It’s been an eye-opening first year for Temple football head coach Geoff Collins. This is his first head coaching job and the Owls, who won consecutive East Division titles and was last season’s American Athletic Conference champion, have slipped to 3-5 and 1-3 in the AAC. Collins, 46, came to Temple after serving as defensive coordinator the previous two seasons at the University of Florida.
The last two weeks have been gut-wrenching for Collins, starting with a 28-24 loss to visiting Connecticut and then Saturday’s 31-28 overtime loss at Army. The Black Knights sent the game into overtime by scoring on a 16-yard touchdown pass with one second left in regulation and the game ended when Temple missed a 27-yard field goal that would have sent the game into a second overtime.
Collins was as down as he has been in his brief time at Temple after the Army game, but two days later, he remained upbeat about his ability to lead the team, his players, the Owls’ prospects in the final four regular season games, and their future.
With the Owls on a bye week, Collins sat down to talk to us following the Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club luncheon, where he was a guest speaker on Monday in Cherry Hill.
What has been the most pleasant surprise and biggest disappointment to this point?
“The pleasant surprise has been the players. How they work every day, how they have a great attitude every day, how they are physical and tough every day in practice. They are very coachable and want to be great. That has been the biggest pleasant surprise. After coaching in the SEC the last six years, you don’t always get that, but these kids want to be great, they want to be coached and they are fun to be around. The biggest disappointment is just some of the young mistakes we have made. Three of the games in particular (against Houston, UConn and Army) were one-score games and a lot of those were things that were one or two plays away and that happened because of young mistakes. That has been one of the things that has been tough to deal with. The nice thing is that once they get the experience and they get it corrected, you don’t see it repeated. So you haven’t seen a rash of the same mistakes. A lot of times it is a new experience and a new thing that goes wrong with young players and that happens. But just the resiliency and coachability has been fun to be around.”
Depth has been an issue due to so many injuries, especially recently. Has that been eye-opening for you?
“It has been tough and the thing I talked about to the team this morning (on Monday), one of the positions of strength both in leadership and depth and the ability to rotate guys through in our above- the-line system has been in our defensive line. We have played eight, nine and 10 and sometimes 11 defensive linemen. And there really hasn’t been a drop-off. The leadership from Jacob Martin, Jullian Taylor, Sharif Finch, has been outstanding and I would even include Greg Webb in that leadership piece. We are using that as a model for all the other positions moving forward. To build that kind of depth and that kind of leadership throughout the organization at every single position.”
The quarterback situation is probably something you didn’t envision and I would think you would have wanted to have had it settled well before the opening game instead of deciding the week of the opener at Notre Dame. How tough was that?
“When you lose a kid who started so many games and thrown so many passes and had first-team reps for four years (the way Phillip Walker did), the transition trying to find that next guy, a first time as a head coach, has been challenging. The thing that makes it challenging is they have been good. It would be one story if they weren’t good, then it would be a different scenario. We have had some quarterbacks that have played really well and good enough that the separation has been tough throughout. Logan (Marchi) has played really well in some really good stretches. And I was proud of Frank (Nutile) who came in and played as well as he did last week in his first college start (with Marchi injured). It’s been a good issue to have that they are both good and competitive.”
You talked earlier that in your previous coaching experiences for the most part, you only had to watch the defensive side of the ball. Now you have had to be in charge of the entire team. As a first-year coach has this been overwhelming task for you, and how has it been adjusting to being a head coach for the first time?
“It has been exciting. I think I have improved every single week. I have been self-critical at every stage. I think at first you have to be critical of yourself before you can be critical of others. That first game at Notre Dame (a 49-16 loss), I was still in that fighter-pilot mindset that I have been in for the last six years as a coordinator in the SEC and learned very quickly, I couldn’t do that. You see me at practice and I am a wild man out there and provide the energy and drive and I have been doing that more and more each week, so those kinds of things have been good. I found myself earlier in the season staying on the defensive headsets most of the game. The defensive staff has done a great job with in-game adjustments, and I now when the defense is on the bench, I have been able to be on the offensive headset the whole time, put my two cents in, tell them when we are going to go for it, when we need to run it, and when we need to take a shot, so that has been exciting for me. So more and more throughout the season since the South Florida game (a 43-7 loss on Sept. 21) we have done an elite eight, which are eight plays I give to the offensive staff. The crazy formations we started doing, I know as a defensive guy those are difficult to prepare for, so I give them a formation and two to three plays.”
Was that you who drew up the Wildcat when you had blockers on one side of the field and skill players on the other in Saturday’s game at Army?
“Yes (laughing). When the news came down that we were going to be down five offensive linemen, I said what can we do that could help us and be a pain for their defensive coordinator, their defensive staff and get our guys who have played a lot matched up with their skill guys. That was one way to do it and we put four linemen out to the right and put our skill guys spacing against their skill guys and it was good. That has been a fun part of it, being involved in the offense and I think I have been more engaged in the huddles. In practice, I run the defensive scout team so I am around the offensive guys much more.”
You have to go 3-1 to go bowl eligible. In your mind do you still see that?
“We still try to go 1-0 every week, but we did talk about it this morning. My second to last year (as defensive coordinator) at Mississippi State (2013) we were in a similar situation and won two games in overtime, the last two games to get us to a bowl and we went to the bowl and did great, and the next season we were No. 1 in the country for 10 weeks. And I drew that analogy this morning in front of the team. And you still have to go 1-0 and win every play, those kinds of things, but there is nothing wrong with talking about it and we talked about it this morning. I think the senior leadership, some point earlier in the season they all kind of were used to (former players) Haason (Reddick) or PJ (Walker) or even (Matt) Ioannidis or Tyler Matekevich, Dion Dawkins. They have been really good soldiers for a good part of their career and now it is their turn to be the generals and captains. They have done a great job and I am really proud of them but these last four games, you will see the intensity from that group pick up even more.”
These last four games whether you become bowl eligible or not become critical when you are talking about next year. How critical is it?
“We are probably four plays away from having a completely different record. We are playing a lot of young players at a lot of key positions. We have a lot of guys who will be coming back after this season so I think the future is really, really bright, but out of respect for our old guys, we are going to do it the right way for these old guys to finish out strong the final four games.”