John Klein: No fear of any downturn in TU football this fall
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Sunday, April 08, 2012
4/08/12 at 6:42 AM
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The difference between Tulsa at the end of spring practice a year ago and the Armed Forces Bowl was night and day.
If not for the name on the side of the helmet, TU was nearly unrecognizable from the spring game to the bowl.
That isn't likely to be the case this year.
Tulsa ended spring football practice on Saturday with pretty much the same look it had at the end of last season. It even had a 37-minute rain delay, a throwback to last fall's rain-delayed after-midnight game with Oklahoma State.
However, at the start of this spring, gone was quarterback G.J. Kinne, which led to a spirited and still undecided quarterback derby.
Kalen Henderson and Cody Green emerged as the leading quarterback candidates and coach Bill Blankenship is expected to name a starter on Monday.
"I thought Kalen was better at the last scrimmage, but Cody was better (Saturday)," Blankenship said.
Green, the transfer from Nebraska, was especially sharp in the final day of the spring camp.
Green hit 8-of-9 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
"I have great confidence in our quarterback situation right now," Blankenship said.
However, the basic look of Tulsa on offense and defense is similar to what Tulsa looked like at the end of the 8-5 season last year.
And, Blankenship, entering his second season as head coach, hopes one thing doesn't change.
The Golden Hurricane has been one of the winningest football programs in the country over the last five years with 44 victories (20th nationally).
"I am very tickled with what we did in the spring," Blankenship said.
There's no reason to forecast a downturn in Tulsa's football fortunes.
As long as Tulsa gets adequate quarterback play, and Blankenship believes it will, then the Golden Hurricane should win games and be a threat once again to win Conference USA.
"I think we are light-years ahead of where we were last year," Blankenship said.
Tulsa won eight games a year ago, despite a brutal schedule that included three top 10 teams (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State) and difficult finish (Houston and BYU).
If TU improves as much as it did during last season, leading up to this season, then the Golden Hurricane could be in for something special.
The schedule is a bit easier than a year ago. It does include challenging road games, including the season opener at Iowa State, but gives Tulsa an opportunity for a great start.
Unlike a year ago, when three of the first four games were against top 10 teams, this year's schedule has very winnable games in seven of the first eight games.
If Tulsa comes out of the gate quick, it could have a chance to win all eight.
If so, it could set up an interesting finish to the season. The last four games are all difficult and three are on the road. It includes at Arkansas, Houston and SMU with a home game against UCF. None of those will be easy.
However, given where Tulsa should be by November, the Golden Hurricane should have a chance for a big season.
The optimism comes from the transformation Tulsa made during last season, from a wide-open offense and shaky defense, to ball-control offense and dominating defense.
TU spent the first month of the season looking for playmakers after losing Damaris Johnson just before the Oklahoma game.
As the season progressed, the offense shifted more to Kinne, who was equally effective running as he was passing.
In addition, the improvement on the offensive line helped stabilize the offense by giving Tulsa a legitimate threat in the running game. TU has three running backs returning (with a combined rushing yardage of 2,043).
"We have known commodities in the running game," Blankenship said.
In the key game of last season, the difference between bowl game or no bowl game was Tulsa's ability to run the ball against UCF.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Brent Guy elevated TU's defense to a higher level.
"Our defense has been dominant all spring," said Blankenship.
Getting that type of defensive improvement was even more miraculous considering the quarterbacks TU faced last year - OSU's Brandon Weeden, OU's Landry Jones, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Houston's Case Keenum.
That improvement has apparently carried over into the spring. TU believes it is better equipped up front defensively, to rush the passer and stop the run, than it has been in years.
"I think upfront on defense we have some dominating guys," Blankenship said.
If so, Tulsa's offense, with more ability to control the ball, could be able to control games.
Tulsa has high hopes for next fall. It should.
Unless the Hurricane struggle at quarterback, which is not expected, then all of the other ingredients would appear available.
Original Print Headline: No fear of TU football downturn this fall
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TU Gold quarterback Gabe Davis (13) passes past TU Blue linebacker DeWitt Jennings (27) during Tulsa's annual Spring Game, at Chapman Stadium, on Saturday. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World