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July 3, 2011
OVERVIEW: The Golden Hurricane have had one of the nation's best offenses the past few seasons, running a version of the spread that puts equal emphasis on the pass and run. Coach Todd Graham left for Pittsburgh, and new coach Bill Blankenship was promoted from running backs coach. Blankenship, who will call the plays this fall, says he won't change a thing with the offense. Tulsa was fifth nationally in total offense (505.6 ypg) and sixth in scoring offense (41.4 ppg). The Golden Hurricane scored at least 41 points seven times and more than 50 four times, including a 62-35 demolition of Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
BACKFIELD: QB G.J. Kinne is one of the best dual threats in the nation and is the reigning C-USA offensive player of the year. Kinne, who began his career at Texas, made big strides as a junior last season, his second as the starter. He threw for 3,651 yards and 31 TDs, along with 10 picks, and also ran for a team-high 561 yards and seven scores. Tulsa finished the season on a seven-game winning streak, and Kinne threw 18 TDs and four picks in that span. Tulsa needs more production from its tailbacks this season. Trey Watts, who was the third-stringer last season and ran for 197 yards, ascends to the top spot this season, but you can expect a committee approach. Watts is an excellent receiver, and he can do a lot of damage in that role.
RECEIVERS: Senior Damaris Johnson is the guy to watch. He has 7,796 all-purpose yards, which already is an NCAA career mark. He caught 57 passes for 872 yards and four TDs last season, and he has 188 career receptions for 2,746 yards and 17 scores. He also was Tulsa's second-leading rusher last season, when he had 560 yards and seven TDs on 55 carries. Tulsa will miss H-back Charles Clay, who had great hands and was a big weapon in the red zone. His replacement is Willie Carter, who had five TD receptions among his 19 catches last season. Carter could become the No. 2 receiver, and there are other candidates, too. Keep an eye on sophomore Jordan James, who goes into fall camp as a starter ahead of incumbent Ricky Johnson. Thomas Roberson played well down the stretch and had a TD catch in the Hawaii Bowl rout; his twin, James Roberson, is a backup safety. Freshmen could get into the mix, as well, as there was a nice haul at the position in February.
LINE: This should be the best line in Conference USA. All five starters return, and Joe King - who redshirted last season after transferring from Texas Tech - beat out incumbent Brian DeShane at right tackle during spring practice. But that job still should be up for grabs during fall drills. T Matt Romine has transferred in from Notre Dame, where he started three games last season, and is immediately eligible. Romine is a Tulsa native who graduated from Notre Dame and has one season of eligibility remaining. Senior LT Tyler Holmes and senior G Clint Anderson are all-conference candidates. Depth is good, as Tulsa has experienced reserves at guard, center and especially tackle.
OVERVIEW: It's too bad Tulsa's offense can't go against its defense, as it would put up huge numbers. This has not been a good defense of late; the Golden Hurricane play in C-USA, which has a lot of awful defenses, and unfortunately this defense fits that mold. Tulsa was 111th in total defense and 120th - last - in pass defense last season. The new coordinator is Brent Guy, who is a former Utah State coach and a longtime college assistant. He has installed a base 4-3 scheme and junked the 3-3-5 set that Tulsa had been running.
LINE: Starting Ts Derrick Jackson and Darrell Zellars combined for 27 tackles as reserves last season, and they need to prove their worth against the run this season. Depth is iffy at the position, and a few true freshmen almost certainly will see time. Es Cory Dorris and Tyrunn Walker (5.5 sacks last season) are returning starters, but their roles will change because of the new scheme. They should have more opportunities for big plays this fall.
LINEBACKERS: Curnelius Arnick and Shawn Jackson were Tulsa's leading tacklers last season, combining for 204 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Jackson was a revelation as a true freshman; he grayshirted in 2009, then made a huge impact last fall with 8.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Arnick had 116 tackles and four interceptions. Each returned a pick for a touchdown. They will be joined in the starting lineup by DeAundre Brown, who was a safety in the old scheme. Brown missed last season for academic reasons, but he made 102 tackles as a sophomore in 2009. This, then, should be an extremely productive position group for Guy, who doubles as the linebacker coach.
SECONDARY: Seven opponents threw for at least 334 yards on Tulsa last season. To be fair, one reason for that is that opponents fell behind and threw a lot in an attempt to catch up. And the Golden Hurricane led the nation with 24 interceptions. But they also allowed 33 TD passes and let opposing quarterbacks complete 60.4 percent of their passes. Cornerback is a huge question. Of the 24 interceptions, just four came from cornerbacks. JC transfer CB J.D. Ratliff enrolled early but didn't flash during spring drills; he needs to make an impact this fall. Dexter McCoil and Marco Nelson are returning starters at safety, and each had six picks last season; they combined for 142 tackles, too.
K Kevin Fitzpatrick was 16-of-24 last season. But he was just 3-of-9 from at least 40 yards out and had four attempts blocked. He has a strong leg, but he's obviously erratic. Tulsa will miss P Michael Such; he will be replaced by Cole Way, a 6-foot-8 true freshman who grayshirted last season. Way's brother is Oklahoma P Tress Way. Johnson is one of the best return men in the nation. He averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns, with one TD; he also averaged 12.7 yards on punt returns, with one score. The punt coverage was excellent last season, as Tulsa surrendered just 29 total yards on 19 returns. The kickoff coverage was inconsistent; the Golden Hurricane allowed just 19.1 yards per return, but they also gave up two touchdowns.
A team coming off a 10-win season with 16 returning starters doesn't need that much immediate help. But King and Romine could force their way into the starting lineup at offensive right tackle. King is a junior transfer from Texas Tech, while Romine is a senior transfer from Notre Dame. Tulsa needs Ratliff to make an impact, but King had a better spring and heads into fall drills as a starter while Ratliff is a reserve.
Tulsa easily could be better this season than it was in 2010. But the schedule is brutal and the won-loss record might not reflect any improvement. Tulsa plays three teams that will be in most preseason top 10s - and each of those games is in September. It's the month from hell. Tulsa opens at Oklahoma, plays host to Oklahoma State in Week 3, then plays at Boise State in Week 4. Later, there are home games against Houston and SMU - Tulsa's main competition in the West Division of C-USA - and a road game at defending league champion UCF. The other six games are easy, but ... .
Assuming Tulsa is as smooth offensively under the new coaching staff as it was under Graham, the Golden Hurricane will vie for the C-USA title. But there needs to be some defensive improvement, especially against the pass, and Tulsa has to survive a treacherous September schedule. The Golden Hurricane have won 10 games in three of the past four seasons, but the schedule would seem to preclude reaching that plateau this season. Still, expect at least eight wins.
For more on Tulsa now and throughout the season, check out InsideTulsaSports.com
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.