No. 40: Tulsa
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 25, 2011
One loyal reader asked that this preview be led with a picture of Eric Stoltz from the 1997 film “Keys to Tulsa,” so there you go.
Tulsa has been so good since 2003 that the program has done the previously unthinkable: erased any taste of a generation-long nadir — 60-119 from 1987-2002 — from our collective consciousness. Believe me, this is no small feat. Those days, which we can define as the Henshaw-Rader-Henderson-Burns era, were dark indeed for the nation’s first program to notch five consecutive January bowl berths. So where is Tulsa today? Eight years later, a period we can call the Kragthorpe-Graham era, the Golden Hurricane are knocking at the door to a very exclusive club: Boise State’s in that room, as is T.C.U., for now. It’s the group of non-B.C.S. conference programs who can be uttered in the same sentence with the big boys, and Tulsa has a strong case for inclusion.
Conference USA, West
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
at Boise St.
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 39
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
Prepare yourself for a rebound, both in the win column and on the scoreboard. Tulsa heads to both S.M.U. and Houston, its prime rivals in the West division; sweeping that pair will be too tall a task, in my opinion. However, if the Golden Hurricane can score the upset over the Cougars, the West will be theirs. I don’t see that happening for T.U., unfortunately. Not that Tulsa won’t be strong; I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m high on this team. I’m higher on Houston, however, and think the Cougars are the class of the conference. Barring injuries or an unexpected setback, Tulsa will enter the 2011 season — thanks to this team’s youth — as the leading contender for the conference crown. As for 2010, expect no less than eight wins. With an upset road win, the Golden Hurricane could battle for nine, perhaps even double-digit victories. Without question, Tulsa will be back.
In a nutshell Tulsa was back. After suffering through an uncharacteristically poor 2009 season, finishing below .500 for the first time since 2004, the Golden Hurricanes won at least 10 games for the third time in four seasons under Todd Graham. The most pleasing development had to be the return of potency to this offense, which looked lost in 2009, the program’s first season without Gus Malzahn. The offense wasn’t quite as dominant as it was under Malzahn, but that was to be expected: it was very close, however, and credit should go to one-and-done offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Tulsa finished the year ranked fifth nationally in total offense (505.6 yards per game) while giving somewhat equal balance to both the run and the pass, a staple of a Morris-coached offense. The defense received a nice boost from the strong play of several young players, helping a potential weakness become a part-time strength, part-time worry. So that was the good news — and it was very good news. The bad news? Graham is gone, taking his wares to Pittsburgh. Morris is also gone, parlaying his one year of success into a high-profile, high-pressure gig at Clemson. Graham’s replacement: Bill Blankenship, a four-year T.U. assistant and a wildly successful coach on the Oklahoma high school ranks.
High point A 28-27 win at Notre Dame on the final Saturday of October. This was likely the best team Tulsa beat during the regular season. Beyond that, however, is the fact that this team can be proud of the fact that it went into South Bend and earned a victory. A great moment for the football program. As was a bowl win over Hawaii, one officially dominated by the Golden Hurricane from kickoff to final whistle.
Low point A 21-18 loss to S.M.U. on Oct. 9. Tulsa’s two conference defeats came by a total of five points; E.C.U. won, 51-49, thanks to a last-second touchdown. While that loss to E.C.U. might have hurt worse, the S.M.U. defeat cost Tulsa the West division crown.
Tidbit Tulsa won at least 10 games for the third time in four years under Graham, with last year’s 10-3 mark joining a 10-4 finish in 2007 and an 11-3 2008 season. It was also a nice bounce-back year for the Golden Hurricane, who slid down to 5-7 in 2009. T.U. has won at least 10 games eight times in program history, never in back-to-back years nor even in the same decade, in fact. Prior to 2007, Tulsa had posted double-digit wins in 1916, 1920, 1942, 1982 and 1991.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:
Tulsa has gone 53-26 since 2005, which is fifth-best in the F.B.S. among private schools. Can you name the eight private schools with the best records since 2005?
Teams already spoken for California (Katster), Iowa (M Meyer), Mississippi (Flint Foster), Nebraska (Alex Payne), Northwestern (NUwildcat09), Oregon (Eksynyt), Pittsburgh (htp2012), Texas (Burnt Orange), Texas A&M (Ol’ Rock), Virginia Tech (Hokieshibe), Washington (Dr. Klahn).
Former players in the N.F.L.
3 LB Chris Chamberlain (St. Louis), FB Charles Clay (Miami), TE Garrett Mills (Cincinnati).
Arbitrary top five list
Non-extraterrestrial disaster movies since 1995
1. “Armaggedon,” 1998.
2. “Twister,” 1996.
3. “Dante’s Peak,” 1997.
4. “Deep Impact,” 1998.
5. “The Day After Tomorrow,” 2004.
Bill Blankenship (Tulsa ’79), entering his first season. Blankenship spent the last four years as an assistant under Graham, coaching the wide receivers in 2007, the special teams in 2008, the special teams and running backs in 2009 and, last fall, adding the associate head coach title to his duties. So he’s done more and more each year, taking on stronger and more significant tasks with each season; that’s why, once Graham left for Pittsburgh, Blankenship was promoted to take his spot — and not Morris, who was only on campus for a single season. That’s just one reason why Blankenship got the nod, however. Take note of his ties to the program, which date back to his playing days: Blankenship was Tulsa’s starting quarterback in 1977 and 1979. And then there are his years and years of superb service on the high school ranks in the state, which ended with a 14-year stint at Union High School, where he compiled a 154-26 mark with three Oklahoma state titles. This coaching experience was what attracted Graham and Tulsa to Blankenship in the first place, and it surely played a huge role in him being hired as head coach in mid-January. But was it a wise move by the program? Here’s one positive: unlike his two predecessors, you do get the feeling that Blankenship is in this for the long haul. He won’t be using Tulsa as a launching pad towards a Louisville or Pittsburgh, I don’t think. In addition, Blankenship was a key piece of the coaching staff over this four-year run. What about the negatives? He’s an inexperienced college coach, by and large. Tulsa has also done a nice job over its last two hires by looking outside the program, though Graham had been one of Kragthorpe’s assistants before returning to Tulsa in 2007. His first staff doesn’t leap off the page, though that doesn’t mean much before we see these guys in action. There are some question marks, but Blankenship does deserve the benefit of the doubt as he heads into his first season.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Tulsa’s coaching staff seems to have taken a step back from Graham’s final season. There are three holdovers from last season, only two of whom remain in the same role: Jess Loepp and Van Malone will continue to share secondary duties, with Malone continuing to serve as Tulsa’s recruiting coordinator. The third returning coach, Archie McDonald, moves from H-backs and tight ends over to the defensive tackles. Greg Peterson, who spent the 2010 season at Northern Colorado, will be the offensive coordinator. Former Northern Colorado head coach Scott Downing will be the assistant head coach and tight ends coach. The rest: Blankenship’s son, Adam, will come up from coaching the defensive line at Union High School to coaching the defensive ends; running backs coach Holman Wiggins comes from Illinois State; offensive line coach Denver Johnson comes from Colorado, where he served in the same capacity; and former Utah State head coach and U.N.L.V. linebackers coach Brent Guy will run the defense. Guy will transition T.U. from a 3-3-5 look to the 4-3. There was a recent coaching move, as would-be quarterbacks coach James Kilian left to take a graduate assistant spot at L.S.U. under Steve Kragthorpe, his college coach. Tulsa hired Press Taylor to fill Kilian’s shoes; like his predecessor, Taylor will be a graduate assistant focused on the quarterbacks.
Players to watch
Few programs anywhere, in and out of Conference USA, can feel better with what it has under center. Tulsa brings back all-conference pick G.J. Kinne, now a senior, as well as sophomore Shavodrick Beaver, the future at the position. Tulsa couldn’t ask for much more: a game-tested, experienced senior and an athletically-blessed junior, with a lack of in-game snaps the only thing holding Beaver back. His time holding a clipboard will last one more season, barring injury. It’s hard to stand out among the fine quarterbacks in Conference USA, but Kinne is tough to ignore.
He took a nice step forward in his second season in the starting lineup, throwing for 3,650 yards and 31 scores against 10 interceptions — that’s the same number of picks as in 2009 in 115 more attempts, which shows a greater familiarity with the offense and a growing knowledge of the college game. Kinne is also a weapon as a runner, as he’s led T.U. in rushing in each of the last two years. Things won’t change much in this offense, as T.U. will continue to spread the field with multiple receivers and get in and out of the huddle at a frenetic pace. It really helps matters to have a senior like Kinne taking snaps, as I don’t imagine he’ll be fazed all that much by an offense that might change terminology yet retains the same basic feel. Look for Kinne to have a tremendous senior year.
The offensive line was a nice story last fall, improving in pass protection and continuing to pave the way on the ground for one of the nation’s best running attacks. All five starters are back, though one, right tackle Brian DeShane, is battling the injury bug. For now, former Texas Tech transfer Joe King holds the top spot on the depth chart; King is a very solid option, one who will factor into the mix on the right side, but DeShane should reclaim his role once he makes a full recovery. The rest of the starting lineup looks the same: Tyler Holmes at left tackle, Clint Anderson at left guard, Trent Dupy at center and Stetson Burnett at right guard. The left side of the line, with all-conference picks Holes and Anderson, is as good as it gets in Conference USA. Redshirt freshman Jake Alexander is a lineman to watch on the right side, but Burnett’s experience gives him an edge. The line is ready to roll.
Tulsa’s running game just hums along, but it would nice to get more from the running backs. No, the Golden Hurricane won’t have a 1,000-yard back, and that’s fine, but the offense would be even better if a quarterback or receiver didn’t lead the way on the ground, as has been the case over the last two years. What Tulsa does have is a pair of speedsters — more than a pair, probably — and a bruiser, a nice combination of talents upon which to run the ball when needed. The speedsters: former walk-on Trey Watts (197 yards) and Ja’Terian Douglas (335 yards, 3 scores), both sophomores. The bruiser: junior Alex Singleton (391 yards, 9 scores), all 250 pounds of him. Watts was the story during the spring, but Douglas is going to get his touches, as will Singleton. However, I’d be surprised if Kinne doesn’t again lead the team in rushing.
So the defense moves to the 4-3 just as things were getting interesting. Last year’s group was very, very young, and I worry that the philosophical change might offset the growth the returning contributors might have made in another year in the old system. If things do fall flat for Tulsa in 2011, in my opinion, it will be thanks to the defense. So the pressure is on Brent Guy to deliver in his first season, as the pieces are in place for another successful season on the offensive side of the ball.
The first order of business: locate four defensive linemen. Scratch that: locate six or seven linemen, as the new defensive set will demand not just an additional starter but at least another two reserves. The move won’t have any great impact at end, where the Golden Hurricane bring back a pair of all-conference contenders in Tyrunn Walker (43 tackles, 12 for loss, 5.5 sacks) and Cory Durris (46 tackles, 5.5 for loss). Walker, a former JUCO transfer, had a terrific debut campaign in Tulsa. Solid depth comes from another former JUCO addition, Durell Finch, as well as Jared St. John and Rashad Robinson. There are no issues at end.
Not so inside. The depth at end did allow T.U. to move Daeshon Bufford to tackle, which will help. But you worry about Bufford’s ability to play the run, even if he was on the bigger side at end. What Tulsa really needs is a big year from junior Derrick Jackson, a part-time starter last fall who steps into a key spot in 2011. Jackson will be joined in the starting lineup by former JUCO transfer Darrell Zellars, a reserve in 2010. And here’s where you find one drawback in the first season in the 4-3: you need more tackles — you need able-bodied tackles in spades — to make this work, and I don’t know if the Golden Hurricane have that in 2011.
T.U. is locked in at linebacker, where the big story is the return of junior DeAundre Brown, the team’s leading tackler in 2009 who missed last season due to academic issues. Brown will play outside in a hybrid role in this system, one that will play very well to his speed and ability to make plays in space. As he illustrated in 2009, Brown is an all-conference linebacker. The Golden Hurricane will move things around a bit with Curnelius Arnick (115 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 interceptions) and Shawn Jackson (88 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks), as Arnick will move into the middle and Jackson to the weak side. This move has everything to do with Brown’s return to eligibility. Arnick, Jackson and Brown: this is a wonderful linebacker threesome. Each ranks among the best in Conference USA.
The secondary needs to be better, as the Golden Hurricane cannot continue to rely on interceptions as a way to slow down the opposing passing game. More so than any other grouping on the team in 2010, the defensive backfield was defined by its lack of experience: freshmen and sophomores littered the depth chart, so it’s only natural to expect stronger play in 2011. But again, T.U. needs to be more consistent, not giving up yards in bunches only to pull a rabbit out of its hat with a takeaway. Here’s guessing the secondary will be improved.
There are a pair of ball-hawking safeties to work with in Marco Nelson (86 tackles, 6 interceptions) and Dexter McCoil (56 tackles, 6 picks), who combined for half of Tulsa’s interceptions. The Golden Hurricane need to replace multiple-year starting safety Charles Davis but bring back senior John Flanders (45 tackles, 2 interceptions) and a talented part-time starter in former U.C.L.A. transfer Lowell Rose. There are your two starting cornerbacks, but depth is an issue. Can a former JUCO transfer like Milton Howell take on an increased role in only his second year on the defensive side of the ball? More than anything, T.U. desperately needs to staunch the bleeding against the pass; this secondary doesn’t need to be stoppers, but they can’t allow another 4,000 yards through the air.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receivers There’s an all-American on this offense. Name him. Ready? It’s senior receiver Damaris Johnson, the N.C.A.A.’s all-time leader for all-purpose yardage (7,796 yards) and, perhaps, the most electric player in the country. Is that a stretch? I don’t think so, not when you combine Johnson’s receiving ability with his game-changing return ability on special teams. It’s in the former capacity, as a receiver, that T.U. really needs another fine season from the senior. He headlines a group that must replace a starting receiver, starting H-back and talented reserve — Jameel Owens, who had a nice 2010 season, is no longer with the program. Tulsa won’t have to look far for a new H-back: last year’s backup, Willie Carter (19 catches for 299 yards and 5 scores) will step in for Charles Clay. If one T.U. skill player is going to break out in 2011, it’ll be Carter. The key will be finding at least five receivers, not including Johnson, to help T.U. maintain the spread-it-around passing game that worked to such great effect in 2010. One name to watch is sophomore Thomas Roberson (30 for 367), who had a nice rookie campaign. The Golden Hurricane also need more from Ricky Johnson, who started 10 games last fall but did not make the sort of impact most expected. Johnson could reclaim his role at flanker, but he’s currently riding behind sophomore Jordan James, a little-used reserve a year ago. There are other names to watch, like Genesis Cole (17 for 205), Freeman Kelley — he had a very nice spring — and Bryan Burnham, but the depth chart might present an opportunity for freshmen Gary Owens, Keyarris Garrett and Zach Epps to earn snaps. Garrett and Epps have the sort of size not seen elsewhere on the roster at receiver, so perhaps they squeeze into certain packages as rookies. There’s depth and talent here, plenty of both, so the story line really isn’t whether T.U. can reload but how Blankenship and his staff opt to do so — in terms of which receivers claim meaningful roles.
Game(s) to watch
Rarely do such wonderful opportunities come around. The Golden Hurricane need to embrace the challenge of kicking the year off at Oklahoma, of hosting Oklahoma State two weeks later and ending September with a trip to Boise State. Should T.U. be happy with one win in three tries? Absolutely. The Golden Hurricane should be chomping at the bit, in my mind. The West division title comes down to games against S.M.U. and Houston, as it did a year ago and as it will for the foreseeable future.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I’m not really sold on this coaching staff. It simply doesn’t have the cachet of recent Tulsa groups: it lacks the Gus Malzahn, Herb Hand or Chad Morris, which is not reason for overwhelming concern but reason, as of today, to wonder if Blankenship and his staff can keep the momentum going in 2011 and beyond. Well, perhaps not in 2011: while the defense raises some red flags, I do think this new-look staff will keep things rolling along just fine this fall. There’s just too much talent not to succeed, to be honest, particularly on offense but also on the defensive side of the ball. Kinne is one of Conference USA’s best quarterbacks; the offensive line is in fine shape; the receiver corps has talent, though some shoes must be filled; and there are some definite strong points defensively, like at end and linebacker. So you can forget about some of the issues, though the Golden Hurricane need to find answers at defensive tackle — here most of all — and improve in the secondary, though there is enough talent in the defensive backfield to expect at least a slight improvement in 2011. In all, Tulsa is ready to roll into another eight-win season. But it’s going to be tough to get there, and don’t be surprised if the Golden Hurricane end the year at 7-5. This is a team that’ll go 1-3 in non-conference play, losing to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State. This is a team that must get past S.M.U. and Houston — both at home, to be fair — and face U.C.F. on the road. To get to eight wins, Tulsa needs to either knock off a non-conference foe, which is a tall task, or go 7-1 in conference play. The latter is entirely possible, which would leave Tulsa right alongside Houston in the West division. Now, if Graham and his crew had returned in 2011 I would have placed the Golden Hurricane atop the conference altogether and right where they ended last year, hovering around a national ranking. But the changes will take their toll, at least somewhat, and I wonder if Tulsa can keep up its current pace given the transition. Until we know what Blankenship and this staff are made of, this is a fair landing spot for the Golden Hurricane.
Dream season Tulsa doesn’t miss a beat, rolling off another 10-win season and taking home the Conference USA crown.
Nightmare season The changes are felt immediately: 6-6, 5-3 in conference play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Tulsa fans congregate? T.U. message boards can be found at Inside Tulsa Sports and Tulsa Insider. You can also find recruiting coverage at both sites. More information can be found at the Web site of The Tulsa World, though the paper focuses much more on Oklahoma’s big two F.B.S. programs than on the Golden Hurricane.
Through 81 teams 243,852.
Who is No. 39? One of the satellite campuses associated with tomorrow’s university shared its campus with an institution whose alumni include a Fields Medal-winning mathematician, a time management expert and an actress who once shared the screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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Tags: Bill Blankenship, Brent Guy, Clint Anderson, Conference USA, Curnelius Arnick, Damaris Johnson, DeAundre Brown, G.J. Kinne, Shawn Jackson, Trey Watts, Tulsa, Tyler Holmes, Tyrunn Walker, Willie Carter
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