After three straight losing seasons, Philip Montgomery and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane turned the program around in 2016. Tulsa capped off their 10-3 season by demolishing Central Michigan by 45 points to claim the 2016 Miami Beach Bowl.
Receiving only one vote to win the American Athletic Conference West Division and not receiving any votes to win the entire conference, the Golden Hurricane’s 40 returning letter winners and athletic-packed newcomers look to prove the voters wrong.
Tulsa returns 22 lettermen and seven starters to their system, but Tulsa’s colonel will no longer be at the helm. With Tulsa’s all-time passing leader Dane Evans graduating, the starting quarterback job is still too close to call.
Sophomore Chad President and redshirt freshman Luke Skipper are continuing to battle for the top job in the offense. President has more experience playing Division 1 football, competing in six games as a true freshman in 2015 and playing in the season opener last year before being sidelined with a season-ending injury. Skipper, however, was on point during Tulsa’s Spring Game, completing 16-of-24 passes for 173 yards while throwing for two touchdowns.
Although the Golden Hurricane graduated the AAC’s leading rusher, James Flanders, Tulsa has its second 1,000-yard rusher returning for his senior season. Senior D'Angelo Brewer gained 1,435 yards during the 2016 season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns last season.
Along with Brewer, a preseason candidate for the Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards, Tulsa has depth in the running game with junior Ramadi Warren, senior Rowdy Simon and true freshman Shamari Brooks. Warren missed the 2016 season, but rushed for 475 yards and scored six times in 2015. Simon, seeing most of his time on special teams, averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 18 touches in 2016.
Brooks led Tulsa’s Union High School to the Class 6A title as a senior last season, rushing for 2,018 yards and 28 touchdowns. With four starting offensive lineman returning, it’s clear that Tulsa will be running the ball often.
With the running game set, Tulsa’s passing game still brings some questions. Along with the starting quarterback yet to be decided, the Golden Hurricane lack experience at wide receiver.
Junior Justin Hobbs is Tulsa’s clear no. 1 receiver heading into 2017, coming down with 50 receptions for 685 yards and four touchdowns last year. Not seeing game action as a true freshman until Tulsa’s sixth game, sophomore Keenen Johnson completed the 2016 campaign with 30 receptions for 305 yards.
The rest of Tulsa’s receivers consist of upperclassmen with limited game experience, combining for less than 100 receiving yards, and freshmen.
Tulsa’s defensive line is going to be the backbone of their defense this season, having nine lettermen returning with seven from 2016’s front four. Senior defensive ends Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith lead the defensive line as the returning starters. Brubaker led Tulsa with 13.5 tackles for loss last season and Smith added eight stops for 52 yards in 2016.
The Golden Hurricane’s interior, however, is a young and inexperienced group with most of the group consisting of five freshman. Senior Kolton Shindelar and sophomore Shemarr Robinson seem to be the favorites to take over the tackle spots, as both players have game experience under their belts.
Losing their two leading tacklers due to graduation at linebacker, Tulsa’s defensive leader Craig Suits returns for his senior season. Suits, who is expected to be a leader for Tulsa’s defense, already has 200 career tackles from the WILL position.
Junior McKinley Whitfield will be moved from safety to linebacker in 2017 to assist Suits. Whitfield totaled 59 tackles, blocked two kicks and came down with one interception last season as a safety.
The secondary features eight returning lettermen from 2016, including three corners with starting experience. Seniors Kerwin Thomas and Keanu Hill lead the secondary at corner, with Thomas starting in 10 games and has tallied 133 career tackles. Hill started the first eight games of the season after transferring from junior college before suffering a knee injury against Memphis, totaling 20 tackles and breaking up five passes.
Senior Jordan Mitchell returns as the free safety after coming up with 61 tackles and co-leading the team with nine broken up passes.
8/31 at Oklahoma State
9/16 at Toledo
9/23 New Mexico
10/7 at Tulane
10/21 at UCONN
10/27 at SMU
11/16 at USF
Tulsa is continuing to challenge themselves in non-conference play, where all four of their opponents reached a bowl game last season. The schedule is headlined with an Aug. 31 date in Stillwater against Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State Cowboys, who are ranked no. 11 in the preseason polls.
The chances of heading into AAC play with a .500 or below record are high, but in the end, playing a tough non-conference schedule will only help prepare them for the conference slate. Tulsa does have an advantage of playing most of their toughest conference games at home.
Navy on Sept. 30 will be a dogfight, as the Golden Hurricane fell only two points short in Annapolis last season. The projected favorite in the West Division, Memphis, could turn out to be a crucial game come later in the year if both teams are fighting for a spot in the AAC Championship game.
The Golden Hurricane end their season playing the toughest two-game stretch in the AAC, traveling to USF and playing the reigning AAC champion Temple Owls in the final game of the season. USF is ranked 21st in the preseason Top 25 poll and was selected as the favorite to win the AAC, returning six all-conference players and finishing 19th in 2016 final rankings.
Season Projection: 8-4