Temple nose tackle Andre Neblett signed on with coach Al Golden when the former Virginia assistant was just taking over an Owls program that went 0-11 in 2005.
“My high school team wasn’t always good, but we turned it around,” said Neblett, who is a senior from Rahway, N.J.
Now, after the Owls endured a 10-26 record during his first three seasons, the team is headed to the EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium on Tuesday in Washington.
Neblett, who was named Temple’s most valuable defensive player, is a first-team all-Mid-American Conference selection. Golden was picked as the league’s coach of the year.
Temple (9-3) will take on UCLA (6-6) in the Owls’ first postseason outing in 30 years.
“My teammates and coaches, we were in it together,” Neblett said. “We knew there’d be a time when it’s going to change. We just kept grinding, and it happened.”
Temple, which finished with a 7-1 mark in the MAC, was tops in the league in rush defense behind the inside tandem of Neblett and fellow all-conference first-team tackle Muhammad Wilkerson.
Lined up next to the 6-foot-5, 301-pound Wilkerson, the 6-2, 300-pound Neblett used his wide body to wreak havoc in the trenches. He finished the season with 39 tackles, 8 1/2 for losses. Along with Wilkerson, who had 56 stops, Neblett helped Adrian Robinson, the MAC defensive player of the year, lead the league with 11 sacks.
“He has an incredible work ethic, and he’s really been a leader,” Golden said of Neblett. “Over the course of these four years, he has epitomized what we want players to grow and develop into. He went from being somebody who needed a lot of support and direction to self-reliant and empowered. I can’t say enough about him.”
Neblett, who came to Temple at 270 pounds, said he was told by his high school coach that his future would be on the defensive line. Neblett played fullback and linebacker at Rahway High.
“I was gaining more and more weight, and he told me that I was going to be putting my hand on the ground, whether I liked it or not,” Neblett said.
Neblett, who was second-team all-MAC as a sophomore and junior, liked that position. He credited former Temple defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, now a rookie with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, with showing him the ins and outs of the job.
“Being a linebacker and fullback, I had to learn, but Terrance played a big part in me coming along,” said Neblett, who could join him in the NFL next season.
“It was a tough transition, but I listened to what the coaches were telling me, watched film, and learned more about what the defensive line is all about. When I got a handle on it and knew about technique and using your hands, it became easy for me. Once I started making plays, I loved it.”
Neblett admitted he wasn’t the best of students while in high school, and he had few offers when he finished his senior year.
“They took a chance on me,” Neblett said of Temple.
Temple vs. UCLA
4:30 p.m. Tuesday