No. 50: Tulsa
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 15, 2010
When it rains, it pours. You’d expect nothing less from the Golden Hurricane, I suppose. In its defense, it would have been difficult for Tulsa — especially with the lost talent — to duplicate the 661-point output of 2008, the second-highest scoring total in college football history. Yet the Golden Hurricane stumbled to a pedestrian 351 points, or only slightly less than 20 fewer points per game. Pedestrian, yes, but only if held against Tulsa’s recent standard. For a program on the rise, last fall was a disappointing stumble. But make no mistake: this Tulsa offense is not going down without a fight. Prepare for a rebound.
Conference USA, West
14 (9 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 6
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
at Oklahoma St.
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 30
at Notre Dame
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
How good can T.U. be? I don’t expect much of a decline on offense, though matching last year’s numbers with a new quarterback may be tough. Over all, it’s the schedule that will keep the Golden Hurricane from reaching 10 wins. I have the team losing two of three against Houston, East Carolina and Southern Mississippi, and finishing 8-4, 6-2 in conference. Second behind Houston, breaking Tulsa’s two-year hold on the West division.
In a nutshell After two of the most successful seasons in program history in Todd Graham’s first two years, Tulsa suffered its first losing season since 2004. As noted earlier, and as I’ll touch in a moment below, the decline of the offense was puzzling. Perhaps not unexpected, however; just not quite to the degree which we saw a season ago. In Tulsa’s defense, the Golden Hurricane faced the specter of several lost performers on the offensive side of the ball: as many as six true and redshirt freshmen were forced to take on larger than expected roles, though this experience will pay dividends in 2010 and beyond. Through Tulsa’s first four victories, in fact, it seemed little had changed. The Golden Hurricane averaged 41 points per game in their first four wins, though that average is aided by a 56-point outburst over Sam Houston State. The season unraveled from there, both on offense and on defense: six straight losses, five by 14 points or less, leaving Tulsa home for bowl season for the first time under Graham.
High point The 4-1 start featured victories over Tulane, New Mexico, Sam Houston State and Rice. In other words, looks can be deceiving. Tulsa’s fifth victory, a three-point win over Memphis in the season finale, cemented the Golden Hurricane’s place as one of the least-impressive five-win team in all the land.
Low point Six straight losses from Oct. 3 – Nov. 21. It seemed to me that Tulsa had circled in red ink an Oct. 3 home date with Boise State, a game that pitted two of the most successful non-B.C.S. conference programs of the last half-decade. The season rapidly unraveled following the seven-point loss to the Broncos. Tulsa allowed at least 44 points against each of its next three opponents (Houston, East Carolina and Southern Mississippi).
Tidbit After leading the nation in total offense from 2007-8 – scoring 661 points in 2008, the second-most in F.B.S. history – Tulsa took a significant step back in 2009. As was the case with conference brethren Rice, part of this slide is absolutely due to the loss of multiple-year contributors at the skill positions. Not that Tulsa’s 35th-ranked offense (410.1 yards per game) was technically poor, but Tulsa did slip to 44th in scoring (29.3 points per game), 32nd in passing (259.3 yards), 58th in rushing (150.8 yards), 25th in passing efficiency and, most worryingly, 87th in red zone offense. Again, far from terrible. But significantly worse.
Tidbit (winning edition) Last fall’s 5-7 finish broke Tulsa’s string of four consecutive seasons. It was the program’s longest streak of winning seasons since going nine straight years without a losing campaign from 1978-86.
Former players in the N.F.L.
6 LB Chris Chamberlain (St. Louis), CB John Destin (Buffalo), CB Nick Graham (Indianapolis), WR Brennan Marion (Miami), TE Garrett Mills (Minnesota), OT Kevin Shaffer (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Athletes from Tulsa, Okla.
1. Steve Largent. Wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.
2. Marques Haynes. Guard for the Harlem Globetrotters.
3. John Starks. Guard for the New York Knicks.
4. Wayman Tisdale. Forward for the Sacramento Kings.
5. Kenny Monday. Silver medal-winning Olympic wrestler.
Todd Graham (East Central University ‘87), 26-14 after three seasons with the Golden Hurricane. Though Tulsa took a step back last season, Graham’s back-to-back double digit win seasons from 2007-8 were a program first. Over those two years, Tulsa won a pair of Conference USA West division titles, though the Golden Hurricane lost in the conference title game in each season. A 10-win 2007 campaign marked a triumphant return to Tulsa for Graham, who served as Steve Kragthorpe’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator from 2003-5. The Golden Hurricane defense made a distinct improvement in each of Graham’s seasons, improving from 109th nationally in total defense in 2002 to 60th in 2003 and 40th in his final season. The pass defense ranked among the top 25 each campaign, perhaps a result of Graham’s experience as a two-time all-N.A.I.A. defensive back at East Central University in the mid-1980s. It was after the 2005 season that Graham received his first collegiate head coaching opportunity, taking on a struggling Rice program coming off a 1-10 finish in 2005. Graham led the Owls to a 7-6 record and a bowl appearance (their first in 45 years) in his lone season, and was the logical choice for the Tulsa job when it became open after the 2006 season. Before arriving in Tulsa in 2003, Graham coached under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia from 2001-2, first as linebackers coach, before taking on the co-defensive coordinator job his second season. He was a vital part of a 9-4 2002 season, the first of Rodriguez’s five straight seasons of tremendous play with the Mountaineers. Given the fact that Graham, minus 2006, has played a major role in each of Tulsa’s successful seasons, he may deserve much of the credit for Tulsa’s revival. Despite last season’s slip-up, if Graham brings Tulsa back into the eight-win range this fall, he should remain a target of a B.C.S. conference program in the near future.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Tulsa hired Texas high school coach Chad Morris as its co-offensive coordinator, duties he’ll share with holdover Herb Hand. Morris resembles Gus Malzahn, the two-year coordinator who moved to Auburn prior to the 2009 season, in that he has been wildly successful on the high school coaching ranks with a spread, no-huddle offense. Morris will supervise the Tulsa pass offense while calling most plays, while Hand will remain in charge of the running game.
Players to watch
Junior quarterback G.J. Kinne is a solid fit for this offense. The former Texas transfer beat out recently-transferred Jacob Bower for the starting job last fall, and while he had his bouts with ineffectiveness, he played relatively well, by and large. Or as well as a first-year quarterback could play, when given the consistent ineptitude displayed from a woeful offensive line. While the pounding he took — 46 sacks altogether — affected his final rushing numbers, Kinne was the best rusher on the team last year: a team-best 399 yards rushing, in fact, though his net total, the amount not counting lost yardage, was closer to the 700-yard mark. Kinne also threw for 2,732 yards and 22 scores, though he struggled down the stretch, throwing eight of his 10 interceptions in Tulsa’s 1-4 finish to the season. He’s the program’s future at the position; expect a big year from Kinne in 2010.
The Tulsa receiver corps might be the best grouping outside the B.C.S. conferences. Its led by junior Damaris Johnson, who might be the most dynamic player in the country — regardless of conference affiliation. How do you want to score? Running? Check. Johnson rushed for 178 yards last fall, 502 yards over his first two seasons. Receiving? You know it. He made 78 grabs for 1,131 yards — both team-highs — and three scores as a sophomore. In the return game? Better believe it. He’s deadly on both kickoffs and punts, averaging 24.6 and 14.2 yards per return, respectively. I’d suggest that opposing defenses keep the ball out of Johnson’s hands; unfortunately, that’s impossible. There’s no more dangerous skill player in Conference USA.
Trae Johnson has been slightly disappointing over the last two seasons, failing to recapture the freshman form that saw him post a team-leading 13 touchdown grabs. Not that Johnson has not remained an integral part of the passing game: he was responsible for eight scores last fall, though that came on only 22 receptions for 311 yards. Rounding out the starting group is senior A.J. Whitmore (26 catches for 238 yards), but keep an eye on transfers Ricky Johnson and Jameel Owens. Jackson, formerly from Arkansas, got his feet wet a season ago; Owens, an Oklahoma transfer eligible for immediate action after receiving an N.C.A.A. hardship waiver, will lend depth.
In a perfect world, Tulsa would augment its high-octane passing attack with a 1,000-yard rusher. It did so in both 2007 and 2008, with Torrian Adams rushing for at least 1,225 yards in each season. The running game took a significant dip last fall, mainly due to, yet again, the poor performance of the offensive line. Kinne will again do much of the work on the ground, as he did a year ago; however, look for senior Jamad Williams to play a larger role in the running game. He finished second on the team in rushing in 2009, albeit with only 389 yards. Of course, while he does not play a primary role on the ground, senior — I’ll go with fullback — Charles Clay is a premier pass-catching offense out of the backfield. He made 39 grabs for 530 yards in addition to 236 yards on the ground, accounting for 13 scores overall. Clay is a matchup nightmare, due to his size, speed and ability to line up in a multitude of sets.
Tulsa runs a 3-3-5 defense: three down linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs. While such an alignment does not call for prototypical production from the line, Tulsa’s front features three potential difference-makers. Much of the play up front, however, depends on a new arrival: former JUCO transfer Darrell Zellars, a dominating presence on the junior college ranks, will be an immediate starter on the nose. Given that Tulsa emphasizes speed, not size in its back eight, having a stout nose tackle able to maintain his spot over the center is integral to the defense’s success against the run. Zellars will be flanked by a pair of experienced ends: senior Odrick Ray is a prototypical end in this system, stronger against the run than the pass; while sophomore Cory Dorris (54 tackles, 3 sacks) is coming off a strong debut campaign.
Two starters return at linebacker, with senior Tanner Antle poised to take on a leadership role in his final season. He brings the necessary production to do so: 78 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 2.5 sacks a year ago. Antle will again man the weak side, junior Curnelius Arnick on the strong side. That’s two experienced hands on the outside; there will be a new face in the middle, where Mike Bryan earned second-team all-Conference USA honors as a senior. The job will likely fall to freshman Shawn Jackson, whose size — 6’0, 250 pounds — will allow him better stand up against the run than sophomore Alan Dock, his likely reserve. Unfortunately, Jackson has some large shoes to fill.
Senior DeAundre Brown will serve in the spur spot, a hybrid defensive back-linebacker position that typically houses the defense’s top athlete. Brown is certainly that: he led the team in tackles last fall (102, 3 for loss) as a safety, earning first-team all-conference accolades in the process. As his new position suggests, Brown has the speed to play the pass and the size to stick his nose in the mix against the run, making him the most valuable member of this defense. He’ll be joined by sophomore free safety Dexter McCoil, who impressed as a seven-game starter in 2009, and junior bandit — strong safety — John Flanders, making the move to safety from cornerback.
Senior Charles Davis will make the reverse transition: he’ll move down to cornerback from free safety, where he started both the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He missed all but three games last fall due to injury, but received a medical redshirt wavier from the N.C.A.A., granting him a sixth year of service. Senior Laquentin Black should land the second starting cornerback spot, even if it’s due to more to lack of options than Black’s solid play a year ago. The former JUCO prospect has the physical skills; it may just be a matter of gaining experience.
Position battles to watch
Offensive line The offense has all the necessary pieces to excel; at the skill positions, at least. The offense will only be as good as its front five, however, a group that struggled mightily for much of last season. Will this year be any different? There’s reason to think so. Nearly the entire two-deep returns, for starters, including several underclassmen who seemed unprepared for meaningful roles in 2009. One such player is junior right tackle Brandon Thomas, who had a up-and-down — more down than not — debut season in the starting lineup. Another is sophomore center Trent Dupy; like Thomas, Dupy might have been better served earning experience in a reserve role before ascending to a starting role. On the other hand, the left side of the line seems secure. Junior tackle Tyler Young is a relatively sure thing, a potential all-conference performer should he remain healthy, something he was unable to do a season ago. He’s joined on the weak side by junior guard Clint Anderson, who like Young was unable to stay on the field for the entire 2009 campaign. The right guard spot, having lost multiple-year starter Curt Puckett, remains open to debate. Sophomore Brian DeShane, a highly-touted member of Tulsa’s 2009 recruiting class, should get first crack at claiming the starting role, though he lacks the experience of senior Nick Gates, a member of the interior rotation last fall. One thing is clear: given what this offense hopes to achieve, allowing nearly four sacks per game is absolutely inexcusable. Tulsa needs a better performance up front.
Game(s) to watch
You can’t blame Tulsa fans for circling the Oct. 30 date at Notre Dame. Can the Golden Hurricane go into South Bend and upset the Irish, breaking in a new coach? (Not to get ahead of myself, but let’s not doubt Brian Kelly.) Tulsa’s hopeful return to the top of the division goes through S.M.U. and Houston. Winning both, seeing as each comes on the road, may be too much to ask.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Prepare yourself for a rebound, both in the win column and on the scoreboard. This offense is poised to return to the 500-point range, thanks to the experience gained via last season’s lumps and the wide-ranging talents of several returning skill players. And with the return of this offense will come the return of the Golden Hurricane: the schedule has some bumpy spots, but I’d be surprised by anything less than an eight-win campaign from a hungry team coming off a humbling 2009 campaign. Now, about that schedule: it’s not easy, particularly in Conference USA action. 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.
Dream season The offense returns to its 2008 form, leading Tulsa back to 10 wins.
Nightmare season For the second consecutive season, the Golden Hurricane suffer a sub-.500 season: 4-8, 2-6 in conference play. This would make Tulsa nothing short of the biggest disappointment in college football. In other words, probably not going to happen.
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.
Who is No. 49? Our next program’s newly-hired head coach’s father is a doctor. He plays one on T.V., at least.
Tags: Todd Graham, Tulsa
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