Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery opened his second spring practice March 1 and everyposition is up for grabs.
“I told the team when we got back for the spring semester that we’re starting back at ground zero again,” said Montgomery. “If you had a starting role, you have to go out and earn it again. Young guys are going to have to step up and have a chance to compete and be a starter at the end of it. We’ll have a lot of good competition.”
Tulsa will get in seven practices before March 10 session and then take off for spring break.
Montgomery and the Tulsa coaching staff is excited about seeing the competition this spring.
“Our number one goal is always going to come out healthy,” said Montgomery. “But, we have to build on what we started last year and take steps forward during the spring. This is a new team and new year.”
Tulsa loses a total of 20 lettermen from last year’s six-win team, including five starters on offense and four on defense.
“We’ll move some guys around and make sure they’re in the right spot, and making sure what we do schematically fits our personnel. Spring is the time when you really get a chance to start evaluating,” said Montgomery. “Our guys have made some dramatic increases over winter training. They’ve done a great job in the weight room and getting in great shape, but now we have to see how that translates to the football field. For us getting to go to the bowl game last year was a huge jumpstart for us coming into the spring.”
In the spring, the Tulsa offense will be without three big contributors as receivers Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson and tackle Blake Belcher will be recovering from injuries.
Lucas missed all but four games last year, while Belcher suffered a knee injury in the season opener.
Lucas and Atkinson give the Hurricane offense two 1,000-yard single-season receivers when they return for fall camp. Lucas had 1,219 yards and 11 TDs in 2014 and was off to another solid season with 409 yards and five touchdowns before the injury last year, while Atkinson caught 76 passes for 1,071 yards in 2015.
“Offensively, our goal is to do a good job of evaluating our personnel, and make sure our young guys get a lot of reps to help them grow and develop,” said Montgomery. “We have to find the combination of five guys up front on the offensive line. For us, it’s always about finding the best five guys, not the best tackle or the best guard, but the best five guys and then making sure we put them in a position to be successful, which helps us be successful as a team.”
Without Belcher and redshirt freshman Blake Browning participating in spring drills, the offensive line will have 10 players competing this spring, six of whom lettered last year. Returning starters on the offensive front include center Chandler Miller and tackles Evan Plagg and Willie Wright.
Garrett Stafford completed his eligibility last year at left guard, while right guard Chris Wallace will graduate this May and forego his fifth year of eligibility.
“We’re going to move some guys around, give them some different opportunities, not only up front but at the receiver spot as well,” said Montgomery.
Tulsa returns two-year starter Dane Evans at the quarterback position. Evans completed 63-percent of his passes for 4,322 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2015 to rank first in the American Athletic Conference for passing yards per game (33.2) and total offense (332.5).
“Dane has to continue to grow and develop. Year two of this offense will be a big jump for him just from the standpoint of reading defenses better and understanding better what we’re doing offensively,” said Montgomery. “We’ll put more on his plate and allow him a little more freedom.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Tulsa will have to replace Derrick Alexander and Derrick Luetjen up front and the school’s second all-time leading tackler Michael Mudoh in the secondary.
“We have to see how we’re going to replace two guys upfront who made a ton of plays for us – Derrick Alexander and Derrick Luetjen,” said Montgomery. “We need to see if we have to adjust some things schematically up front to fit what we have.”
Tulsa returns two starters in juniors Jeremy Smith at end and Jesse Brubaker at tackle. Brubaker will miss the spring season with an injury. Tulsa also returns six players that lettered last year on the defensive front –– ends Frankie Davis, Jake Hanks, Myles Mouton and Kolton Shindelar and tackles Hayden Carman and Jerry Uwaezuoke.
“I have big plans for Kolton. He’s a guy who has really come on and can be a dominant player, and Jeremy (Smith) has to continue to develop. He’s a guy that we may be able move around a little more,” said Montgomery.
At linebacker, Tulsa returns all three starters in 2016, but starting “mike” linebacker Trent Martin will be sidelined for a good portion of spring practice. “We’ll need to develop some of our young linebackers,” said Montgomery.
Martin had 104 tackles last year, while fellow linebackers Matt Linscott and Craig Suits also return for the Hurricane. Linscott was second on the team with 107 tackles, led the Hurricane and was fourth in the American Athletic Conference with 16 TFLs, while Suits had 47 tackles and 5.5 TFLs after missing the first two games a year ago.
“In the secondary, we’ll have to replace Mudoh, who has been a three-year starter,” said Montgomery. “We have some young guys that redshirted last year who have had phenomenal winter camps.
“Like last year when we moved Linscott from safety to STAR linebacker, there could be some position moves in trying to maximize what that athlete does best, but also maximizing the amount of speed we have on the field. We can’t give up the big plays like we’ve been giving up. Getting more athletic and faster in the back seven is one of the things we’re really focusing on this spring.
“I’ve challenged (Co-coordinators) Bill (Young) and Brian (Norwood) as we look at it schematically what we’re doing defensively. We were meshing two things together last year, and now in year two being able to really solidify what will fit our defensive personnel the best will be important.”
Tulsa Pro Day is scheduled for Thursday, March 10, beginning in the morning.
Tulsa will practice on March 22, 23, 25, 26, 29, 30, April 1 and the spring game will be April 2.