A quick question for all you pigskin powerhouses out there: Has a Football Bowl Subdivision team ever accrued a 14-0 record in a single season? That's right, a single season. Sooner fans can put their hands down since 47-0 does not apply to this criterion.
Crimson happens to be the wrong shade of red. Scarlet, as in the Ohio State Buckeyes, is the correct answer. How on earth does the 2002 Buckeye championship season factor into the University of Tulsa's official football preview? Glad you asked.
Several Golden Hurricane team leaders mentioned 14-0 as their goal this campaign. Tulsa's student athletes are smarter than your average collegiate football players. They managed to factor in the Conference USA and BCS bowl victories-to-be along with their perfect 12-0 regular season. 14-0.
Don't chuckle. Don't giggle. Don't laugh them off the field. Stroll into any locker room across the nation and ask the same question. You should expect the same answer every time. Gung ho players never expect to lose. If they did, would you want them playing for your team?
For the record, I managed to interview several players and coaches without using the crutch topic "What about that Paul Smith guy? He was pretty good, huh?"
However, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the legacy Smith left at TU. More importantly for this team, the shadow he cast over Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium. (Note: Sports information director Donald Tomkalski assured UTW that the stadium will be ready for the home opener.)
We witnessed the Tulsa Talons late season collapse when their quarterback went down. The difference with TU is that the plans have been underway to replace Smith since he exited the campus a season ago.
As the team searches for a new leader, it may be too much to ask for one player to fill the vacated role. Tarrion "Elmers" Adams (6'1", 205 lbs.) is doing his part for the offense.
"Elmers" is his nickname starting now. He is the glue holding this offensive in tact. A year ago, when the Hurricane needed consistency, he was the man. Need to physically pound the rock up the middle? He was the man. Need a bailout for the quarterback? Look for Adams in the flats.
On a team full of playmakers a year ago, he stood out, but he is also humble.
"Everybody holds everybody accountable on this team. There are ups and downs on every team, but there are 11 guys there to pick you up," he said, deflecting the accolades.
Rushing and receiving came easy in his transition to the spread, no-huddle offense. Pass blocking was a new facet he added to his game in a hurry.
"It's something I definitely needed to improve on and I think I did so last year," said Adams.
Sixth-year senior Courtney Tennial (5'10", 238 lbs.) provides excellent depth for the rushing attack. An Achilles injury knocked him out early last season, but his health appears to be back on track for a stellar end to his collegiate career.
Don't forget about sophomore Jamad Williams (5'9", 205 lbs.). He flashed signs of brilliance last year, including a 153-yard game against Tulane.
We often talk about the skilled position players and rightfully so; however, their productivity would suffer if not for the road graders up front.
The Unheralded Offense
Leading the way this year are four returning starters. Right tackle Roderick Thomas (6'5", 355 lbs.) started every snap in 2007. That's 1,126 offensive plays, and he was on the field for every one. Amazing.
Right guard Justin Morsey (6'2", 296 lbs.) is the leader of this unit. Center Jody Whaley (6'4", 311 lbs.) provides stability to the new set of hands under his rear. Coweta native Curt Puckett (6'4", 308 lbs.) handles left guard duties.
So, what are we missing? Oh yes, the most important (center) position on the offensive line. The quarterback's blind-side protector, left tackle.
"There are about four guys in competition for that position. We've got to replace the position but we've got some guys--Tyler Holmes, Travis Wike, Wilson Holloway and Brandon Thomas. Those are the guys that will compete for the job. A couple of the guys are in the mix at other positions. Primarily our focus is to find who's going to be our left tackle," said co-offensive coordinator Herb Hand.
Let's cutback to the chase. Assistant head coach Gus Malzahn is to college ball what Mike Martz is to the NFL: The mad scientist.
Martz and Malzahn were considered geniuses when Kurt Warner and Paul Smith led their attack. Martz fell a few rungs from the ladder when given Jon Kitna as his quarterback. Who will orchestrate Malzahn's game plan in the absence of that "Smith" guy?
When Head Coach Todd Graham says there are "lots of great players to replace" you-know-who. It's also eye-opening to hear the staff mention using two, if not three, quarterbacks this season.
David Johnson (6'3", 220 lbs.) is leading the quarterback competition. The senior learned under the stewardship of one of TU's all-time greats. He looks to continue to build Tulsa into a viable threat on the national level.
For their part, the record-breaking trio of receivers is ready to catch passes from any and all quarterbacks.
"I've got faith in whichever one it is. Both of them could learn a lot from Paul, watch film of what he did last year. Paul is a big time player. Dave, sitting behind him for three years, learned a lot of things from Paul. They stayed together a lot of times. I think Dave and Jacob Bower are both good quarterbacks," said "fullback" Charles Clay.
Clay (6'3", 225 lbs.) is listed at fullback. Not many fullbacks pull in 69 catches for 1,024 yards. He is a physical specimen, too big for cornerbacks and too fast for linebackers. Good luck slowing down this truck.
Fellow thousand-yard receiver Brennan Marion (6'1", 185 lbs.) is not concerned with the question mark at QB.
"We're confident in whoever steps up to be the quarterback. It's not really a big deal to us," said the big play treat.
Marion averaged a staggering 31.9 yards per catch to set a new NCAA record.
"The thousand-yard receivers last year were new to the team. This year, we have a lot of chemistry, more of a family-oriented team. It should be more exciting," Marion said.
True freshman last year, Trae Johnson (5'11", 180 lbs.) exploded on the scene in the same manner. Johnson thinks the only thing lacking from the quarterback position this year is game experience. Piling up 70 receptions, 1,088 yards and 13 touchdowns placed Johnson third among freshman receivers in the nation a year ago.
Whether David Johnson or newcomer Jacob Bower (6'3", 233 lbs.) takes the field, no one will question the weapons at his disposal.
The wide receivers figure to be one of the strengths on the offensive side of the ball. The internal team competition raises the level of each of their games.
"We're real competitive because we're always fighting for a spot. Everybody on the receiving corps is topnotch. One slip up at practice and you'll be sitting on the bench," said sophomore Johnson.
Collectively, they failed to grasp the enormity of their accomplishments a season ago. Once the final horn sounded at the GMAC bowl they were able to take it all in.
"I didn't realize it until the end of the year when everybody was telling us we were the number one offense in the nation," Johnson said.
Marion added, "Every thing was kind of on the fly last year. Just living it up. Whatever happened, happened."
Just don't dwell on past accomplishment too long. "There's always room for improvement. Last year is last year. That's done with," said Clay.
Run blocking is a priority this season for the deadly trio.
It will be a daunting task for this year's offense to duplicate last year's performance. One thing is sure--the pieces are in place and offensive gurus Malzahn and Hand are striving for perfection.
Something to Talk About
It's hard to talk about defense at TU. That's not to say the defense is terrible, but the offense scores points-o-plenty. They look aesthetically pleasing. They garner our focus and attention.
Comparatively, the defense hasn't been great. It's a little surprising when you consider head coach Todd Graham's specialty is the defensive side of the ball.
"We've got a lot of talent," said Graham of this year's defensive squad.
His goals are in line with the team goals: Win C-USA and earn a BCS Bowl berth on the merits of an undefeated season.
But first, they may want to slow down the opposition. The top three defensive teams in the nation a year ago were Ohio State, USC and LSU. Two of them played for the national championship.
The Golden Hurricane ranked in the bottom 12 defenses in the nation a year ago. Part of the issue is the offense Tulsa runs. The no-huddle philosophy, when working, is a thing of beauty. When it isn't, the defense rushes back to the field with little rest time.
One bright spot on the much maligned unit is Roy Roberts (5'11", 205 lbs.). The hard-hitting, Bob Sanders-like defensive back patrols the field looking for the knock-out strike.
An interception or a fumble? It makes no difference.
"I'd say as long as the team gets the ball back, it really doesn't matter to me," the tank-like Roberts said.
The goal this year is to eliminate the vertical scores. Quick strikes by the offense light up the scoreboard and deflate the defense.
"We talk about that every day in practice. We dwell on that a lot. Make sure we don't give up cheap touchdowns," said Roberts.
Roberts, along with defensive end Moton Hopkins (6'3", 270 lbs.), look to lead the defense back to respectability, and there is plenty of room for improvement.
Defense lacked and special teams were putrid. Not a sure-fire winning combo. The special teams look to capture thunder in a bucket this year under the stewardship of a familiar face to Tulsa football, Bill Blankenship.
The former union coach entered last season with minimal college experience yet led a productive bunch of receivers to new heights. With a year under his belt, expect to see similar strides in the special teams.
"I'm really excited about having something that I can put my fingerprints on. I think we can get this thing better and win some games," said Blankenship of this year's special teams unit.
Kicker Jarod Tracy (6'0", 165 lbs.) secured the field goal kicking position in his sophomore season with accuracy. Last year, his production slipped.
Asked to handle kickoffs, his FG percentage tumbled from .917 to .58, which is porous. A big leg has never been his strength. Poor depth on kickoffs led to bad field position for the defense. This year, he'll concentrate on field goals.
"We certainly expect him to get back up to being one of the best in the conference if not the country. I think we're going to get Jarod Tracy back to being the kind of kicker he was as a youngster," said Blankenship.
The staff brought in Kevin Fitzpatrick (6'2", 175 lbs.) from the state of Florida to handle long field goals and kickoffs. Fitzpatrick has the requisite leg strength required to reach the goal line on kickoffs.
"We're hoping that once we start putting people in the bleachers, and people are screaming and hollering at you, and making ugly remarks to you; that you can still kick it through," explained Blankenship.
Michael Such (6'2", 205 lbs.) will handle the punting duties again this year. Hopefully, he will see lots of time on the bench. Punters are like referees--the less you hear about them the better off the game is likely to be. The new special teams' guru now finds himself plucking offensive and defensive players to form a single unit.
"It's a third of the game. Nearly every time one of those plays is going on, there's a big chunk of yardage involved. You're either gaining ground or losing ground. I've been a head coach and let other people do it. Once it becomes you're baby you start understanding and researching. It's a big deal," Blankenship said.
Everyone talks special teams, but few follow through with the preparation and planning to take advantage of that facet of the game. Time will tell if the area will be a weakness or if the coaching staff can turn it into a strong point.
Speaking of the staff assembled at the University of Tulsa, it's a real boon to the program. Can't stress enough the quality of people involved with the football team. Excellent coaches, outstanding strategist and great people. The unity of the staff shows on game day.
Steve Spurrier was once labeled the ol' ball coach. He was unbeatable during his tenure at Florida. Give him superior athletes and he looks like a genius. Give him the Washington Redskin or South Carolina Gamecocks and he looks pedestrian.
That's the great thing about Coach Graham and the staff he assembled--TU will never have the biggest, fastest or most athletic group in the nation. They will, however, always be competitive. If the team falters, it will not be because discipline, hustle or coaches' egos clouding the best interest of the team.
"The one thing in our industry that really challenges people are egos. People worrying about who's getting credit. On our staff, we kind of check our egos at the door. We work for what's best for our football team. That, to me, has been key to our staff chemistry," said Coach Hand.
That's not to say the coaches don't have egos. We would be lemmings if we thought they did not.
Tulsa's schedule lends itself to a strong season and a fast start. A road opener against C-USA foe UAB gets things underway on Sat., Aug. 30. There's no warm-up game.
Tulsa then plays three non-conference contests including the Sept. 20 home opener against New Mexico. This, of course, will be the first game in the redesigned, reconfigured and hopefully reenergized H.A. Chapman Stadium.
Interestingly enough, TU travels across the border to play the Hogs from Arkansas. The Nov. 1 date opens eyes. The normal thought process is to cringe at such a tough opponent during the midst of your conference run.
However, this is the optimal time for TU to catch the Razorbacks looking past them. Arkansas will be coming off an Ole Miss game and possibly looking ahead to a road game at South Carolina. Upset city, baby.
Coach Graham should pat himself on the back for all the 14-0 talk. Whether he or his players consider 14-0 a viable goal is irrelevant. By making bold predictions, you bring light to the program.
If TU gets off to a hot start, the nation will take notice. The whispers about a possible 14-0 season can only help the stature of the program. And for that, we say kudos to the Golden Hurricane.
Eat It Up
By Dwayne Davis
In my quest to bring you alternative sports information, I asked several coaches and players to dish up the goods with their favorite meals, listed below. Notice the coaches are in sync on the dinner menu as well as the gridiron.
By the way, don't be shocked to notice a peculiar lack of vegetables, fruit and tofu on the diet.
Head Coach Todd Graham: Steak and Alaskan king crab legs
Co-Offensive Coordinator Herb Hand: Well-done steak
Co-Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn: Medium-rare steak
Special Teams Coordinator Bill Blankenship: Steak
#1 Trae Johnson, WR: Fried chicken and Velveeta macaroni and cheese
#4 Brennan Marion, WR: Homemade mac and cheese
#9 Charles Clay, FB: Nachos
#10 Roy Roberts, DB: Chicken sandwich
#25 Tarrion Adams, RB: Chicken and mac and cheese
#4 DeAundre Brown, DB: BBQ ribs
#58 Jon Bell, DE: Crawfish etouffee
#71 Wilson Holloway, OT: Popcorn shrimp
#76 Curt Puckett, OG: Chicken fried steak
#78 Tyler Holmes, OT: Steak and mashed potatoes
#98 Skyler Taylor, NG: Ham and cheese omelet
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