October 12, 2015
It was during last Tuesday’s practice when Ryquell Armstead found out he would start Temple’s game against Tulane. Jahad Thomas, the Owls’ gamebreaker and someone head coach Matt Rhule emphasized ‘there isn’t a better kid on the team’ than, was late for a meeting on Monday morning.
Apparently, punctuality isn’t optional within the Temple football program. Rules are Rhules, or something like that. When staff members show up late, they have to buy lunch. When Rhule shows up late, he has to buy more than lunch. In Thomas’ case, punishment was removal from the starting lineup, And Armstead, the true freshman running back from Millville, was the beneficiary.
One problem: Armstead put the ball on the turf on his second carry and Tulane recovered. According to the freshman, the reception he received on the sidelines right after the turnover was positive, despite this being the second straight game he fumbled. The coaches preached ball security (keeping the football “high and tight”), but Armstead didn’t get the hook. The significance wasn’t lost on him.
“For me to fumble and [Rhule] to respond and let me play again, bounce back, and to have the confidence in me gave me more confidence,” Armstead said. “It showed me they actually care about me a lot.”
Temple’s coaching staff is also invested in Armstead because his success should allow the 5’10”, 180-pound Thomas to stay much fresher throughout the season. As Rhule said, “Jahad’s not real, real big so we can’t use him up a ton, but we’re going to use him.”
Thomas’ stats bear out that he’s receiving plenty of work, and more importantly, that he has been very effective: 114 carries for 557 yards and 7 touchdowns; 12 receptions for 156 yards and 1 touchdown; toss in another touchdown on a kick return for good measure. On Saturday, Thomas’ big moment came on a 2nd and 29 with the Owls trailing 10-7. On the play, the junior from Elizabeth, New Jersey showcased his trademark elusiveness, breaking four open-field tackles on the way to a 28-yard gain. If you had to go back and select a turning point, this was it.
“After that, we just got it rolling,” Thomas said. “If the team needs me to make a play, give the team some energy, or come in and just do what I do, I want to be that guy when things are not going right.”
Thomas would later cap off the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run, and Temple never looked back en route to a 39-point drubbing. Check out the video game cuts Thomas makes on the play (terrible Chris Berman audio included!). If this were PlayStation, he hits the L1 button a couple of times on this one:
When asked what runners he watched growing up, Thomas offers the obvious answer. A decade ago, another No. 5 was consistently making highlight-reel runs, albeit on a slightly higher stage than the American Athletic Conference. Listen to what Thomas had to say about Reggie Bush and picking his spots:
Armstead’s answers are generally more succinct, which mirrors his running style. If Thomas is the home run hitter, the freshman is just trying to consistently get on base. When asked what he can provide the team, Armstead said, “Just some tough yards, third down and short, second and short.”
On Armstead’s two touchdown runs against Tulane, the plays were almost mirror images. He started heading up the middle, only to quickly bounce the run around the left tackle. Armstead’s specialty might be short-yardage situations, but he’s clearly capable of more:
“I thought those runs by Ryquell were really confident,” Rhule said. “They had an unblocked guy, and he bounced them both.”
Armstead is an interesting story. He didn’t become the feature back at Millville High School until his senior year, and that only happened because the guy he shared carries with got kicked off the team. In total, Armstead carried 185 times for 1,488 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2014 at Millville.
Rhule didn’t need to see the breakout campaign to offer him a scholarship. After performing well at the coach’s camp in June 2014, Armstead committed to the Owls. Talking to him, you can tell that he isn’t crazy about the recruiting process in general.
“Four stars, five stars, three stars, whatever,” Armstead said. “It’s overrated, a lot of people get overrated. I know what I can do, my abilities.”
Armstead is enjoying the last laugh, though. As an 18-year-old freshman, he’s carving out a larger role on a 5-0 team as the season churns along. More than any of his teammates, the guy who he’s starting to spell more and more appreciates what Armstead is doing.
“For him to be a freshman and playing, that’s pretty tough to do, especially at a D1 university,” Thomas said.
As long as Thomas shows up on time this week, his starting spot is safe. But as Temple gets close to a Halloween date with Notre Dame at The Linc, the backfield appears to be much more than a one-man show.
Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann