Ask Matt Rhule for a story to describe Phillip Walker’s impact at Temple and you may get inundated with anecdotes from the quarterback’s senior year of high school to his senior year with the Owls.
Like the time Rhule, as the freshly minted Temple coach, met with Walker weeks after he had guided Elizabeth (New Jersey) High to a state title — and Walker was instead lamenting over a missed title shot a year earlier.
Or one of the many down times during Rhule’s 2-10 debut campaign in 2013 when a freshman Walker eased his coach’s nerves by reminding him that he himself had gone through a 1-9 first season at Elizabeth before eventually winning state.
Or the Wednesday after a season-opening letdown against Army this September, when the Owls gathered for their weekly table tennis tournament and Rhule cou2ld not help but think to himself that he might be letting his senior quarterback down this fall.
“He’s as unselfish, as selfless and as giving as possible,” Rhule said of Walker. “I know I’ll miss him when he’s gone. I only hope he feels I gave him half as much as he gave me.”
That first half of this season was uneasy, to be sure. After a 2015 that saw Temple win its first seven games, get nationally ranked and host “College GameDay,” a 3-3 start was hardly what anyone in the City of Brotherly Love had in mind. But in some ways that has made this second-half renaissance all the more rewarding, with the Owls riding a six-game winning streak into the American Athletic Conference title game at Navy, marking the Owls' second straight appearance in the league title game.
Temple is aiming for its second straight 10-win season, and its 19 wins since the start of last season already mark the greatest two-year run in program history.
It's no coincidence this reign has come with Walker under center, but in keeping with his measured demeanor, the senior said the numbers aren't what he's most proud of when looking back at a career that has 45 straight starts and counting — the longest active FBS streak by a non-offensive lineman.
"I think the bouncing back from the rough [opening] this year," Walker said. "We started off so slow and the way my teammates just rallied in the middle of the season -- we started playing better, we started clicking. We all came together.
"It was hard, because we knew what was at stake and we knew if we'd lose another game we'd be done. So we played every game like it was our championship game."
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Walker has rewritten the record books in North Philly, setting program marks for career passing touchdowns (71), passing yards (10,074) and wins (27). These have all come while running a pro-style offense, as the Owls post a modest 69.5 offensive snaps a game (tied for 69th nationally) while limiting opponents to just over 60 snaps per game (fourth nationally).
Their defense ranks at or near the top of the AAC in virtually every category, but there’s no mistaking who’s the steady hand guiding this in-season turnaround.
“He’s had to subjugate personal goals and ambitions,” Rhule said of Walker. “We don’t throw the ball a ton. He’s done whatever the team needs. When you have a guy like that and play him for so long, his impact is so great on players he’s around.”
Rhule said Walker isn’t a yeller, adding that he gets his teammates’ attention by simply telling them that he needs them, which has proven to be effective with a young receiving corps that lost three of its top four players from last year to graduation. Temple has outscored opponents 195-78 during this six-game win streak.
Rhule considers Walker family. Yes, Walker has essentially been the only starting quarterback Rhule has had in his four years at Temple, so life without him next year will certainly be different. But the QB also goes out of his way to play with Rhule’s son, Bryant, even briefing the inquiring 11-year-old on the field on what to watch before games — against his father’s well-intentioned wishes.
Temple will be looking to finish the job Saturday after coming up short in last year’s AAC championship at Houston, and the symmetry is difficult to ignore. At Elizabeth, Walker — along with Owls senior running back Jahad Thomas — went through seasons of 1-9, 5-6, 9-3 and 12-0, with the latter two seasons ending in the aforementioned state title games, a loss followed by a win.
At Temple, Walker has gone from 2-10 to 6-6 to 10-4, with this year’s 9-3 mark on the line with yet another championship there for the taking in his last hurrah.
“Kids get so used to his work ethic. He’s affected and changed their mindset,” Rhule said of Walker. “We were 1-2 and 3-3 [this year]. If I didn’t have a kid like him at the helm, who knows?”