Defense wins championships. We've heard it. It's probably true. However, what if winning a national championship isn't meant to be?
"We want to be the most exciting, high octane, most explosive football team in the country," said Associate Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Herb Hand.
The University of Tulsa football players continue the talk of 14-0. Just like last year and every year since pee-wee league, they want to finish the season undefeated.
TU fans are realists. The chances are slim-to-none the team will achieve such a lofty goal. TU fans are not delusional like OU fans. A BCS title each year is not required for total satisfaction.
Show us an exciting brand of football and we'll watch. Display gritty performances on the gridiron and we'll brag about the Blue and Gold. Give us the occasional bowl victory and our affection will be bestowed upon thee.
For years we have tried to figure out how to improve the defense. Is it an issue with poor game planning? Are we outmanned in the trenches? Should we dump the 3-3-5 alignment and go conventional with a 3-4 or 4-3?
This is what we do as fans. We dissect and act like we know more than the next guy.
Hurricane's a Comin'
Let's try something different this season. Golden Hurricane fans should start the season with tempered expectations. The team enters the season with question marks on the offensive line and at the quarterback position.
Instead of hoping the defense holds opponents to 10-points per game, crow when the offense lights the scoreboard with 40.
Allow me to lead with an offensive breakdown of your hometown squad.
Quarterback: This is the first year in several seasons TU enters the season without a firm grasp of who will lead the team. The candidates are short on experience but boast a wide array of talents.
Junior Jacob Bower (6-3, 242) is the prototypical drop-back passer. He has a cannon for a right arm. He looks the part.
Sophomore G.J. Kinne (6-2, 215) excels with the shorter routes. He's elusive in the pocket and can pick up yardage with his legs. He transferred in from the University of Texas last year and sat out. If he's good enough for Mack Brown . . .
Finally we have Freshman Shavodrick Beaver (6-3, 190). The highly recruited "Beav" turned down an offer from Michigan. Yes, he chose TU over Michigan. Not sure if that's a slam against Michigan or a sign of the times for TU.
Then again, staying close to home was a priority for Beaver. He is thrilled his mom and three sisters can drive up from Wichita Falls, Texas for the home games.
Beaver is not letting his four-touchdown spring game get to his head. "That's the spring and this is a new season for me right now. I have to go out there and do better than the spring game."
He also talked about being a team leader. Will juniors and seniors follow a freshman? "It's part of being quarterback. It's like a role. They've got to be able to trust you."
Whether he earns the starting position during the season is up for grabs. However, expect to see him on the field in spot duties. This coaching staff is too smart to keep him off the field. Will spot duty be enough to satisfy his hunger to compete?
"Yeah, anything that helps the team win, I'm a part of it. I'm all about winning. I'll just do whatever is told."
Running backs: Last year Tarrion Adams was a warrior. Literally and figuratively. "He was a phenomenal player: all-time leading rusher in school history," said coach Hand.
The Hurricane returns several talented players looking to fill the void left by Adams. Charles Clay, Jamad Williams, Charles Opeseyitan and Willie Carter are in the mix.
Each brings a different dimension to the backfield. "We have a really good core of backs," said Hand. He hopes to enter the season with a feature back. "The challenge is laid out if front of those four running backs, who are very talented: which one of you guys want to be the featured back?"
Jamad Williams realizes the opportunity at hand. He's worked overtime this summer readying to grab the reigns.
"I've been working on pass protection. I've been working real hard this summer. I've gotten better. With the spread offense, as long as you give the quarterback a little time to operate then it's going to work," said Williams.
"I can take the load if that's what's needed," he said talking about the possibility of being the featured guy.
Charles Clay enters the season as perhaps the most pro-ready guy on the team. As a local expert would say, he passes the eye test of NFL scouts.
Clay (6-3, 230) was listed last year as a fullback. We laughed about it at the time. This year, he's listed as running back, slightly more accurate but still not exactly truthful.
Clay lines up all over the field. He'll carry the ball out of the backfield. You'll see him catch plenty of passes (38 last year). He also played defensive end last year.
"I probably had the most fun getting a sack. It's something I've never done in my life before. My whole life I've played offense, a little quarterback here and there. I was never able to sack the quarterback so that was probably the most fun," he said smiling.
He lists Fred Taylor as his favorite NFL player and the Jacksonville Jaguars as his favorite team. You want to know why an Arkansas boy would root for the Jags? Madden of course.
"I was playing Madden (video game) and for some reason I could beat every team on there but couldn't beat them. I decided to start playing with them," laughed Clay. "I just fell in love with them somehow. I don't know."
He respects Taylor's running ability, but since he bolted for the Patriots, Maurice Jones-Drew edged him out as Clay's favorite. "He's a versatile player."
He told a story of his first game in his freshman year. He was getting ready to take the field at Louisiana-Monroe. He was nervous. Tarrion Adams approached him with a message. "Don't worry about it. It's just football. You've been doing this your whole life."
It's a message he hopes to pass along to newcomers this year.
Wide Receivers: Gone is the explosive Brennan Marion. Returning are standouts such as Slick Shelley (6-4, 200), Jesse Meyer (6-4, 203), Trae Johnson (5-11, 180), A.J. Whitmore (5-9, 172) and Damaris Johnson (5-8, 170).
In other words, the receiver position is stacked. Add into the mix capable young guns Ricky Johnson, Jordan James and Justin Skillens and this appears to be the strength of the team.
Shelley burst on the scene last year with 627 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. He loves the pace of the no huddle, quick-strike offense.
"There is always something--boom boom! They call a play. You switch in. You don't give the defense enough time (to set up). That's when the big plays come."
He is a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals malcontent Chad Ochocinco. It's his desire to win and make plays on the field that appeal to him, not his mouth and sideline antics.
The quarterback competition could have an ill effect on unfocused playmakers. This group of receivers is paying attention.
"We've got three quarterbacks that are great. Every one of them brings something different to the table. You've got one who can throw the deep ball great. You've got one who can throw all the short game. One who's got the legs that can run," said Shelley.
The "Wildcat" offensive took the NFL by storm thanks to the Miami Dolphins. Of course, avid TU fans have seen this horse and pony show before. We knew the damage it could inflict on a defensive unit.
The Wildcat looks great on paper, but you have to field a multifaceted playmaker capable of pulling the trigger. Introducing A.J. Whitmore.
"It's pretty fun being capable to do something an NFL team/player can do," he said. Whitmore is listed as a receiver but can play every position.
"I compare myself to Wes Welker. He's not that big of a guy, not that small of a guy. He's real versatile and he gives the offense a better dimension," said Whitmore. Honestly, a better comparison cannot be made.
Offensive Line: Built like a tank last year. Built from scratch this year.
That is not entirely true but losing three out of five starters from the unit will place the onus on the coaching staff to build a consistent unit.
Tyler Holmes (6-4, 306) and Curt Puckett (6-4, 309) return to solidify the left side of the line.
"We've got to come out of our camp here with a clear cut idea of who's going to be our starting five up front. There may be some question marks there but I've got to develop a cohesiveness in that group," said coach Hand.
The team eschewed the run two years ago while Paul Smith was re-writing the TU record books. Last year the team balanced the run and pass brilliantly. This year coach Hand hopes the offensive line will allow them to achieve the same balance.
One offensive lineman who should have the biggest impact on the unit may never take the field this year. Wilson Holloway battled Hodgkins lymphoma last year. He was awarded the FedEx Orange Bowl/FWAA Courage Award last year.
If you cannot draw from his determination, you may need to Windex your mirror.
Coaching Staff: The University of Tulsa has been to five bowl games in the past six years. They are one of 11 schools to win 10-plus games in each of the last two seasons. They have ranked as the top offense in the nation the past two years.
What does this have to do with the coaching staff? Well, to put it in layman's terms, they are smart.
"I've always been a no huddle-spread guy going back to when I was coaching defense with Rich Rodriguez at Glenville State. He was running the spread/no huddle in the early '90s.
"I had to defend it every day. Learned a lot about it from the defensive side of the ball. That's what Coach (Todd) Graham believes in. That's never going to change. We'd be idiots to change a lot of it because we've had some pretty good success," said coach Hand. One thing is for sure, they are not idiots.
Defense: I know what you are thinking. Why not break down each level of the defense like we did with the offense? The answer is simple: Offense sells.
Besides, if it were up to Senior Associate Head Coach, Defense and Defensive Line Coach Paul Randolph, they would be listed as one unit.
"We ask the guys to do your 1/11th. Once they take care of their business and handle their responsibility first. Then, go make the play," said Coach Randolph.
Moton Hopkins was the unspoken leader on defense last year. His departure leaves some big shoes to fill on the defensive line and the leadership role.
"I think his work ethic, his character and everything about him made him a natural leader. He didn't talk a whole lot. Every now and then he'd say something. He was one of our leaders--no doubt," said Randolph.
Who will the group look toward when the going gets tough?
"Mike Bryan (6-3, 226) always gets votes because he's a hard-working young man and he plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. Naturally you'll have Bryan and Wilson Garrison (6-4, 283), who will be a senior up front. For us, we always like it to be the big guys . . . the defensive linemen or the linebackers to be the leaders," said Randolph.
The defensive line could be a strength. Garrison attacks the trenches with Odrick Ray (6-3, 261) and Un'Tavious Scott (6-3, 245).
Coach Randolph believes in the 3-3-5 philosophy. More importantly, his players are buying into it as well.
"It's been good to us. Our guys know it and understand it. They have a passion about it. We've always done it."
Each team sets goals. The d-unit stresses three main ones. Tackles for losses, three-and-outs and last--but absolutely not least--is takeaways. "Get the ball back for our offense as fast as we possibly can," he said.
Not sure why, but I find it interesting watching a defense take the field on short notice when the offense scores "too" quickly. The D needs rest right? They can't stay on the field for 45-minutes per contest can they?
This unit relishes that its offense can strike at any given moment. The more points the better. Sophomore defensive back DeAundre Brown (5-11, 195) lays it out.
"The more points we have, the more we'll win. It's our job to stop them. Give us another chance to get (the offense) the ball back."
He is not alone. Free safety senior Charles Davis III (5-9, 180) quarterbacks from the secondary. He watches pro football player Champ Bailey with admiration.
"He's a playmaker. That's what I strive to be. Just make plays," he said. Davis was credited with four passes defensed last season along with two interceptions.
The coaching staff inspires the defenders. They run around clapping, yelling and cheering them on during practice. "They are all about toughness and want us to pursue the ball."
Turnover, quick score or three-and-out, they have one focus when they take the field. "It's our responsibility to get the ball back for our offense. We want the ball back in the offense's hands."
Special Teams: If we were using a star ranking system, this unit would be a solid four out of five stars. Five out of five for the return game but three out of five for the coverage units.
A year ago no one knew Damaris Johnson (5-8, 170). The diminutive playmaker is listed as a wide receiver and he excelled at the position last season with 743 yards and 10 TDs.
But his kick return acumen may be even more vital to the team's success. Johnson led Conference USA with 1,382 return yards last year. He is a threat to take every ball he touches to the house.
He was named Phil Steele Magazine Preseason All-America Second Team as a kick returner. He knew he could play but didn't foresee this kind of start to his collegiate career.
"The coaches told me I could come in and play. Everything I did last year amazed me as other people and kinda shocked me," he said.
He realizes the bull's-eye is on his No. 3 jersey this year. No more opponents sleeping on "the little guy." This year he'll have to earn it. "This year is going to be tough. Every time I get (the ball) I think I can run it back. We work on it very hard at practice. My teammates tell me 'D, you gonna run this one back?,' so I'm basically beating one guy because the other 10 people out there are working in front of me and helping block for me," he said.
What separates a good return game from a bonified weapon? "Practice and repetition because the way our kickoff return is setup. We have certain blocks and cuts. It's a reaction."
Schedule: TU's first home game takes place September 26 against Sam Houston St. But first? Three roadies.
The team hits the road Fri., Sept. 4 for a tilt against C-USA foe Tulane. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
The second game takes place in Albuquerque against New Mexico. The third straight road game finds the Golden Hurricane matched up with Oklahoma on September 19. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Network.
First things first. While TU fans may look ahead to OU or the first home game, the coaches and players must trek down to the bayou and battle Tulane in the Louisiana Super Dome.
The Super Dome is slightly larger than H.A. Chapman Stadium. Slightly. Perhaps Damaris Johnson can give the crew some pointers on playing in the Dome. He's been there, done that.
"This is going to be my second time (playing in the Dome). We played the state championship there my senior year. We went undefeated. I did pretty good last time I was there," said Johnson.
Of course, he's from the area. How LSU let him out of state remains a mystery. What isn't a mystery is that he needs a few tickets. "I just got back from home two days ago. Everyone wants tickets so I'm thinking I may need 300," he laughed. Will Don Tomkalski, associate AD/communications, hook him up? "I hope so."
Tulane and New Mexico are winnable games. That brings us to the big red elephant in the room. Can the TU Express derail OU's BCS Championship aspirations?
Can TU put up a fight, score a few points and make a name for itself in a loss?
Will this be my last football column of the season?
Only if the TU Express rolls over my knuckles on their way across Bob Stoops' visor.
Should I end this story Sooner than later?
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