PHILADELPHIA - He remembers the play call like it was yesterday.
“It was ‘32 Run To Daylight,’ and I was No. 32,” Ryquell Armstead said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Armstead, then a 6-year-old running back in the Bridgeton Midget Football League, would, as instructed, run to daylight when he got the ball. That play call netted him plenty of touchdowns, and the Bulls didn’t lose a game in three years.
Almost 15 years later, the playbook is thicker and certainly more complex, but football is still a simple game to Armstead, and he’s still pretty good at it. The Millville High School product is coming off a sophomore season at Temple that saw him rush for 919 yards and lead the Owls with 14 touchdowns and a 5.9 yards-per-carry average. While dealing with the lingering effects of a sprained MCL, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound tailback reeled off a 30-yard touchdown run to cap Temple’s 34-10 win at Navy in the American Athletic Conference championship game Dec. 3.
Armstead has been a big part of the most successful and memorable two-year stretch in Temple’s football history. The Owls’ consecutive 10-win seasons and bowl appearances in 2015 and 2016 are a first for a program that was nearly dropped 11 years ago, and the conference championship was Temple’s first in almost 50 years.
Playing understudy to Jahad Thomas last fall, Armstead offered glimpses of what he could do as a freshman with 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns. This past season, Armstead emerged and enjoyed the best performance of his young career in a nationally-televised game on ESPN on a November Friday night. With Temple needing a win over USF to maintain its lead in the American’s East Division standings, Armstead ran for a career-high 210 yards and two touchdowns, including a 76-yarder, to lift the Owls to a 46-30 win over the Bulls. Armstead’s 76-yard dash was the eighth-longest run from scrimmage by a Temple player since 1971.
Now, as spring ball approaches later this month, Armstead could be the focal point of an Owls offense that will be working with a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator and a new head coach in former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins after Matt Rhule left to take the head coaching job at Baylor.
In addition to finding a replacement for former quarterback Phillip Walker, Temple will be moving on without key pieces like Thomas, left tackle Dion Dawkins, defensive end Haason Reddick and cornerback Nate Hairston, all of whom participated in the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week. But Armstead doesn’t want to use a mostly-new coaching staff and roster turnover as potential excuses for missing a beat, and he knows he’ll have to do more and take on more if the Owls want to repeat as conference champions and chase the program’s first bowl win since 2011.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” Armstead said, “but I’ve never felt like the underdog. I always know what I’m capable of doing. And when my time is right, that’s when I show. Just to come into college, you have to show who you are every year. There are guys that are highly recruited who don’t show anything, and then there are guys who aren’t highly recruited who work hard and do well. You get recruited for a reason. If you have a good head on your shoulders, you’ll do well.”
Armstead learned those lessons before he got to Temple and, really, before his senior season at Millville, when he tallied 1,488 yards and 18 touchdowns. Prior to that breakout campaign in 2014, Armstead was kind of seen as an afterthought by most college coaches, who were more interested in Armstead’s teammate, Rob Ennis, a fellow running back who had committed to Purdue before assault charges that were later dropped led to his scholarship offer being withdrawn.
Former Temple assistant coach Fran Brown, Armstead said, was the first coach to tell him he was there to recruit him instead of viewing him as a package deal with Ennis.
“I think Ryquell hit it off with Fran Brown right away,” former Millville head coach Jason Durham said. “He knew Temple was relatively close by and it was important for him to be around his family. It was ultimately his decision and I just told him to make sure you visit and see everything and once he did, he was sold.”
Armstead eventually landed an offer from Virginia and the opportunity to play in the ACC but kept his verbal commitment to Temple and signed with the Owls. Before he was off to Temple, though, Armstead turned in some of the best performances ever by a Millville football player. In a 48-13 win over Absegami, Armstead set a Thunderbolts single-game rushing record of 337 yards, eclipsing the previous record of 315 set by Ennis just weeks earlier in the season opener against Mainland. And in the final game of his high school career, Armstead racked up 321 rushing yards and four touchdowns in Millville’s 44-40 Thanksgiving win over rival Vineland and his future Temple teammate, Jeremiah Atoki, who caught a 31-yard touchdown pass and recorded two sacks for the Fighting Clan.
But it was on defense as a safety where Armstead registered the biggest play of the game, tackling Vineland running back Daivon Seymore for a 16-yard loss that snuffed out what could have been a potential game-winning drive in the closing minutes.
Durham always knew Armstead had the potential to be great. Seeing it unfold in a matter of months in a big way was something else.
“He was a great athlete. He jumped off the page athletically right away when we first saw him,” Durham said. “He had that big body and was ahead of the curve. He was young and kind of did some goofy things, but as he got older he really matured and took on coaching and grew.
“He was always a fullback growing up. And when he got to be a tailback during his junior year, he showed you that he had a lot of tailback ability, and it had kind of been overlooked. When he was a senior, we had a tough season that year and we were decimated by injuries and he kind of put the team on his back. He had a couple of fumbles early in the Thanksgiving game and he came back after halftime and really played well and had three 2-point conversions, too. It was an amazing performance.”
Armstead, also a former Millville track standout, knows he could be one step closer to the NFL if he builds upon what he did in 2016. His sprained MCL still didn’t feel right in Temple’s disappointing Military Bowl loss to Wake Forest, so erasing any late-season pain and avoiding complacency, something that’s never really been a problem for him, will be priorities this spring.
“You can’t really truly enjoy anything that’s going well when you’re going through the season,” Armstead said. “You’ve got to keep at it and keep working. You can’t get complacent. I think that’s where a lot of dudes fall off. They’ll get great stats and then they’ll get complacent in the middle of the season and then things go downhill. Having Jahad by my side and Jager (Gardner) and David (Hood) pushing me really helped, and we had a great (offensive) line.
“With my running, I’ve grown in patience and definitely balance. At the beginning of the season, I was getting tripped up a lot by arm tackles, which hurt a lot of my yards. As the season went on, I worked on drills and breaking arm tackles and hitting long runs, understanding that not everything is going to go your way in college football. So you have to stay with it and keep pounding because in the fourth quarter, things are going to happen. You have to keep working and can’t think about what you’ve already done.”
Durham, on the other hand, had the luxury of sitting back, watching and enjoying what he saw of his former player this season.
“It feels like watching him in high school all over again,” Durham said. “He kind of got his feet under him and now he’s really taking off and ahead of the curve. It’s amazing to watch. I’m so proud of him. Some of my old assistant coaches will reach out to me and say, ‘Wow, did you see his run? Did you see what he’s doing?’ To go from being Ryquell’s coach to being Ryquell’s fan has been great.
“Ryquell might get an opportunity to play at the next level, and I can see him as a guy who would take pride in coming back and always staying connected to people at home. Millville’s a town that’s very enthusiastic about sports. When athletes come out, they get followed and follow them their whole career. We have a Thunderbolt Club here that’s very supportive and really takes pride in supporting kids who have gone on to play in college. He’s part of that now, and that’s a special thing.”
Temple junior running back Ryquell Armstead
GP Car Yd TD Lg Avg Avg.G
2015 11 51 191 2 16 3.7 17.4
2016 13 156 919 14 76 5.9 70.7
Career 24 207 1110 16 76 5.4 46.3
September 2 at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
September 9 vs. Villanova, TBD
September 15 vs. UMass, TBD
September 21 at USF, TBD
September 20 vs. Houston, TBD
October 7 at East Carolina, TBD
October 14 vs. UConn, TBD
October 21 at Army, TBD
November 2 vs. Navy, TBD
November 10 at Cincinnati, TBD
November 18 vs. UCF, TBD
November 25 at Tulsa, TBD
Temple junior running back Ryquell Armstead with one of his 20 carries against South Florida. Armstead scored a team-high 14 touchdowns this past season and looks to be a bigger part of the offense in 2017. Photo courtesy of Joe Labolito/Temple Universit