden, who reinvigorated the program before leaving to coach Miami.
Rhule has also installed a new, pro-style offense that will utilize more passing than the Owls have been accustomed to in recent years. Temple averaged just 120.8 yards per game through the air last season, the fewest of any Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school not running the triple-option last year.
Faced with a new coach and a new style, much of Kelly’s scouting has been left to guesswork.
“We’re playing an opponent that certainly, with coach Rhule taking over, we don’t know a lot about,” Kelly said. “We don’t know exactly what we’re going to see. We think we do, but I think this is one of those openers where we’re going to have to kind of make some adjustments along the way.”
In addition, the new passing attack will be led by another unknown: a junior who has never started a game under center. Connor Reilly emerged from a hectic quarterback picture, beating out fifth-year signal-caller Clinton “Juice” Granger, who started Temple’s final two games last season. Two-year starting quarterback Chris Coyer returned for a fifth year as well, only to be shifted to a hybrid halfback role in Rhule’s new offense.
All that positional upheaval will result in Reilly, a fourth-stringer last season, seeing his first real action in front of 80,795 fans in Notre Dame Stadium this weekend.
“I felt a little nervous,” Reilly said after finding out he’d won the job last week. “[Rhule] told me I was the starter, have fun, ease into it and just have fun playing football next Saturday.”
With so much uncertainty and eight months to prepare, Kelly and his staff have looked high and low for clues that may show them what the Owls have game-planned. Temple has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and the Irish have been able to study their body of work from past teams. But even Kelly realizes how little that may matter on Saturday.
“Coach [Phil] Snow, who’s their defensive coordinator, was at Eastern Michigan last year, and I found myself talking in terms of what Eastern Michigan was doing. … I think I know more about Eastern Michigan’s defense than I do anybody else,” Kelly said. “But obviously that’s not their talent pool. They’ve got Temple players. So there’s that unknown.”
Temple went 4-7 last year, and most are calling for more bumps in the road as the Owls transition to their third head coach in five years. Rhule admitted his team may be the underdog this week, but he said his squad would refuse to let the opponent and atmosphere affect how they play.
“This is why you play the game, for these kinds of moments,” he said. “I’ve promised our players, I will not be tight. I refuse to be tight. Our coaches refuse to be tight. We’re going to go play this game the way it should be played and hope that our players see that and follow suit.”
On the other sideline, Kelly will strive to keep his squad locked in as well. With a trip to No. 17 Michigan a week away, the temptation to look past Temple is there. But the Irish are just two years removed from a season-opening upset at the hands of South Florida, a fact Kelly has repeated to ensure the Irish take no one lightly.
“Every single day I talk about [how] I’m not that far removed from South Florida,” he said. “We focus on Temple, I talk about it every day. I talk about the importance of playing this game and focusing on this football game. It’ll be a topic of conversation again today, tomorrow and every day leading right up to the Temple game.”
Contact Jack Hefferon at firstname.lastname@example.org