With all this conference realignment going on, it's been difficult to keep up with what teams belong in your conference, let alone their players. But fear not, because Underdog Dynasty is here to guide you through the process of accepting new league foes.
Tulsa came back to earth with a bump last season. One of the top teams in Conference USA since they joined in 2003, the Golden Hurricane were one of the conference favorites at the beginning of the year. However, the normally potent offense fell flat on its face (with the exception of running back Trey Watts), and the solid defense couldn't hold the floodgates closed on their own.
For more information, read Bill Connelly's in-depth team preview, but for now, here are five players you really need to know going into the season.
WR Keevan Lucas
The Tulsa passing attack was a major disappointment last season, with the failure of senior quarterback Cody Green to fulfill his potential, and his injury replacement, freshman Dane Evans, played like, well, a freshman. Even so, Lucas managed to make an impact, starting five games and catching 32 passes for 442 yards and a score. That was good enough for third in receptions and second in yards.
The Texas product was Tulsa's sole early enrollee, participating in spring camp despite recovering from a torn meniscus. Even with a bum knee, Lucas still caught the eye of the coaching staff, courtesy of a great work ethic. At 5'10 and 195 pounds, he's not the biggest kid on the block, but he's strong, tough, and a willing blocker, and he's a good open field blocker.
Evans has looked improved as a passer in camp; Luca could be the main beneficiary of said improvement.
FS Demarco Nelson
Prior to Tulsa's 2013 hiccough, they were a punt coverage tackle away from winning the CUSA title. An important part of that championship game run was an excellent Golden Hurricane defense, which took a lot of pressure off the offense. Nelson was a key member of the secondary, locking down the centerfield, making 80 tackles, 4 for loss, breaking up 3 passes and intercepting 2, and earning all-conference honors (second team) for his troubles.
Move forward a year, and Nelson spent last season languishing in the academic doghouse, perhaps a factor in the team's struggles. The senior is a three-year starter (an impressive 39 starts under his belt), and will be tasked with leading a young-but-tough defense through their first year with the AAC big boys. With an experienced secondary and defensive line, the team hopes the unit can carry them while the offense catches up.
DT Derrick Luejten
After taking a redshirt in his first season, Luetjen worked his way into the rotation in 2011, making 14 tackles, 4 for loss, with 2 sacks. The following season, his sophomore year, Luetjen worked his way into the starting lineup and was the only defensive lineman who played in all 12 games. He became one of their best defenders, flexing his muscles against the run as he totaled 49 tackles, 3.5 for loss, with 1.5 sack. He also found the time to break up 3 passes and force a couple of fumbles.
Now, entering his junior year, Luetjen could be the top member of a strong unit. He'll earn his stripes blowing up running plays again, but at 6'3 and 279 pounds, he will need to rely more on his athleticism than sheer brute strength in the new conference. In his favor will be better depth up front, meaning he'll get to take a few more snaps off, likely to the betterment of his game. Watch for him on the all-conference teams at the end of the season.
LB Not Shawn Jackson
Yeah, so everyone has heard of Buffalo's Khalil Mack. The Bull of Bulls was awesome, but Tulsa's middle linebacker Jackson was no slouch, earning CUSA defensive player of the year honors and racking up 123 tackles, 17.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, broke up 3 passes and intercepted 5 more. He was amazing, but there's one small problem, he's graduated. Now the Hurricane need to replace him, and find a weakside linebacker to boot.
So, the big question is, who's going to replace Jackson? The smart money's on junior Trent Martin, who's a talented, smart inside linebacker, but he missed much of his first two seasons with injury. Martin actually started the season at Mike, but Jackson was forced to move over from Will after Martin went out. He finished with just 29 tackles, 4.5 for loss, with 1.5 sacks and a pass broken up. Not bad for just five games work. If he can stay healthy, he could be one of the AAC's best. Martin's biggest contender, and possible reserve, is senior Donnell Hawkins, a rock-solid veteran who's more reliable than flashy. While Martin would be the dream starter, Tulsa's potential strong defense can happily live with Hawkins. He played in seven games last season, starting five, and mustered 50 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception. If there's a concern, he too has had some injury woes.
Bandit Michael Mudoh
Sadly, Bandit is not his name, but Tulsa's fancy name for the strong safety position, one Mudoh plays with much gusto. An all-conference pick (second team) in just his first year as a starter, Mudoh was tasked with cleaning up all the trash that luckily evaded linebacker Jackson. He did a sterling job of it too, amassing an impressive 133 tackles, tops on the team, and broke up 5 passes, picking off one.
Now a junior, Mudoh may be a little busier if the dreaded injury bug bites the linebackers again. But premonitions of doom aside, the Bandit should look even more impressive if the front seven can keep him from having to focus on the run so often, allowing Mudoh to display his range against the pass, where he could stand to make more plays. Last season Mudoh had eight games with 10 or more tackles, which is very impressive, but in all seriousness, what coach wants to be in a situation where a defensive back has to make that many tackles?