IT'S NO secret that Temple's kicking game was pretty much a mess last season. When you go 2-10, you know that was hardly the only problem. But when you make only three field goals, two of which came in the last game, and many of your kickoffs aren't close to reaching the goal line, it does tend to stand out.
So, for the second straight offseason, coach Matt Rhule went out and recruited a kicker. This time, he went to central Florida and signed Austin Jones, who, for whatever reasons, had no other concrete FBS offers, even though he was rated as the 13th-best prospect in the country by KohlsKicking.com
The Owls also had to replace punter Paul Layton, who averaged 42.8 yards. Enter preferred walk-on Alex Starzyk, from Pleasant Valley, N.Y., by way of East Coast Prep in Massachusetts. Like Jones, he had to beat out other candidates to get his chance.
There are plenty of reasons why the Owls (3-1, 1-0 American Conference) already have one more win than 2013, including the schedule. But certain things are hard to ignore. Tomorrow afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, they'll try to get to 4-1 for only the second time since 1979 against Tulsa (1-4, 1-0). Jones has converted five of his seven attempts, with a long of 47. Tyler Mayes, a junior walk-on, has gone 2-for-2. Starzyk is averaging 41.9 yards on 19 punts, with a long of 62 and four downed inside the 20. And sophomore Jim Cooper, the Mainland Regional (N.J.) product who was brought in to be the placement answer a year ago, is averaging 62.9 yards a kickoff with eight touchbacks.
Did we mention that the long snapper, Corey Lerch, is also a freshman?
"It's awesome," Starzyk said. "We're starting to form a brotherhood.
"I'm not looking at it as if I'm a freshman that's doing good. I'm looking at it as if I'm a freshman who needs to get better every single day."
Which, of course, could be the theme for the entire team.
"I think before the first game [37-7 win at Vanderbilt], that was one of my biggest concerns," Rhule acknowledged, referring to the kicking game. "But credit to them, after about two games I really haven't thought about it.
"Right now, they're about as big a positive as we have. They're not only doing a great job, but they're also handling it the right way. And we know we're going to have them, and they're only going to get better and better. It's a relief. They've really surpassed our expectations.
"I just feel so much more confident about being able to play more conventional [situational] football. Ideally, you'd like to have guys come into the program and maybe just sit first and develop before they play. But it's worked out."
The Owls haven't had to make what would be called a pressure kick yet. That moment will come. Jones doesn't sound like someone who's losing any sleep over it.
"I can't wait," he said. "It's a great feeling. I love it. As a kicker, that's what you want. You have to prove it to yourself. It only happened once in high school [Orlando Boone]. There was about 10 or 12 seconds left, against our big rival. It was only about 34 yards. I just went in there and nailed it.
"You have to be confident. You can't let yourself think you might miss it. You have to earn your job. That's what makes you work hard. I expect to make every one. I'm sure the coaches expect a lot out of me. But they expect a lot out of all the players. You just have to find your way.
"The special teams are always on the spot. If you mess up, the next week, everyone's looking at you for the whole week. It's part of the game. You have to perform. It totally comes with the position."
It's a fraternity. They feel for one another, because they know. And they accept that responsibility.
"That first game, I felt like a complete freshman," Starzyk said. "I was so nervous to get out there. But once I got my first one off, I think it was, like, a 43-yarder, that relaxed me so much. Then I was ready for the season.
"I know what I need to work on, what I'm doing wrong. You always worry. But, for me, it's great just being here. This is my dream, my opportunity.
"We all want to do the best we can. But we don't want it to be strictly for ourselves. We want to help the team do better. So you're always competing. If I want to keep doing it, I have to keep doing good . . . They always remember your last one."
Hopefully for the right reasons.