As the Temple football team goes through its third week of spring drills, looking to upgrade every facet of last season's 1-11 performance, the fight for jobs in the defensive backfield may be the most competitive.
Among the eight returning cornerbacks and safeties, there is only one senior. And all have played in at least 10 games, with the group combining to make 29 career starts.
"We know our front seven will be a big part of our progress, but we want to be accountable for ourselves," said junior free safety Georg Coleman, a Neshaminy High School graduate who played in all 12 games last season. "We'll play better because we are a year older."
As Temple struggled in '06 to get off the ground under first-year coach Al Golden, Coleman and his mates gave up a modest 208 yards per game through the air. Of course, when opponents can run the ball for an average of 243.6 yards an outing, the passing game becomes secondary.
"Obviously, it was a function of us not being as competitive as we needed to be to be successful," Golden said of his team's defensive shortcomings. "We're focusing on eliminating the things that cause you to lose. The secondary gives up plays everybody can see. We can't hang our defensive backs out to dry. For the average football fan, big plays are attributed to the secondary, but that's not always the case. What if we have a six- or seven-man line, but a linebacker doesn't get there?"
Now employing a 4-3 defense that evolved about midway through last season - Golden brought a 3-4 alignment with him from his job as defensive coordinator at Virginia - Temple gave up three scoring plays of 55 yards or more via the pass last season and three touchdown runs of 50 yards or more.
The Owls also gave up a lot of yardage between the 20-yard lines.
"It kind of gets you down, but you have to play the next play," sophomore safety Dominique Harris said of the Owls' inability to get stops on defense. "But everybody has grown a year, and we know what is expected of us."
Vying along with Harris and Coleman for playing time in Temple's secondary are junior corner Evan Cooper Jr., sophomore corner Anthony Ferla, junior corner Tommie Williams, sophomore safety Wilbert Brinson, junior safety Richard Sheppard and senior safety Abioye Oyeyemi.
Brinson, who played in 11 games and started four last fall, was one of 10 true freshmen Owls to be called on as a starter. Cooper started nine games in '06, and Harris, who started seven games, is Temple's leading returning tackler.
With so few experienced players last season, Golden said, the Owls used a cover three often. That scheme puts a man in the middle of the field to take away pass plays over the middle.
This season, the coach is hoping to put his squad in more single coverage on the outside.
"Without question, this secondary needs to establish toughness and a hard-nosed attitude," Golden said. "In year one, we didn't play as much man-to-man as we would have liked. But I feel we're more mature now. We had a young team, and we were just trying to be fundamentally sound. We'll see who we are and what we are."
After this week, Temple will have three more practice sessions before concluding spring drills on April 21 with the annual Cherry and White game at Ambler Sports Complex.